Sunday, January 04, 2009

Laicité - comment

The comment of one of our readers on our post on French laïcité is worth posting on the blog, I think.... The next post that follows is my response.
And many thanks to our commentator.
- "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 independence: if you allow me to choose 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 different agenda.


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