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The contradictions of French secularism

How France’s efforts to prevent religious separatism are dividing the republic.

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The recent terrorist attacks in France aroused what has become a predictable counter-attack by French politicians: the condemnation of Muslims as – in the words of the interior minister Gérald Darmanin – “an enemy within”, unwilling or incapable of living according to the “values of the republic”. In the aftermath of the killings, which occurred in Paris on 16 October and in Nice on 29 October, politicians and commentators from the right to the far right have called for a more assertive defence of laïcité, a primary principle of the republic, and have condemned those who speak on behalf of France’s Muslim population. Prominent conservatives, including Xavier Bertrand, have even argued that laïcité should be added to the sacred republican trinity, “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”.

In his recent New Statesman piece on 13 November, Andrew Hussey cites French politicians who contrast laïcité with Anglo-American multiculturalism, and cites President Emmanuel Macron’s determination to strengthen the law of 1905 that brought laïcité into being. Macron himself has been so angry at coverage of his government’s response to the terrorist attacks that he has been calling out journalists, demanding retractions of criticism in Politico and the Financial Times, and defending the republican model as “universalist, not multiculturalist”. Speaking to the New York Times, Macron said that “universalist” means taking no account of religious, ethnic or racial identity. “I don’t care whether someone is black, yellow or white, whether they are Catholic or Muslim, a person is first and foremost a citizen.”  

[see also: How terror returned to the streets of Europe]

But this is a slight misrepresentation, both with respect to the history of French secularism and of the so-called universalist principles that motivate it. 

Laïcité is the French word for secularism that, in its original definition, refers to the separation of church and state and to state neutrality in matters of religion; but in recent years it has become a more potent rhetorical weapon in the state’s political arsenal. Enshrined in a 1905 law aimed at protecting democracy by constraining the influence of the Catholic church, laïcité has over the last two decades been repurposed to deal primarily with adherents of Islam, the religion of former colonial subjects many of whom are now French citizens.  

In 2003, an influential report – La Nouvelle Laïcité – written by a member of Jacques Chirac’s conservative government proposed a new secularism that would transform laïcité into “a value of the right” (“une valeur de la droite”). This new secularism extended the requirement of neutrality from the state and its representatives to all individuals in public – a dramatic reformulation of the intent of the original legislation. 

Its implications went further, as the legal scholars Stéphanie Hennette Vauchez and Vincent Valentin pointed out in 2014: “The new laïcité is coming to limit not only the actions of the state, but also the freedom of individuals. Encouraging something like a generalised obligation of religious neutrality, it tends in fact to invert the meaning of the principle of laïcité by establishing a rule of neutrality applicable to the public sphere as well as the private sphere.”  

La Nouvelle Laïcité had a profound bearing on subsequent legislation. A law of 2004 outlawing Islamic headscarves in public schools was followed by another in 2010 forbidding the wearing of facial coverings in the street, and then by an edict, passed by the Senate in 2019, which banned veiled mothers from accompanying their children on school trips. There have been many more formal and informal invocations of the new secularism: in one case, in 2008, a woman who wore a burqa was punished for “failure to assimilate”, and some city halls throughout the country have prevented women in headscarves from serving as witnesses in weddings. In the summer of 2016, police tried to enforce the secular rules by requiring women in burkinis to undress on a beach in the south of France.  

Although some of the laws around laïcité have been articulated in universal terms (the 2004 law, for example, forbids all forms of “conspicuous” religious display), it is Muslims who seem to have been targeted most. The proponents of the new secularism, including Macron and many of his cabinet, the former prime minister, Manuel Valls, the philosopher Élisabeth Badinter, and the feminist writer Caroline Fourest, argue that Muslims who identify with Islam threaten to undermine the unity of the French nation. In a speech in early October, Macron admonished “an ideology which claims its own laws should be superior to those of the republic”. Although he was careful to specify that he was referring to “radical Islam”, he went on to say that Islam was “in crisis everywhere in the world”. 

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In the wake of the murder of the schoolteacher Samuel Paty in Paris, Macron called for an “enlightened Islam” to bring peace to France and the interior minister, Darmanin, called for the removal of “Muslim” food from supermarkets, insisting that it was anti-French. The refusal of Muslim religious expression has become the litmus test of patriotism, a patriotism defined by individual neutrality in matters of religious practice. A patriotism that has, moreover, singled out the descendants of those people France once endeavoured to “civilise” in its former colonies in Africa and the Middle East.

The secular campaign against what Macron calls “separatism” is no longer restricted to the far right but has become a defining aspect of Macron’s government. It has gone even further, attacking as “traitors” those who have sought accommodation with French Muslims and who have worked to challenge discrimination in housing, employment and schools. There have been calls to close the Colléctif Contre l’Islamophobie en France – a group devoted to ending discrimination against Muslims in the name of republican principles of liberty and equality. And there are demands from the far-right for the prosecution of so-called “islamo-gauchistes”, those on the left, such as the essayist Pierre Tévanian, the sociologist Éric Fassin, and the editors of the online journal Médiapart who have argued that all Muslims cannot be held responsible for the actions of a few, and that incidences of domestic terrorism are, at least in part, a consequence of the inequalities faced by French Muslims. Fourest has vocally attacked the quasi-governmental consulting group,  the Observatoire de la laïcité, an agency designed to help the French government enforce laïcité, for having “disarmed the republic” by putting the group “in the service of its enemies”. 

Those journalists, politicians and university professors who define their work as anti-racist have also been publicly rebuked for undermining French values by encouraging perceptions of ethnic division in what should be a nation “one and indivisible”. Macron’s controversial comments in 2019 about professors have been widely repeated: “The university is guilty of encouraging the ethnicisation of the social question which it thinks is a rich area of research. But the outcome can only be secessionist.” The minister of education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, followed suite on 22 October 2020, denouncing anti-racist academics as the “intellectual accomplices of terrorism” and pointing to theories of intersectionality as having “corrupted a non-negligible part of the French social sciences”. He described intersectionality – the theory that describes how attributed characteristics such as race, class and gender “intersect” with one another – as a foreign import, an American multiculturalist way of “essentialising groups and identities, the antithesis of our republican model”.  

Moments of crisis often reveal deep contradictions in the proclaimed principles and actual practices of nation-states. Those contradictions are glaringly apparent in France today. The “republican model” of unity-without-difference veils a creeping ethno-nationalist commitment to racial and social homogeneity. Instead of enforcing state neutrality in matters of religion, laïcité has become a way of legitimising state discrimination against those who practise Islam. The universal promise of equality has been circumscribed to apply only to those who conform to the “republican model” – a model which denies the possibility of examining discrimination based on attributions of racial, religious, sexual or other forms of difference. And the invocation of free speech applies only to those who refrain from criticising “the values of the republic”. 

When a nationalist imperative threatens to dictate what counts as free speech, authoritarian rule replaces democracy – a far cry, and a sad departure, from what the framers of the law of 1905 had in mind. 

Joan Wallach Scott is Professor Emerita at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. She is the author of The Politics of the Veil (2007), Sex and Secularism (2017) and On the Judgment of History (2020). In 2018, she was named a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur of France, the country's highest decoration.