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Laïcité, or the response to a perceived threat to French national identity

Written by: Sarah Rost

Since the 2000’s, there has been a change in the interpretation and enforcement of secularism in France. This has drawn both intrigue and condemnation from the international community and it’s argued that some of the recent legislative reforms are discordant with international human rights, in particular the free exercise religion.

Political entities of the far right have sought to weaponize the constitutional concept of secularism and push forward anti-Islamic measures, which broadly correspond to the ‘great replacement’ theory which posits that, among other things, Muslims and ethnic minority populations are multiplying rapidly and posing a demographic threat to the future security of Judeo-Christian communities.

But these so-called ‘neo-secularist’ tendencies are not only traceable to the far right: indeed, there has been a resurgence of extreme views on laïcité in the French political discourse as a whole. To cite just one example, Education Minister Blanquer’s said in 2019 that ‘the Islamic veil is not desirable in our society.’

In the Declaration of Human and Citizen Rights of 1789 there first appeared the notion that the liberty to hold any faith or to have none at all was a right to be guaranteed by the State. This surfaced in the context of the French Revolution constituting the pinnacle of the Enlightenment movement that championed the notion of religion being opposed to reason.

But it was in 1905 that contemporary tendencies started to show, although in a very different context. Debates on the law of separation of the State and the Church comprised two main camps: those of Aristide Briand and Emile Combes. The first, on the liberal side, called for a so-called ‘positive’ secularism: a strict separation between all things political and religion, but with an emphasis on the right to practice freely one’s faith that should be facilitated by the State, whatever this faith may be.

Combe’s republican alignment on the other hand-side fits well in the climate of virulent anti-clericalism of France at the time and aims to limit the practice of religion to the private space only, very much like what Marine Le Pen (president of the far-right party Rassemblement National) aims to implement today. This was, at the time, to prevent any national organization from part of the Catholic Church, which values were deemed incompatible with the Republican values inherited from the Revolution.

Briand’s camp dominated at last and the 1905 law on the separation of Church and State was adopted, with the ‘principle of neutrality’ at its core: the State was to remain neutral in all things religious. No funding, or recognition of any faith by the State would be acceptable. Throughout the 20th century, this ‘positive’ interpretation of secularism was further reinforced by some amendments and exceptions made to the law, in the name of the State being the guarantor of the free practice of religion.

This law marked the first of many policies expanding the principle of religious neutrality from the State to the public space and, consequently, to citizens. Followed the 2010 law banning the covering of the face in public spaces, and the 2016 law allowing companies of the private sector to include a clause of religious neutrality in their employee’s contracts.

There is a parallel to be drawn between the 1905 law debates and today’s tendencies towards a more Combist approach to secularism in France. National identity, and more precisely the perceived threat to it, were the major catalysts of these positions. In 1905, it applied to the fear of the catholic Church, that had exercised a great influence on the French State in the past, but that had been defeated many years prior by the revolutionaries. In more recent years, it is the suspicion that Muslim communities aim to unify France’s values under purely Islamic ones.

In both cases, the approach is a distinctively nationalist one, as it claims to defend what is perceived as the ‘true French Nation’ and according values. Whether explicitly formulated or not, it seems to emanate from an incapability to conceptualize the French Nation as something other than homogenous, or as something that certainly has and probably should evolve with its time.

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