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Is it Time for France to Abandon Laïcité?

A year after the 'Charlie Hebdo' attacks, it would appear that France’s strict secularism has only exacerbated religious and racial tensions.

Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images

As France marks the one-year anniversary of the terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, French officials are stepping up efforts to counter violent extremism. One measure involves widening police powers to conduct raids and detain suspected terrorists. The Supreme Court is reviewing a draft bill that would make these temporary, state-of-emergency tools, implemented after the November 2015 attacks on multiple sites in Paris, permanent. The state-backed Conseil Français du Culte Musulman (French Council of Islam) has also announced its intention to issue certificates to imams who acknowledge French values and demonstrate their non-radical credentials.

Some worry that such measures will play into the hands of the Islamic State and other extremist groups. Increasing police powers could endanger respect for civil liberties, while imposing governmental control of Islam in France could drive more Muslims to radical sects. It would arguably be more effective to focus efforts on improving the integration of Muslims, many of whom feel alienated in French society. This would involve examining educational and career opportunities for immigrants and their families—paths that will offer them upward mobility and a better chance to assimilate into the workforce. But it would also mean revisiting a pillar of France’s political and cultural identity: the policy of laïcité.

Laïcité is France’s principle of secularism in public affairs, aimed at fostering a post-religious society. It developed during the French Revolution, which sought to dismantle the Catholic Church in France along with the monarchy, and was enshrined in the 1905 law on the Separation of the Churches and the State. Broadly, the idea refers to the freedom of citizens and of public institutions from the influence of organized religion. (“Laïcité” derives from the French term for laity—non-clergy or lay people.)

It goes further than the separation of church and state in other nations, however, by prohibiting religious expression in the public sphere. In early 20th-century France—a fairly homogenous, Christian nation—this was a straightforward attempt to protect government from the sway of the Catholic Church. But in modern France—a decidedly more heterogeneous and multi-religious society—this insistence on secularism is thorny. As a critic argued in Le Figaro, laïcité is unintelligible and even shocking to many Muslims, who view it as “an injunction to abandon their religion.” Instead of enhancing social harmony, it may actually be exacerbating religious and racial tensions.

Recent history already shows that the attempt to assimilate minorities by stamping out religious expression can backfire. In the spirit of laïcité, France passed a law in 2004 banning religious symbols and clothing, like crosses, kippas, and headscarves, in public schools. It had the effect of increasing the demand for private Muslim schools, keeping Muslims out of the mainstream instead of integrating them. A similar law banning the burqa in public spaces was passed in 2010.

Muslims feel targeted by laïcité. Although the principle is, in theory, applicable to all religions, in practice it tends to discriminate against Islam. In a country where many people aren’t religious to begin with (or only loosely so) and most state holidays are Catholic holy days, Muslims have simply had more to give up.

In the wake of terrorist attacks, it may strike some as counterintuitive to loosen—or even abandon—laïcité. But allowing Muslims greater freedom to express their beliefs in peaceful ways may make them feel more accepted and less stigmatized by the country they have made their home. It could also encourage their participation in public institutions, like schools and government workplaces, fostering their adoption of French values and identity—the very thing laïcité aims, but often fails, to do. As French leaders look to secure the safety of the French people, they would do well to reconsider the effectiveness of this policy. 

Thus far, the government has taken the opposite approach. After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, President François Hollande affirmed that laïcité was “non-negotiable,” a “guarantee” against internal and external threats. France has also declared December 9 (the date of the 1905 law) a “Day of Laïcité” and introduced a new edict reinforcing the teaching of laïcité in public schools. The edict was inspired in large part by the refusal of many children to participate in a national minute of silence for the Charlie Hebdo victims, who they believe insulted the Prophet Muhammad. Parents and children must now sign a “charter of laïcité” demonstrating their understanding and respect for the principle. 

In a sense, secularism is itself an enforced practice. As Dominique Moïsi, a French political scientist, puts it, “Laïcité has become the first religion of the Republic.”

The ideal of a society wiped of the disagreements and divisions born of religion is, in many ways, admirable. But like so many utopian models, its enforcement has dystopian consequences. Benoist Apparu, a legislator and former secretary of state for housing, has called laïcité a “secular totalitarianism.”

France wants to insist, in Hollande’s words, on a single, unified “peuple français”—a fraternité and an egalité that renders everyone the same. For this reason, the government also refuses to collect data about its citizens’ race and religion, as though ignoring their differences will somehow allow the country to arrive at this ideal of absolute integration. But as Jonathan Laurence, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, points out, neglecting to recognize difference has obscured researchers’ ability to study the socioeconomic experiences of immigrants and minorities, hampering the creation of policies to address their needs. Idealized homogeneity is simply at odds with the realities of multiculturalism. It doesn’t work as a path to social harmony. If the events of 2015 demonstrated anything, it’s that laïcité is emphatically not the “guarantee” against threats that Hollande claims it is.

Toleration, not suppression, of difference is the only policy that’s really compatible with a heterogeneous society. As Western societies become more diverse, they also need to become more tolerant of different beliefs and perspectives, not more wary of them. In France, this would entail revoking the laws against religious expression in public institutions, educating children about world religions instead of censoring their discussion, and shifting the public conversation about religion to emphasize freedom rather than silence.

Given laïcité’s deep roots in French culture, this is no small task. As Hollande’s remarks suggest, the French feel strongly about laïcité. It’s a defining principle of the republic. The far-right National Front party, which soared in recent elections under the leadership of Marine Le Pen, has succeeded in large part by presenting itself as the defender of laïcité. But as Le Pen’s many critics contend, the party’s laïcité is mostly a mask for Islamophobia. 

Reform isn’t entirely inconceivable though. The issue is debated in France’s newspapers, and everyone from secular intellectuals to schoolteachers has called for change. In some sense, emphasizing freedom of expression when it comes to religion would actually be more consistent with other cultural practices, like France’s tradition of criticism and satire. Indeed, increased tolerance of difference would also help strengthen the notion that we must tolerate what some people find disagreeable, like the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Satire must be allowed to flourish alongside religious expression. If the French want to protect their right to free expression and instill a love of liberty in their new countrymen, their best bet is to ensure that the right extends to all communities.