Robert Zaretsky writes: For nearly a century, laïcité [which originally assured “the liberty of conscience” for all French citizens] worked well enough. It ensured public space for both those who believed — not just Catholics and Protestants, but Jews as well — and those who did not. But with the 1980s and 1990s came a growing number of immigrants, most of whom were Muslim, from North Africa. And so a different kind of conflict between the French state and established religion began to take shape.
Emblematic of this new tension was a series of battles over a simple strip of clothing. In 1989, a few Muslim girls were expelled from school when they refused to take off their hijabs, or headscarves, which the principal believed was an assault on the secular character of public schools. Shortly after, the French administrative court, the Conseil d’État, ordered them to be reinstated. But two years after 9/11, when similar incidents were repeated at other schools, the court reversed its original finding. While all “ostentatious” signs of religious faith — be they Jewish yarmulkes or Sikh turbans — were declared verboten in public schools, everyone knew that the principal target of the law was the hijab.
In the subsequent sound and fury, the banner of laïcité was unfurled in ways that would surely have been unrecognizable to the 19th-century statesmen like Jules Ferry and Aristide Briand, who helped write the original law. The once-straightforward guarantees of “freedom of conscience” and “free exercise of religious faiths” — rooted in and restricted to the constitutions of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Republics — were transformed under the forces of political passion and mounting existential anguish into the defining French values, and any form of retreat from a fundamentalist interpretation was a failure to defend the republic.
Today, public intellectuals like Alain Finkielkraut, Régis Debray, and Elisabeth Badinter, when discussing laïcité, invoke the very future of France. Badinter, a renowned feminist philosopher, as if in anticipation of the Charlie Hebdo editorial, declared in January that she was not afraid to be called an Islamophobe, arguing that accusations of racism are a weapon against secularism. In a recent essay on secularism, diversity, and national identity titled L’identité malheureuse (“Unhappy Identity”), Finkielkraut confounds myth with history when he declares his sympathy for those “who miss the good old days when native-born Frenchmen and women (Français de souche) mingled with their own kind and who are now shedding a tear over their sepia-colored France that has lost its homogeneity.”
The xenophobic and anti-immigration National Front, too, has weaponized laïcité, turning it into an ideological cudgel to be used against French Muslims. Last year, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the party’s rising star — and granddaughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen — asserted that the National Front is “laïque,” or secular. Yet she then offered an interpretation of the state of religion in France that had very little to do with laïcité as most of the world understands it, exposing the cognitive dissonance shared by the extreme right and left: “If French Muslims wish to practice their faith, they need to accept the fact that they are doing so on soil that is culturally Christian. This means that they cannot have the same rank as the Christian religion.”
Then, last week, the minister for families, children, and women’s rights, Laurence Rossignol, lambasted fashion designers for offering lines of Islamic wear-inspired clothing, including the so-called “burkini,” a full-body bathing suit sold by Marks and Spencer. These brands, Rossignol declared, had “irresponsibly” lent their prestige to clothing designed to oppress women. As for those Muslim women who freely choose to wear religious garb, Rossignol shrugged her shoulders: “There were also American negroes who favored slavery.”
In a single phrase, Rossignol not only let drop a racial slur, but also let slip the implications of how she — a member of government — sees the meaning of laïcité today: No normal French woman, Rossignol seems to believe, would choose to wear Islamic dress as a sign of her religious faith. Tellingly, Rossignol’s use of the word “négre” sparked more outrage in the media than her claim that burkini-wearing women have no place in a truly secular society. [Continue reading…]