How French Secularism Became Fundamentalist

A militant form of laïcité has taken hold in France, backed by everyone from intellectuals to government officials. Is this what the republic’s founding fathers envisioned?

By Robert ZaretskyRobert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston's Honors College. His most recent book is Boswell's Enlightenment.
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How French Secularism Became Fundamentalist

Last week, the headline of an editorial in the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo asked a provocative question: “How did we end up here?” it read. By “here,” the weekly meant, of course, staring at the blood-stained rubble of airport terminals and metro stations. But by the end of the piece, “here” had also broadened into something bigger: “How the hell did I end up having to wander the streets all day with a big veil on my head?” they asked rhetorically. “How the hell did I end up having to say prayers five times a day?” “Here,” in other words, was some kind of unrecognizable, Islamized vision of France, where “the very notion of the secular” had been “forced into retreat.”

Seeking the reasons behind the Brussels terrorist attacks, the paper, which was itself the target last year of Islamic terrorists, offered an answer. It was neither the Keystone Cop antics of the Belgian police; nor the barriers, linguistic and territorial, which prevented European governments from sharing vital intelligence; nor the festering despair in places like Molenbeek, the Brussels neighborhood that is home to scores of unemployed youths of mostly North African background.

Instead, Charlie Hebdo declared, we must look at the role played by liberal societies. Does not France’s passivity when faced with attacks on French culture — and specifically on laïcité, or secularism — pave the way for the extremists? Does not one’s acceptance of, say, the local Muslim baker — a very nice and fully integrated fellow, who nevertheless refuses to sell ham sandwiches — comprise a form of collusion with Islamism? In the end, Charlie Hebdo warns, the only defense against terrorism, the only defense against ending up in a France of veiled women and daily prayer, is a form of militant secularism: one that doesn’t flinch at making the leap from pious baker to radical bomb-maker.

But if France is at war with terrorism, it is also increasingly at war with itself over the meaning of secularism. These two conflicts, deeply entwined with one another, are dramatically reshaping France’s sense of national identity.

Laïcité, the French term for secularism, today has acquired so much mystique as to be practically an ideology, a timeless norm that defines Frenchness. But in fact, laïcité began life as a humble law.

In 1905, when France’s Third Republic enacted the separation of church and state, it offered a simple definition of the term. Laïcité “assures the liberty of conscience” of all French citizens, the new law read. This law was given further elaboration in the constitution of the Fifth (and current) Republic: Laïcité “assures the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction to their origin, race, or religion. It respects all religious beliefs.” There was essentially no substantive difference between the style of secularism envisioned by the founders of laïcité and the framers of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As in the United States, French secularism initially sought to ensure religious pluralism in the public and private spheres — nothing more, nothing less.

Unlike American secularism, laïcité is the capstone to a long history of conflict, and deep distrust, between French republican and Catholic institutions. Dating back to the French Revolution in 1789, the smoldering embers of this battle flared again as late as the 1980s, when Catholics and Socialists clashed over state subsidies for private schools, most of which were (and remain) Catholic. But while the republic has sought to sever its official ties with the church, it has not contested its right to teach the republic’s children or to minister to the faithful.

For nearly a century, laïcité worked well enough. It ensured public space for both those who believed — not just Catholics and Protestants, but Jews as well — and those who did not. But with the 1980s and 1990s came a growing number of immigrants, most of whom were Muslim, from North Africa. And so a different kind of conflict between the French state and established religion began to take shape.

Emblematic of this new tension was a series of battles over a simple strip of clothing. In 1989, a few Muslim girls were expelled from school when they refused to take off their hijabs, or headscarves, which the principal believed was an assault on the secular character of public schools. Shortly after, the French administrative court, the Conseil d’État, ordered them to be reinstated. But two years after 9/11, when similar incidents were repeated at other schools, the court reversed its original finding.

While all “ostentatious” signs of religious faith — be they Jewish yarmulkes or Sikh turbans — were declared verboten in public schools, everyone knew that the principal target of the law was the hijab.

In the subsequent sound and fury, the banner of laïcité was unfurled in ways that would surely have been unrecognizable to the 19th-century statesmen like Jules Ferry and Aristide Briand, who helped write the original law. The once-straightforward guarantees of “freedom of conscience” and “free exercise of religious faiths” — rooted in and restricted to the constitutions of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Republics — were transformed under the forces of political passion and mounting existential anguish into the defining French values, and any form of retreat from a fundamentalist interpretation was a failure to defend the republic.

Today, public intellectuals like Alain Finkielkraut, Régis Debray, and Elisabeth Badinter, when discussing laïcité, invoke the very future of France. Badinter, a renowned feminist philosopher, as if in anticipation of the Charlie Hebdo editorial, declared in January that she was not afraid to be called an Islamophobe, arguing that accusations of racism are a weapon against secularism. In a recent essay on secularism, diversity, and national identity titled L’identité malheureuse (“Unhappy Identity”), Finkielkraut confounds myth with history when he declares his sympathy for those “who miss the good old days when native-born Frenchmen and women (Français de souche) mingled with their own kind and who are now shedding a tear over their sepia-colored France that has lost its homogeneity.”

The xenophobic and anti-immigration National Front, too, has weaponized laïcité, turning it into an ideological cudgel to be used against French Muslims. Last year, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the party’s rising star — and granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen — asserted that the National Front is “laïque,” or secular. Yet she then offered an interpretation of the state of religion in France that had very little to do with laïcité as most of the world understands it, exposing the cognitive dissonance shared by the extreme right and left: “If French Muslims wish to practice their faith, they need to accept the fact that they are doing so on soil that is culturally Christian. This means that they cannot have the same rank as the Christian religion.”

Then, last week, the minister for families, children, and women’s rights, Laurence Rossignol, lambasted fashion designers for offering lines of Islamic wear-inspired clothing, including the so-called “burkini,” a full-body bathing suit sold by Marks and Spencer. These brands, Rossignol declared, had “irresponsibly” lent their prestige to clothing designed to oppress women. As for those Muslim women who freely choose to wear religious garb, Rossignol shrugged her shoulders: “There were also American negroes who favored slavery.”

In a single phrase, Rossignol not only let drop a racial slur, but also let slip the implications of how she — a member of government — sees the meaning of laïcité today: No normal French woman, Rossignol seems to believe, would choose to wear Islamic dress as a sign of her religious faith. Tellingly, Rossignol’s use of the word “négre” sparked more outrage in the media than her claim that burkini-wearing women have no place in a truly secular society.

As some French intellectuals — historian Jean Baubérot and scholar of French Islam Olivier Roy among them — have sought to remind the world, laïcité is not a timeless French norm but, in fact, a rather recent invention. That in itself is not problematic: Inventing traditions and pasts is not only inevitable; it is also not inevitably misguided or misconceived. Certain political inventions can improve a polity. Consider the 272 words spoken by Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, which, as Garry Wills revealed, recast the meaning of the U.S. Constitution and have in the intervening decades given us a greater and nobler sense of who we as a nation ought to be.

The current conception of laïcité, however, offers France a more atavistic sense of what it can be as a nation, in place of a more expansive one. And yet the vision proffered by people like Finkielkraut and Debray seems to have won the day among those who would govern: From the Parti de Gauche on the extreme left to the National Front on the extreme right, there is the same fundamentalist vision of laïcité. The world, according to these defenders of the term, is one without headscarves in schools, without burkinis in stores, and without the faithful praying in the streets. It is also a world with pork served in school lunches and holidays based on the Christian (not Muslim or Jewish) calendars. It is, taken to extremes, a world where Muslims eat, drink, and dress like proper Frenchmen and women.

Whether this was the secular France intended by its founders is of secondary importance. The real question is what this new form of laïcité means for the France refounded for the new century. It is perhaps too far to say, as some have recently, that an aggressive, fundamentalist version of laïcité has contributed to the radicalization of youths, who then turn themselves into terrorists. But it will certainly have an enormous effect on the way that France as a nation responds to this challenge.

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