Friday, December 26, 2008

For a more tolerant laïcité.

As a follow-up on the post on French laïcité, I would like to add something to an interesting comment on the article mentioned on our blog earlier :

… laïcité is a complete and real separation of Church and State (not a fake one like in the US) where religion is confined to the private sphere (also remember that the separation between public and private is clear cut in France). In other words it's not about allowing every religion to express themselves and oppressing non religious people, but about religious people keeping their faith to themselves and not showing it off constantly in other people's faces

First, to our non-French readers not familiar with French concepts, you must understand that the word laïcité is a notion that does not quite translate in English. It goes beyond "secularism" and is encroached in the French cultural and historical context, hence the complexity. (the word itself comes from the Greek and means "of layman" and is also sometimes translated, although rarely, by 'laicity' or 'laicism' in English).

I find the comment here above somewhat illuminating of what a lot of French (mostly non religious) people may think. French laïcité is indeed very strict but it is so at the expense of personal freedom, freedom of expression and in some ways freedom of religion.

In France, public religious expression is often feared to be the first step towards oppression against the Republic by non-religious people, no matter how fantasized that may be. And of course, this fear has been reinforced in the last decades by the demands of some Muslims for more religious expression. The argument for the defense of laïcité often hides a deeper fear of ‘the other’ religion which is Islam especially in its more extreme form. This in return has led to a more restrictive interpretation of the term “laïcité” in the last few years

A good illustration of this is the law banning ostentatious religious symbols in schools. (see our post here) This law was passed in 2003 after a few Muslim girls came to school wearing headscarves. This law was a departure from traditional laïcité which had been, since the Jules Ferry laws, about schools, and teachers, not about students, and indeed for many years school administrators had accepted that schoolchildren wear symbols of their various religions, such as a Christian student wearing a cross, or a Jewish boy wearing a kippah.

Interestingly however, a lot of Muslims who grew up learning French values and French history have integrated the idea of a secular state and seem to agree with it. It is also worth noticing that the riots in France in 2005 were in no way religious. There was absolutely no demand for a repeal of the ‘headscarf’ law for instance. In fact there was no demand at all. It was mostly an (improvised) expression of frustration, anger and boredom borne out of miserable living conditions. If anything, it showed that the youths in those impoverished neighborhoods want to be more like the rest of the French, not less. They do not want to be a separate (religious or not) community and have no special demand other than becoming mainstream.

Nonetheless, I believe French laïcitéé needs to be more respectful of the freedom of religion and expression. Thus I think that France’s laïcité should be inclusive and not exclusive. Laïcité should only be about “the absence of religious involvement in government affairs and the absence of government involvement in religious affairs”, and that’s all. It should just guarantee the neutrality of the state. Other than when people work for the state or are elected officials - in which case they should keep their religious beliefs private – people in France should be able to express themselves however they want in the public sphere, including religiously. After all, religious freedom is guaranteed by the French Constitution.

Besides, there are many breaches in the ideal French laïcité that many laïques do not recognize : as mentioned in the article, school (and public) holidays follow the Christian liturgical year, and the French government highly subsidizes private schools affiliated with religious organizations. So why not recognize the need for change?

Too often in France, laïcité has become a disguise for anti-clericalism, and more recently for Islamophobia. I would even argue that it has even become a religion of its own.

Anti-clericalism may have been part of the founding myth of the republican idea, just like religious freedom is an important part of the American founding myth (which explains why religion plays such a dominant role in U.S. public affairs) but is time for both our countries to take perspective and depart from their respective myths. The French and the Americans have been caught in their own paradigm based on historical myths. It is time to see the world as it is now, not as it was in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is time to move on. It is time to re-invent ourselves.


At 07:44, Blogger Tororoshiru said...

Two sentences catched my eye in this article:

- "Too often in France, laïcité has become a disguise for anti-clericalism, and more recently for Islamophobia".
I would like to discuss this below, if you please.

- "I would even argue that it has even become a religion of its own".
Whew... THAT's what I call fantasizing!

I totally agree with the first part of the first sentence: in France, laïcité has (recently) become a disguise for something. But is this something anticlericalism or even islamophobia?
Back in Jules Ferry's times, laicité was undisputably used as the polite way for naming anti-clericalism.
As it was not uncommon for Republican-sided newspapers to proudly advertise themselves as "laïques et anti-cléricaux", one could say that such a "disguise" was as thin a veil as the ones that flattered Marianne's opulent feminine curves in officially approved allegories.
There has been many major changes in French society since then. Notably, the Catholic Church, for long a major support to a then really strong and active monarchist current (whose Pétainism has been the latest avatar), has, since WWII ended, cut off any remaining links with this now moribund school of thought. Following this political shift, the Church began in the '60s not to be seen anymore, by representatives from most of the French political spectrum ouside of the far left, as as much of an unreconcilable enemy as it once was.
For roughly one-quarter of a century, "laïcité" stayed as some vestigial concept deprived of meaning.
In the interval, other changes, other political shifts occured: after "les événements de 1968", the Education Nationale (formerly thought of as the most reliable tool for propagating support for Republican institutions) began being perceived by successive governments as a loose cannon. Thus legislators started, from the late '60 on, to gradually erode the academics former independance.
Back in the '50 and '60 (I'm old enough for remembering perfectly this time when high school boys were expected to daily wear ties) students wearing tennis or basket shoes would have been ruled out from some classrooms. In some schools (most, in fact), girls were not allowed to wear pants; in some others, girls would have been ignominiously sent back home if they had been caught wearing tights instead of socks. Meanwhile in some other classrooms none of these rules applied.
What's the key word in the above sentences? It's "some". For the thing worth noting is, schoolteachers were then supposed to be their classroom's masters and commanders. If one had decided to allow students under their responsibility to wear scarves, if another had decided to forbid them to, there would not have been interferences from neither executive nor judicial powers. If, back then, a teacher's individual decisions had created a conflict involving academic authorities ("l'inspection académique"), it would have been dealed with as a strictly internal affair (of course some such decisions could have put the teacher's career at stake, but these matters wouldn't have been publicly discussed).
Then in the years that followed '68, there was roughly one Education Nationale reformation per year... some of these remarkably short-lived, yet each and every one contributing to trivialize the idea that educational matters were the legislator's business (there has been no discontinuity in the political approach to this issue, no matter the government was labeled "gaullist" or "socialist"...) When in the '90 the scarf question arose, teachers who had chosen to object to scarf wearing, as well as those who preferred not to, found out the rules had changed. The Parliament debate that ensued (an event that would have been unthinkable 30 years earlier) was not that much about the séparation des Eglises et de l'Etat as it was about redefining the teachers powers, by offering the teachers something of little value (a rather out of place reaffirmation of la Défense de la Laïcité) in exchange for their independance: if you allow me to chose a Biblical reference, think about the deal Jacob made with Esaü... The public uproar, not only in the Muslim community, but in various religious denominations as well, was some sort of collateral damage the legislators had most probably grossly underestimated. Surprising mistake? Well, not that much considering how wrong the same legislators have been with anticipating the voters reactions to recent consultations.

In conclusion, I'm not denying that laïcité is part of the French Republic founding myths; however, supposing there's currently a revival of it as a religion seems a bit over the top.
Who's currently waving more or less overtly the flag of islamophobia? The political right, right?
Who's been lately routinely suspected of crypto-islamophilia? The political left, non?
Who during the past 2 centuries advocated laïque values? The left.
Who is now voicing a newfound concern for les valeurs de la laïcité? The right.
If somehow this fits into the picture of laïcité as a disguise for islamophobia, it's not as a resurging of the old-style heartfelt anti-clericalism of the left, but rather as a mere oportunistic political maneuver from the right. Nothing "religious" in this, not even metaphorically.
There are exactly as many people in France fearing that religious zealots might seize power as there are people panicking about Polish plumbers invading the country (how many is easy to figure out). Instead, there are quite some people that fancy using these mythological creatures as bogeymen... The same are using la Défense de la Laïcité as a smoke screen for covering an entirely diferent agenda.


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