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Islam and Laïcité

Two books help us understand French democracy’s grappling with secularism and religion.

Patrick Chamorel
La nouvelle question laïque: Choisir la République
by Laurent Bouvet (Flammarion, 336 pp., $31.45)
La laïcité: Histoire d’une singularité française
by Philippe Raynaud (Gallimard, 256 pp., $62.74)

The French principle of “laïcité” governing the separation of church and state and freedom of conscience has been as central to France’s modern democracy as freedom of religion has to America’s. Whereas American protections are rooted in the desire to insulate religion from the encroachments of the state, laïcité’s raison d’être has been to protect the state, politics, and public education from the traditionally dominant influence of the Catholic Church. The goal has been to guarantee freedom from religion alongside freedom of religion.

Leading public intellectuals Philippe Raynaud and Laurent Bouvet offer us rich and stimulating books to help us understand why laïcité, the heart of the French conception of citizenry alongside universalism and assimilation of immigrants, has today come to be the subject of a highly contentious, divisive, and consequential national debate. In La laïcité: Histoire d’une singularité française (Laïcité: History of a French Idiosyncrasy), Raynaud, a Panthéon-Sorbonne university political scientist, discusses France’s long political and intellectual history of secularization. In La nouvelle question laïque: Choisir la République (The New Secularism Question: Choosing the Republic), Bouvet, a political scientist at the University of Versailles St.-Quentin-en-Yvelines, puts the emphasis on today’s tensions between Islam and laïcité. These complementary books can help American readers better understand the democratic foundations of laïcité and its suitability to French history and culture.

Raynaud’s subtle history of France’s singular secularization process goes back to the 16th century to explain why democracy could not have emerged in France without breaking the tight alliance between the Catholic Church and the absolute monarchy. King Henri IV—who famously declared, “Paris is well worth a mass,” upon his conversion to Catholicism in 1593—was able to pressure the Church in the wake of the Wars of Religion to tolerate Protestants, thereby affirming the state’s autonomous power. The 1598 Edict of Nantes provided Protestants with the right and protection to practice their religion.

Louis XIV’s return to repression of Calvinism did not endure long, and an even more radical break between Church and state was coming. In 1789 the Revolutionary assembly confiscated the Catholic clergy’s estates and stipulated that Churchmen were citizens of the state first and servants of the Church second. During the 19th century, the Catholic Church remained the ally of autocratic regimes and fiercely resisted the emergence of democracy, prompting Victor Hugo to declare in an 1850 speech to the National Assembly, “The State on one side, the Church on the other.”

Yet it was not until the 1905 “Law on the separation of the Church and the State” that the educational and political spheres were fully free of Catholic influence. For laïcité’s proponents, ending the interference of the Church in these spheres was a victory for the advancement of reason, science, and the philosophy of human progress. The law reconciled the two Frances, Catholic and secular, on laïcité’s terms. Laïcité would come to shape the ethos of the new democracy as much as the republican trilogy of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.” The law was subsequently extended to Protestants and Jews, who welcomed its protections, but Islam has remained outside its purview. To this day laïcité’s relationship to Islam is by implicit extension rather than law.

Identity Politics and Islam

Whereas the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment mainly guarantees freedom of religion, the French laïcité also ensures freedom from religion, as in the case of religious proselytism or fanaticism. All public employees, including secondary school teachers, are prohibited from displaying ostentatious religious symbols; studying and debating religions is discouraged. Citizens are expected to refrain from displaying deep religious or philosophical convictions in public. Religious opinions are no more protected than any other, and no citizen can invoke his or her religious beliefs to be exonerated from disobeying the law.

Bouvet traces the development of laïcité as a resurgent political issue back to 1989, when three schoolgirls were dismissed for coming to class wearing the hijab. The majority of French public opinion interpreted that episode and similar ones that followed as a sign that Muslims refused to assimilate into French society, while many Muslims felt increasingly rejected in their core religious identity. A 2004 law extended the employee ban on conspicuously displaying religious symbols to public school students. While followers of other religions do not object to further codification of the spirit of laïcité, the same is not true for many Muslims, who are prone to interpret such laws as Islamophobic.

Questions about Islam, laïcité, gender equality, and Muslims’ integration into French society have only become more fraught since then. Is laïcité obsolete? Does it discriminate against Muslims? Is the veil a symbol of women’s oppression, and, if so, should it be allowed in France? Is the main problem laïcité or Islam? Does laïcité facilitate or hamper the integration of Muslims?

Neither Raynaud nor Bouvet believes laïcité discriminates against Islam, since all religions are subject to the same principles. Islam is the only religion to reject laïcité because, in its stricter interpretations, it repudiates freedom of conscience—both blasphemy and apostasy are condemnable offenses—and it demands a role in society and politics beyond laïcité’s legal and cultural boundaries.

While many Muslims in France have secularized, religious intensity and the influence of conservative versions of Islam have been rising. At the same time, multiculturalists on the Left are ever more inclined to view French values of universalism and assimilation as a smokescreen for discrimination, Islamophobia, and oppression. In France and Western Europe, militant Muslim organizations are among the chief beneficiaries of American-style identity politics.

These developments have split the French Left down the middle. The traditional republican Left—through organizations such as Bouvet’s “Republican Spring”—has strived to preserve the legacy of laïcité, but most young activists and intellectuals are increasingly rejecting that legacy. While they happily apply the principle to Catholicism, they refuse to impose it on Islam, the religion of the oppressed, as it is in the multiculturalists’ parlance.

Meanwhile, the far Right is becoming the country’s most unconditional supporter of laïcité. Marine Le Pen saw the potential political benefit in transforming her party from the protector of dwindling Catholic traditionalists into the defender of democracy and national identity against the alliance of Islam and identity politics. The far Right’s embrace of laïcité further encourages the multicultural Left to dismiss it as retrograde and outmoded.

Muslim activists encourage street prayers meant to legitimize Islam’s visibility in the public square; they want such things as halal meat in public school cafeterias, female doctors for women in hospitals, special hours for women in municipal swimming pools, sex-segregated physical education, and exemptions from studying the Holocaust at school. The far Left considers resistance to these appeals discriminatory and Islamophobic, but most of the population views them as illegitimate requests for special privileges. The center Right, the traditional republican Left, and Le Pen’s National Rally (formerly the National Front) all oppose such demands, as does a majority of the general population.

Crisis of Conscience

Bouvet, a republican leftist, and Raynaud, a moderate right-winger, are equally concerned that a surge of multiculturalism, the mostly liberal bent of international and European jurisprudence, and the global influence of American cultural norms have left France ill prepared to deal with the rise of an ambitious religion. Laïcité is not only condemned in Muslim countries, but it is also perceived in most other Western countries as encroaching on religious and individual freedom.

Bouvet argues that construing religious freedom essentially at an individual level, according to the liberal philosophical tradition, “lacks cultural depth.’’ For example, the veil, hijab, burqa, and burkini (a swimsuit covering the whole body) are not mere fashion items; they can be the expression of a political ideology based in coercion. Ignoring the broader implications risks allowing the most energetic proselytizers to seize control of the public square, the way the most conservative wing of the Catholic Church did long ago.

So far, when appeals for accommodating Islam have pushed the boundaries of French jurisprudence, judges have been reluctant to invoke the defense of laïcité. Both the 2010 law banning burqas in all public spaces and municipal decrees banning burkinis from public beaches and swimming pools appealed to public order rather than the 1905 law. Only two notable cases have been adjudicated on the basis of laïcité: one pertained to the dismissal of an employee at a municipal childcare agency after she insisted on wearing the veil, and the other concerned veiled mothers accompanying children on public-school field trips.

Alongside these legal developments, Bouvet admits that American-style open expression of one’s religiosity has become fashionable among the French political, media, and academic elite as well as the younger generation. Yet France’s distinctive understanding of freedom of conscience protects all citizens, including atheists, from excessive religious visibility and influence. Thus, the traditional laïcité of pure secularism increasingly stands opposed to a liberalized and reinvented laïcité that permits religious expression in the public sphere and encourages disunity in the name of multiculturalism, individual rights, and minority claims.

Proposals for an accommodation between laïcité and Islam take a number of different approaches. The classical liberal philosopher Pierre Manent does not envision Islam embracing laïcité in its current from. Instead, he proposes to counterbalance Islam’s political and cultural influence with a reinvigorated Catholic Church. Bouvet opposes Manent’s approach: he argues that the state, not Catholicism, is what holds the French nation together.

Muslim leaders, of course, support a reformed, liberal interpretation of laïcité because it benefits their own religion. These opportunists are too often naively endorsed by genuine believers in political liberalism, as well as by multiculturalists who strive to defend all minorities equally.

Part of President Emmanuel Macron’s strategy consists of encouraging the emergence of what he calls a “French Islam.” If Muslim organizations cut off their links with foreign money, imams, and doctrines, Macron hopes they can shape a more moderate strain of Islam consistent with laïcité. Both Bouvet and Raynaud disagree with this proposal. They argue that it would put an end to the separation between religion and the state; that French Islam is an illusion because Islam is inherently global and ambitious; and that the main Muslim organization on which Macron intends to rely will not be moderate given its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

France has simply not yet found a way to retain its core values while culturally integrating its burgeoning and increasingly religious Muslim population. Neither Bouvet nor Raynaud is optimistic about a fragile laïcité facing an ambitious Islam. They admit that laïcité is proving unable to integrate Muslims who rejects its very legitimacy, or to prevent the fragmentation of French society into separate ethnic and religious communities as in the United States. Yet other European countries lacking a concept akin to laïcité have not achieved better results at integrating Muslims.

The paradox highlighted by these authors is that laïcité, while no longer sufficient to hold French society together, nevertheless remains an indispensable pillar of French identity and political culture; if it were allowed to unravel, France’s social cohesion would only worsen. Sadly, neither author proposes a plausible way to return laïcité to its original meaning and enforce it accordingly, probably because no such return is forthcoming.

In all likelihood, the relationship between Islam and laïcité will remain at the center of French politics for decades to come. Let’s hope it will be in a peaceful manner.

Patrick Chamorel, an editorial board member of American Purpose, is senior resident scholar and lecturer at Stanford in Washington, Stanford University. He also teaches in the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy program at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

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