Unsplash/Rafael Garcin

Explaining French secularism: what is laïcité?

Muslim countries around the world have been in uproar at Emmanuel Macron’s response to some caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH.

On 6 October 2020, Samuel Paty, a history and geography teacher in Paris showed a copy of the now infamous cartoons that provoked a terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in 2015. Ten days later, Paty was killed, allegedly by a Russian-born teenager of Chechen heritage. However, it was Macron’s subsequent remarks during a visit to Lebanon that have caused international outrage: he said that he would ‘never qualify the editorial choices of a journalist or a publication’ and that in France, there is a ‘freedom to blaspheme’, which he must protect as President of the Republic.

To be fair, he’s not wrong. France has a long history of laïcité, which can be translated as ‘secularism’, but is essentially about the separation of Church and state. The French president must therefore remain neutral in religious discussions and situations. For example, at the former president Jacques Chirac’s funeral in September last year, Macron did not partake in Mass or make the sign of the cross, he simply placed his hand on Chirac’s coffin.

It’s important to note that the 1905 law that called for the separation of Church and state does not mention laïcité – this is very much a term that has found its way into French culture. The law rests upon four principles, or pillars. The first is freedom to choose and express one’s faith or non-faith, which includes wearing symbols such as a veil or cross. Secondly, the separation of powers meaning neither Church nor state can interfere in the other’s affairs. Third is the neutrality of state officials. However, this doesn’t mean indifference as ministers can interact with faith communities. The final principle is equality of religions in front of the law.

In 2004, a law was passed forbidding students from openly wearing any religious symbols or clothing

Secularism in France is a very confusing subject. This confusion can be seen to stem from two recent laws that were passed almost 100 years after this initial separation of the two institutions. In 2004, a law was passed forbidding students from openly wearing any religious symbols or clothing. In other words, if you wanted to wear a cross you couldn’t display it, and clearly a headscarf would not be possible according to this law. However, private schools and universities are exempt.

Six years later in 2010, a law was passed that forbade people from covering their faces – be that with a niqab/burka, motorcycle helmet, or kagoul – in public. It should be noted that this was in the interest of security rather than laïcité, but it has been used to try and remove particular religious influences from French society.

There is a sentiment that laïcité is being used to exclude one religion in particular from French society, even though the principle demands that all religions are equal in the eyes of the law. In the light of terrorist attacks committed by supposed ‘Muslims’, laïcité has been used by some people to remove any Muslim presence in society, as evidenced by the two laws cited. This is also added to by the rhetoric of the far-right, a part of the political spectrum that wields considerable influence in France, and the infamous Le Pen family as well as mainstream political spheres such as the politician and former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

At the same time, France has enjoyed a strong Catholic tradition. While it must also conform to the rules of separation, it is safe to say that Catholicism is a strong part of French life. Le Jour du Seigneur, a Catholic TV show, has been broadcasting Sunday Mass since the 1950s and continues to do so today. There are also several bank holidays for religious events such as the Assumption of Mary, and All Saint’s Day for example. In this context, it’s understandable how Islam, and other minority religions in France as well, can feel side-lined.

The most ardent defences of secularism come at times of terrorist attacks that are being committed by people who call themselves Muslims

Let me be perfectly clear: I’m not trying to say that the entire French nation has an issue with Islam, nor that laïcité itself is inherently Islamophobic. It’s just a question of how it’s been used, and also how it all appears. In the current climate, the most ardent defences of secularism come at times of terrorist attacks that are being committed by people who call themselves Muslims and when there is increased focus on ‘the values of the Republic’.

This is not an easy subject for anyone, and it has been subject to much debate in France over recent years. As a Muslim, I can understand the upset caused by the photos – the Qur’an tells believers to send blessings on the Prophet PBUH and show him the utmost respect (Qur’an, 33:56). In that vein, there is a tradition of not representing the Prophet PBUH in visual culture. He is usually represented by his name in calligraphy, and if pictures are drawn of him, his face is either veiled or left blank. While I respect the right to the freedom of expression, I do believe that that right has to be exercised responsibly.

As a student of French culture, I also understand the deep attachment of the French to their traditions and values, and I know how deeply engrained laïcité is in French society. Macron wanted to come across as the defender of French values, as is his job, but perhaps this could have been communicated better.

Macron’s response to the announced boycotts has not been viewed as the most considerate. France has demanded an end to boycotts, as they ‘distort the positions defended by France in favour of freedom of conscience, freedom of expression, freedom of religion and the refusal of any call to hatred’. It argued that ‘the calls for boycott are pointless and must cease immediately, as must all attacks against our country instrumentalised by a radical minority’.

When this had no clear visible effect, Macron played with the idea of appointing a ‘special envoy’ to explain his thinking on secularism and freedom of expression to Arab countries, rather than perhaps express empathy at the upset caused. Macron has also attacked English-language media, notably the New York Times, for bias and lack of understanding over laïcité. Citing the events of 2015, where France was widely supported, Macron has argued that the same understanding should be present here.

Macron’s actions show an alarming lack of understanding for the cultural implications of his faux pas

Perhaps Macron has a point. Laïcité is nothing new and has been flouted by every single president of the French Republic on the international scene to some extent. Although it should be noted his direct predecessor, François Hollande, made a point of not evoking it as often as Macron does or indeed as Sarkozy did during his premiership. At the same time though, Macron’s actions show an alarming lack of understanding for the cultural implications of his faux pas. This has naturally drawn attention to how this law has been used to manipulate rhetoric and behaviour towards religious minorities in a country that emphasises freedom and equality.

An apology doesn’t cost much, but the fear here is that Macron’s obstinance could permanently damage relations with a part of the world that already has ambivalent feelings towards the French and indeed the rest Europe. Messing with an already delicate balance could prove to be catastrophic.


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