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Laïcité and Islam: The French Paradox

Laïcité, or, secularism, has come to represent the cornerstone of a national identity based on French values. For the past century, French politics have made a virtue of secularism by largely banning institutionalized religion from the public sphere. 

In the modern era, laïcité, or, secularism, has come to represent the cornerstone of a national identity based on French values—even though these values have not been specifically described. In the absence of a clear definition, various cultural and political influences have hijacked this definition to the detriment of minorities, especially Muslims. Unlike the United States, where the Founders clearly expected religion to play a major role in public life but not as a state-sanctioned institution, the French experience is quite different; for the past century, French politics have made a virtue of secularism by largely banning institutionalized religion from the public sphere. 

Since attitudes toward religion are shaped by the foundational creed of laïcité, understanding the place of Islam in France is challenging, and since all public religiosity is considered problematic, it is hard to differentiate between far-right mobilization and a broader set of political dynamics. 

In the 2017 election, the leader of France’s far-right National Front party, Marine Le Pen, garnered significant support from regional and rural traditionalists, including those skeptical of multiculturalism. The movement gathered momentum and quickly spread to voters in the urban areas, particularly after she vowed to restrict immigration and to make France “more French,” a promise sustained on both implicit and explicit anti-Muslim rhetoric that would ultimately result in, what she called, the “separation of the mosque and the state.” Le Pen is making waves in the polls again ahead of next year’s presidential election, however, her party is now considered “populist” rather than “far-right”, which is reflective of the shift in public discourse and the broader political landscape in France. 

France is home to Western Europe’s largest Muslim community and its constitution recognizes and guarantees freedom of religion, which must coexist with the principle of neutrality enshrined in Article 1 of the French Constitution and in the 1905 Law on Separation of the Church and State. Laïcité prescribes that the state not interfere with religious matters and vice versa; as a consequence, religious neutrality is imposed upon any entity directly or indirectly working for the state. 

“The 1905 law establishing secularism describes it as a measure to protect individual citizens’ freedom of religion and faith by rendering the state totally neutral to and disconnected from religious matters,” says Jean Baubérot, an expert on secularism at Paris University’s Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. Baubérot notes that initially, secularism was intended to reduce the Catholic Church’s influence on society by tasking the state with removing religious instruction from public schools as part of an effort to relegate faith to the private sphere. “Now we frequently see secularists urging the state to intervene in the private religious affairs of people or organizations,” Baubérot says. “Increasingly, secularity resembles what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called a ‘civil religion’: the values and dogma of a state that individual citizens must submit to or be made to respect.”

There is a clear paradox in the way the French government has encroached on the private sphere of its citizens in an attempt to defend the values of secularism. It seems that secularism itself has been weaponized, and its defenders have become far more militant. In some cases, this has created a zero-sum showdown in which France’s secularists, who dominate public life and debate, exhibit a fundamentalist zeal in imposing the values of laïcité on religious minorities.

In recent years, parties on both sides of the political spectrum have expressed support for the implementation of a more restrictive and narrow understanding of laïcité. The debate surrounding the prohibition of religious symbols reached its peak in summer 2016, when authorities in several French towns implemented bans on the burkini, a type of modest swimwear popular with Muslims in the West, citing concerns about religious clothing in the wake of recent terrorist killings in the country. 

In the wake of the 2016 “burkini affair,” former Minister of the Interior Jean-Pierre Chevènement addressed French Muslims unnerved by the rise of local legislation banning modest swimwear. Chevènement declared that Muslims in France “must be able to practice their faith freely but with discretion within the public space.” As a result, French Muslims are rendered invisible in public spaces while trying to navigate the space between “freely” and “with discretion.” 

A year earlier, a local case was approved to stop offering alternatives to pork in school lunches, which posed a direct challenge to the Islamic faith’s prohibition of the consumption of pork. The act set a precedent for municipalities elsewhere in the country at a time of simmering anti-immigrant sentiments. The court ruled in favor of the mayor of Chalon-sur-Saone, Gilles Platret, who tweeted “A first victory for secularity,” soon after the verdict. 

The French policies targeting Muslim citizens serve as a sobering reminder that growing Islamophobia threatens both religious freedom and the lives of minorities in parts of contemporary Europe. More recently, statistics released by the National Observatory of Islamophobia show that the number of Islamophobic incidents in France rose sharply last year. According to the head of the organization, Abdallah Zekri, there were 235 attacks on Muslims in France in 2020, up from 154 the previous year, a 53% jump. Most of the attacks took place in the Ile-de-France (greater Paris), Rhones-Alpes, and Paca regions of the country. Meanwhile, attacks on mosques jumped 35% in the same year, Zekri added

The French government has been heavily criticized by the international community for its actions and rhetoric regarding Islam and the effects it has had on French Muslims. In October of 2020, President Emmanuel Macron unveiled a plan to defend France’s secular values against what he termed “Islamist radicalism,” and claimed that Islam is “in crisis.” The proposed “anti-separatism” law would impose wide-ranging restrictions on the Muslim community. His speech, which appealed both to the political left and right, drew sharp criticism from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. Opinion polls, however, show that the French public overwhelmingly supports the government’s campaign against separatism; in an October survey conducted after Macron’s initial speech, 87 percent of those interviewed said fighting separatism was either “a top priority” or “important, but not a priority.”

The country’s government announced the bill in the aftermath of a gruesome beheading of a teacher in October last year by an 18-year-old suspect of Chechen origin. The French authorities adopted the approach of collective punishment and anti-Muslim rhetoric, prompting widespread condemnation. The suspect attacked Samuel Paty in broad daylight, killing him outside a school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a suburb about 15 miles from central Paris. A few days after the assassination, the government launched a crackdown on Muslim organizations, while vigilante groups attacked mosques. 

The bill was approved by MPs on February 16 and has elicited a fierce debate in France and abroad over the limits of government involvement in religious affairs. Officially, the bill is intended to “reinforce republican principles” and aims to give the country the means to fight Islamic radicalism, but has instead targeted the entire French Muslim community. The legislation allows the government to interfere with mosques and their administrators, as well as dictate the finances of associations and NGOs belonging to Muslims. Experts suggest that this new law is a political maneuver by Macron, who aims to garner the votes of followers on the far-right ahead of the 2022 elections.

The French crusade against faith has resulted in another paradox: secular fundamentalism. Rokhaya Diallo, founder of Les Indivisibles, an organization that celebrates diversity in modern France says “as secularists become more militant, their arguments have begun to ring with the righteous conviction you usually associate with religious forces they oppose.” Diallo attributes this trend to rising secularist concerns about the spread of Islam. This sentiment, she laments, has led the French “to recognize secularity as an alibi to express increasingly Islamophobic attitudes.” These attitudes have become much more overt in the last few years, due in large part to the rise of far-right nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, and Macron’s subsequent efforts to appeal to both sides of the political spectrum. The result: state-sanctioned discrimination against Muslims. 

While France generally maintains a happy balance with other faiths, it fails to do the same with Islam; some say that Macron’s efforts to gratify his constituents and his fixation with othering Muslims will inevitably taint France’s rich cultural diversity. In spite of the philosophical egalitarian basis under which laïcité was intended, it is clear that today, it has become synonymous with the exclusion and targeting of Muslims in France, and the state’s interference in their religious practice. In his attempt to champion secularism, Macron has inadvertently undermined the very values that have historically represented the French identity: liberty, equality, and fraternity.





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By Anne Kira Skowron

Anne is a human rights activist and refugee advocate. She is a Middle East Policy analyst and International Affairs research fellow at the University of California, Irvine.

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