A besieged civil servant in a fractured France
PARIS – France is in theory a non-discriminatory society where the state maintains strict religious neutrality and where people are free to believe or not in the God they want. It is a nation, in its image, which through education dissolves differences of faith and ethnicity in a shared commitment to the rights and responsibilities of French citizenship.
This model, known as secularism, often insufficiently translated as secularism, is adopted by a majority of French people. They or their ancestors thus became French. No politician here would say the words “In God we trust”. The Roman Catholic Church was withdrawn more than a century ago from French public life. The secular model of the country supplants all divinity.
But, in a country with a difficult relationship with Islam, secularism is also contested as the shield behind which France discriminates against its large Muslim population and avoids confronting its prejudices. Suddenly, the job of Nicolas Cadène, a somewhat disheveled civil servant with brown hair and multiple law degrees, has become a subject of controversy.
Mr. Cadène, 39, heads the Observatory of Secularism as “general rapporteur”, a heavy title for a young man – and unimaginable outside France.
Attached to the office of Prime Minister Jean Castex, the institution began its work in 2013. Since then, Mr. Cadène and his small staff have led efforts to educate hundreds of thousands of civil servants, and young people, in the sense of secularism , from French -style.
So why the vitriol on its strenuous efforts? “We are living in a period of extreme tension in France,” he said in an interview. “There is an economic, social, health, ecological and identity crisis, aggravated by recent Islamist attacks. And in this context, you have a terrible fear of Islam that has developed.
This in turn led to pressure on Mr. Cadene to use his position to fight against any expression of Muslim identity. “We have to be very careful never to install a thought font,” he told me in his little paper-strewn office.
Coming from a Protestant family in the southern city of Nîmes, Mr. Cadène grew up in an environment deeply attached to the law of 1905 which established the French secular model. Protestants had suffered persistent persecution in a predominantly Catholic society; a state that came out of religion was the answer. Mr. Cadène, who still lives in Nîmes with his wife and two children, is nevertheless a critic of the system he embodies. France, he says, has failed to achieve the social mixing essential to the functioning of secularism.
“Secularism being a tool to enable us to live together, whatever our condition, we must also to be together, ”he said. “That we live in the same places. That we interact. And this happens too rarely. Many schools, neighborhoods and workplaces were very homogeneous, he noted. “This insufficient social mix is scary because when you don’t know the other you are more afraid.
Among the disadvantaged “are a majority of French Muslims, even if the situation is changing,” said Cadène. The result, he says, is religious and social discrimination: Lower schools in ghettoized neighborhoods on the outskirts of large cities make Muslim children less likely.
It is this kind of frankness that has enraged certain members of the government, in particular Marlène Schiappa, the Minister for Citizenship.
At the Ministry of the Interior, where she works, anger has mounted against what is perceived as the “secularism of appeasement” of Mr. Cadène, more concerned with “the fight against the stigmatization of Muslims” than the maintenance of the Republic against “Islamist militants,” reports the weekly Le Point.
“There is a discussion on the future of the Observatory”, said M. Cadene. He offered a wry smile. “Some in government want to keep it, some want to remove it and some want to transform it.”
The transformation would likely mean absorption into the Interior Ministry, headed by Gerald Darmanin, a hardline supporter who has declared war on the Islamist “internal enemy”. A decision will likely be taken in April, when Mr. Cadène’s renewable term expires.
“It would be very dangerous to make secularism a political tool”, he declared. “It’s not an ideology. It is absolutely not anti-religious. It should be a way to bring people together.
Hakim El Karoui, Muslim affairs consultant and senior researcher at Institut Montaigne, said the problem is that secularism has multiple meanings. It can represent the law of 1905, freedom of conscience and state neutrality. Or it can be philosophical, a form of emancipation from religion, a battle for the enlightenment against religious obscurantism, something close to atheism. Islam, with its vibrant appeal to young Muslims, then becomes the enemy, especially in the context of the terrorist attacks in France.
“Secularism can be another name for anti-Islamic xenophobia. But it is not true that Muslims in France see it as a form of war against them, ”said Mr. El Karoui. “If you are a Muslim of Algerian origin, you may be very grateful because you know well what authoritarian Islam looks like.
Mr Cadène’s views appear to be broadly aligned with those of Mr Macron. While condemning the extremist Islamism at the origin of the recent terrorist attacks, including the beheading of a schoolteacher, the president acknowledged shortcomings. In a speech in October, he said France was suffering from “its own form of separatism” by neglecting the marginalization of some Muslims.
This month’s bill seeks to combat radical Islamism through measures to limit the funding and teachings of extremist groups. It was a necessary step, said Cadène, but not sufficient. “We also need a remedial law, to try to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity.”
A law, in other words, which would help forge a France of greater diversity through better distributed social housing, more mixed schools, and a more varied working environment. The government is preparing a “national consultation on discrimination” in January, proof of the urgency that Macron gives to this issue as the 2022 presidential election approaches.
In France, saying to someone: “Tell me your secularism and I will tell you who you are” is not a bad compass.
So I asked Mr. Cadène about his. “It is equality before everyone’s condition, whatever their conviction. It is a public administration and impartial public services. And it is fraternity because it is what allows us to work together while respecting the convictions of others.
He continued, “In theory, it’s a wonderful model. But if the tool is not oiled, it rusts and breaks down. And the problem today is that equality is not real, freedom is not real and brotherhood even less.
Strong words from an idealist, a devoted French official, who defends a subtle idea in the era of certainties at war. A distant relative, Raoul Allier, played a decisive role in the law of 1905. Mr. Cadène is not about to soften his views, even if they cost him his job.
Secularism is not a panacea. He failed several times. French Jews, no longer citizens, were deported to death during World War II. The idea was never extended to Muslims in French Algeria under colonial rule.
However, for many decades, the model has made French citizens millions of immigrants, and it remains for many French people of different origins, beliefs and skin colors, a noble idea, without which France would lose a part of its essence.
“I have always believed in the general interest. I volunteered when I was young for emergency medical services, I joined Amnesty International, I worked for human rights wherever I could, ”Mr. Cadène said.
“I believe that our Republic is secular” – secular – “and dedicated to social justice, and that secularism can only survive on this basis.