What is French secularism? | The Economist
EVERY TIME an act of jihadist terrorism is committed on French soil, the country is plunged back into a global debate on secularism, and if this is the answer or the source of the problem. Article 1 of the French constitution expressly states that the republic is “indivisible, secular, democratic and social. Difficult to translate, the word secular refers to the French credo of secularism, a form of central secularism in the history and identity of the country, but little known elsewhere. It is neither a form of state atheism, nor the outlawing of religion. Rather secularism enshrines in law the right to believe or not to believe, while keeping religion out of public affairs. No French president, for example, could ever take an oath on a sacred book. No French public school could organize a crèche. No French marriage is legal if it is only celebrated in a place of worship.
Historically, French secularism was the product of a struggle with the Catholic Church. At the end of the 19th century, the battle of the republic to wrest classrooms, the army and politics from the hands of the clergy was at times violent. Convents and religious schools were forcibly closed; thousands of priests fled the country. “We have torn human conscience from the clutches of faith,” said René Viviani, socialist minister, to the National Assembly. This campaign resulted in a law in 1905 to entrench laicity throughout France (with the exception of Alsace-Moselle, which benefits from an exemption under the Napoleonic Concordat of 1801). This was to protect private religious beliefs, but also to keep public affairs free from the influence of any religion.
For 30 years, since three students were suspended in 1989 for wearing headscarves at the school in Creil, north of Paris, the controversy over secularism went from Catholicism to accommodation between the French state and Islam. Successive laws (in 2004) banned “visible” religious symbols, including the Muslim headscarf (and crucifix) in public schools and public institutions, and then (in 2010) full face coverings, including the niqab, from all public places. For liberal multiculturalists, such measures constitute a flagrant violation of the right to religious expression. In France too, certain groups accuse successive governments of “militarizing” secularism in a way that legitimizes Islamophobia. They also point to a separate law on freedom of speech, dating from 1881, which protects blasphemy and therefore legalizes caricatures of the Prophet (and Jesus too). Emotions are heightened whenever there is an official crackdown on militant Islamism, as often happens after terrorist attacks. The country is no stranger to anti-France boycotts and the resulting protests.
For French laity, however, who can be found both on the left and on the right, this legal arsenal is a reaffirmation of the country’s distinct model. It may be legal to insult a religion in France, but the law also prohibits insulting or inciting hatred of any individual on the basis of that religion. Over the years, French governments have increasingly detected behind the “soft” signs of conservative Islam an ideological effort to spread Islamism and test the resilience of the French model. President Emmanuel Macron presents a law against “Islamist separatism” which will ban, for example, home schooling on the grounds that it can mask radicalized education. The outside world may watch in bewilderment, but France is more than ever likely to continue to defend and strengthen secularism.