Wednesday, December 21, 2005

French Secularism Explained.

As we discussed the recent battle for separation between church and state - or rather between religion and science - won in the U.S. , it is only fair to say that France is also undergoing a major "cultural" and political crisis ... with regards to its very strict secular view of the relation between church and state.
Joker-to-the-Thief has been dealing with this issue at great length (see here or here for instance) and so it is quite satisfying when an expert seems to express similar views as ours on the subject (in this article published recently in The International Herald Tribune). The article is, I think, an excellent way to tackle this very complex issue which is very hard to explain to people who have not lived in France long enough to hold a god grasp of its political history. It also shows why it is so difficult for French and Americans to understand each other in this respect.
Here are some good excerpts:
Nowhere else in the West is this division of church and state applied as diligently as in France.
[.../... ]
The French concept of "laïcité" - a term for which secularism is only an imperfect translation - has become an integral part of the identity of the French Republic, which in theory is blind to color and creed. Indeed, with President Jacques Chirac calling laicism "a pillar of the republican temple," some people say that it has become a state religion itself.
[.../... ]
The French are re-evaluating the concept, even more so since the November rioting.
[.../... ]
According to Martine Barthélémy at the Paris-based Institute for Political Studies, history goes some way toward explaining the French attitude toward mixing God and politics. For centuries, France was savaged by wars of religion. Then after the French Revolution in 1789, the Catholic Church refused to accept the values of the new republic, deepening a sense among political leaders that the state needed protecting from religion.
In the United States, where many early immigrants settled after fleeing religious persecution in Europe, the separation of church and state is in many ways perceived to be serving the opposite purpose, Barthélémy says, namely to protect religion from the state.
"We all have our founding myths," she said. "Our founding myth is the republican idea, and laicism is an essential part of that. In America, religious freedom is an important part of their founding myth - that's why we sometimes don't understand the Americans and vice versa."
That is also why, in France today, the head scarf ban is seen by many as protection from pressure at home for those Muslim girls who would rather go to school unveiled. Giving in on this issue, they argue, could be seized upon by religious Muslims to demand further concessions at odds with France's secular tradition, like separating girls and boys in swimming and sports classes, or taking girls out of biology class - requests that schools in Germany and Britain are grappling with.
"Where do you draw the line?" Barthélémy asked.


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