Secularism in France, a recent invention

René Monzat explains

The famed French consensus over secularism, in fact, hides fierce conflicts about the invisibility – or visibility – of Muslims in the ‘Hexagon” today, arousing claims of Islamophobic religious victimisation.

France has form in this department, having experienced long periods of religious persecution, first against the Cathar “heretics” from the mid-thirteenth to the fourteenth century and, then, against Protestants during a long period of religious wars in the sixteenth century. The “Edict of Nantes”, granting tolerance to Protestants under a Catholic monarchy, brought these to an end in 1598.

It was the French Revolution that proclaimed in Article X of its famed Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 that “No one may be disturbed for his opinions, even religious ones, provided that their manifestation does not trouble the public order established by the law.”

Also, the revolutionary regime tried via a “civil constitution of the clergy” to introduce forms of State control of the clergy, meeting Catholic resistance And, decisions proclaiming separation of the Catholic church and the republic taken in 1795 attempted to render faiths invisible by banning them from any public expression.

The secularisation process continued apace with Emperor Napoleon establishing a Concordat in 1801 that recognised the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish faiths – indeed installing the Catholic Church as the state religion – but still asserting a degree of state control.

Throughout the nineteenth century control of schools was fiercely disputed between the State and the Catholic Church, especially when the system combining compulsory education and public schools was set up in the 1880s.

More powerful moves to strengthen the grip of the civil state over religion were made later around this time. In 1879, the French started a gradual a programme of national secularisation, dismissing priests from the administrative committees of hospitals and boards of charity, and, the next year, substituting lay women for nuns as nurses in hospitals.

 A little later, in 1882, the Third Republic installed properly secular education with the so-called Jules Ferry laws that outlawed religious instruction in all schools. Four years later, another law ensured secularisation of the teaching staff of the National Education system.

French secularism, however, was only finally instituted in a practical sense by the Law of 9 December 1905, which is still in force in France and, while not containing the word “secularism”, enshrines separation of faiths and the State, management of religious property by the State, religious buildings becoming State property but loaned, free of charge, to associations of the faithful for the practice of religion.

It was not until the Constitution of 4 October 1958, declaring Charles De Gaulle’s Fifth Republic that one would finally read: “France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It ensures equality before the law of all citizens irrespective of origin, race or religion. It respects all beliefs.”

The mere term “secular” – laïcité – and the ideas behind it have since been at the heart of the constantly recurring skirmishes over the school system, for example, whether or not the state should finance private education, an issue that has repeatedly mobilised hundreds of thousands of demonstrators on both sides.

Secularism a simple principle, disputed and exploited

The text of the 1905 law stated:

Article 1

The Republic guarantees freedom of conscience. It guarantees the free exercise of religions under the under the provisos enacted hereafter in the interest of public order.”

Article 2

“The Republic does not recognize, pay, or subsidise any religious sect. Accordingly, from 1 January following the enactment of this law will be removed from state budgets, departments and municipalities, all expenses related to the exercise of religion.”

Article 31

This section laid out custodial penalties for any person “who, by assault, violence or threats against an individual or by making him afraid of losing his job or expose to damage his person, his family or his wealth prevents another person from exercising or contributing to a religious organisation.” The same holds for any person forcing another to participate in or contribute to any religious organisation.

The Law of 9 December 1905 on the separation of the Churches and the State Is, remarkably, still extant and valid overall in 2017 and secularism remains at the centre of French public debate.

French specificity revolves around the “neutrality of the state” which is understood as meaning that the representatives of the State must refrain from allowing their convictions (political or religious) to be transparent.

According to the mission statement of the French government’s secularism watchdog L’observatoire de la laïcité in 2017:

Secularism is based on three principles: freedom of conscience and freedom to express one’s convictions within the limits of respect for public order, the separation of public institutions and religious organizations, and the equality of all before the law whatever their beliefs or convictions.

Secularism presupposes the separation of state and religious organisations. The political order is founded on the sole sovereignty of the people, of the citizens, and the state – which does not recognise or remunerate any religion – and does not regulate the internal functioning of religious organisations.

From this separation is derived the neutrality of the State, the communities and the public services, not of its users.

The secular Republic thus ensures the equality of citizens vis-à-vis public service, whatever their convictions or beliefs.

Secularism is not one opinion among others but the freedom to have one. It is not a conviction but the principle that authorises all of them, subject to respect for public order.”

The animated debate currently going on concerns the words “neutrality of the State, (…) not its users” for in all political quarters there are currents of opinion that believe that “neutrality” that is, religious invisibility, must also apply to citizens in public space (universities, businesses, streets).

June 2014: the debate moves on 

In June 2014, all major Muslim organisations signed a text issued by the French Council of Muslim. The text has the backing of the organisations that manage most of the mosques in France.

What it says about secularism is not fundamentally different from the statements above:

“Article 1: Secularism, the principle of living together and non-discrimination of citizens of all denominations:

The principle of secularism makes France a Republic, neutral to religions and respectful of freedom of conscience.

Consequently, France ensures to all citizens the freedom to believe or not to believe, to practice or not to practice a religion.

In this context, the contribution of our Muslim fellow citizens is confirmed daily. This positive contribution is illustrated in the economic, political, scientific, cultural, sporting and artistic fields and many others.

Despite confusions, the motto of the Republic remains: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”.

The Muslims of France are attached to:

Freedom of belief for all citizens
Equality between all citizens beyond their origin or religion
Fraternity among the different components of the national community.

The Muslims of France aspire only to live their spirituality peacefully, avoiding any provocation and rejecting any stigmatisation.

Muslims also need openness. They need to be open to the society in which they live, as well as to all its religious, cultural, trade union, political and other components. Such an opening to the other, rejecting all forms of archaism, can only have positive repercussions on society.”

Secularism instrumentalised

There are, however, pernicious controversies counterposing “secularism” and “communitarianism” in terms that cannot lead to positive conclusions for everyone is “for” the first and “against” the latter.

Thus, with the exception of a small current of fundamentalist and extremist Catholics (or Muslims) for whom any notion of “secularism” is an instrument of the devil outright, all the other participants in the debate, from the Front National to Muslim organisations are expressly in favour of secularism.
Welding “communitarianism” to the prevailing secularism will not provide a key to the problem either. This view is, in fact, rejected by all the actors involved, from the National Front to the Muslim organizations, through the right and the left, with the exception of another fraction of the extreme radical right – the minuscule Identitaire faction.

The mechanisms of segregation are powerful in France: “the peri-urban relegation, the ghettos [constitute] a territorial, social, and ethnic apartheid that has imposed itself on our country”, declare Manuel Valls when he was prime minister at the beginning of 2015.

Thus criticising the alleged “communitarianism” or sectionalism of France’s minority populations as if they had chosen separation themselves is tantamount to making the ostracised populations ostracized of their own exclusion.

Young Muslim women are excluded from public schools on grounds of dress but are then accused of “communitarianism” when, in order to comply with the legal obligation of schooling, they enrol in private religious schools.

Secularism is constantly raised in the ongoing public debate public debate about where religion fits in France and is entangled with issues of state education, women’s rights and national identity: “… the absolute link that unites the revolution to the Republic, the Republic to reason, reason to democracy, democracy to education, and which, step by step, is based on primary education, the very identity of national being”.

Secularism flourished in France even before society recognised women’s rights. There is, in reality, not the slightest meaningful link between the separation of faiths from the state on the one hand and women’s rights on the other.

It is true, nonetheless, that some of the avid secularists of the Third Republic used anti-clerical arguments against women’s right to vote, claiming that women would vote as their parish priests instructed them.

There is still less connection between secularism and national identity, even if this rhetoric was one of the main themes pushed by republican currents in the late nineteenth century.

Today, secularism is drastically torn between the most diverse streams of opinion but above all serves to cement attitudes about “identity” into social strata and milieux that were historically rebellious in France, replacing the right’s nationalist anti-Muslim obsession with an approach centred on an imaginary construction of secularism that would be both universal and also the incarnation of Republican France.

In this shape, it can be and is easily used to sow and justify religious discrimination, exemplified by the laws still banning the Muslim headscarf in state educational institutions and by the 2016 labour law provision replacing a phrase reaffirming the principle of religious freedom in business with another affirming the right to include a “neutrality” clause that effectively prohibits the wearing of headscarves by Muslim girls.

This approach is actually counter-productive and divisive even from a secular point of view.

The French school system is based on the concept of free and secular state schools. Consequently, until recently there was no such thing as Muslim denominational education. A law passed in 2004, however, made wearing the veil or niqab a reason for exclusion from state education.

What is the alternative for religiously observant girls? The intellectuals or journalists of the left advocate either their exclusion from the schools to follow correspondence courses while staying at home and, therefore, under the exclusive control of their families) or suggest the use of “private (i.e.denominational!) schools. Bizarrely, this “secular” law has even led Muslim girls to enrol in Catholic schools – which are, reportedly, less harshly discriminatory than their state counterparts – to join the minority but rapidly growing Muslim private schools sector where they will pursue studies only alongside other Muslims.

Attempts to impose dress codes have not just been limited to school and college premises. In the summer of 2016, the mayors of a number of coastal municipalities banned veiled women, especially those wanting – for reasons of modesty – to bathe fully clothed from their beaches. By an irony of history, some of these same municipalities had by-laws in the 19th century that enjoined women to bathe fully dressed “to respect decency”.

The Council of State (Supreme Administrative Court), pushed by the League of Human Rights and the Collective against Islamophobia in France, found these latest municipal bans illegal in the manifest absence of any threat to public order.

Radicalisation of the debate around secularism and the role of Islam in it have now gone so far that the far right Front National (FN) no longer appears particularly extreme on the subject.

The issue of immigration – “peril number one” for the FN – now merged with the party’s screeching denunciations of Islamism and incorporated into Marine Le Pen’s presidential election programme.

The first mention of Islamism in the programme comes in an point 9 in a way that many right-wing or left-wing MPs could formulate and which urges the defence of women’s rights against Islamism and calls equal pay and gender equality.

The section on “eradicating terrorism and breaking up Islamic fundamentalist networks” has a particularly repressive focus, calling inter alia for the elimination of Islamist organisations, the expulsion of all foreign Islamists, the closure of all mosques identified as “extremist” by the Ministry of the Interior and a ban on foreign funding of places of worship and their staff.

Additionally, Le Pen and her “secular” allies would outlaw all public funding (by state and local authorities) of places of worship and religious activities and would fight jihadism by removing French nationality from and expulsion of jihadists with dual nationality. (Interestingly, the latter move was originally proposed by the ineffectual president François Hollande who proved unable to get it passed in parliament.)

The FN’s shopping list of   repressive measures goes one to urge pre-trial detention for any French nation connected with any foreign organisation causing acts of hostility or aggression against France and the French and the public listing of these organisations.

For the likes of the FN, the once honoured concept of secularism is nothing more than a fig leaf to cover its plans for a massive crackdown on France’s large Muslim population in pursuit of a venomously nationalist assertion of French “identity”.

“Identity” themes and politics are by no means confined to the extreme right and their promotion has allowed the evolution of groups and individuals from the left, from the women’s movement and from homosexual associations to positions of right-wing extremism and Islamophobia.

The website Riposte Laïque, stemming originally from the “republican left” has come to symbolise this transition by to organising joint demonstrations with far right groups and moving ever closer to the positions of the FN. 

Secularism is thus in danger of becoming a very troublesome theme, enmeshed in all kinds of sectional and – in the case of the far right – racist interests.

Under its three aspects of religious freedom, separation of church (faith) and state and the neutrality of the state, secularism is very “robust” because, in the most general sense, it is unanimously accepted.

On the other hand, public debate about secularism is hopelessly polarised by proposals which, under the guise of “reinforcing secularism, lead either to renouncing freedoms in the name of the defence of “French” or “republican” identity or even the introduction of measures designed to install and enforce religious discrimination against, in this case, Muslims.