Europe's Furor over Faith

Defending 'Republican Values'

Sikhs protest the ban on religious clothing in government schools and offices
French Sikhs protest the controversial law banning conspicuous religious symbols from public schools and offices, Jan. 31, 2004 (Photo: Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP-Getty Images).

Is the French Republic burning? The question does not seem utterly frivolous if you look at the amount of energy that’s being expended to save “republican values,” starting with the principle of secularism.

“In the past, when we said ‘secularism’ people called us dorks. But all of a sudden, not a day goes by without people talking about it,” says Jean-Louis Biot, general secretary of the National Secular Action Committee (CNAL), an institution created in 1953 to support public education and that, ever since, has been on the front lines of battles on behalf of secularism in the schools and beyond.

In the last few months, there’s been a bumper crop of official commissions tasked with proposing ways and means to shore up secularist values. In the National Assembly, an information-gathering commission under veteran politician Jean-Louis Debré studied the “question of religious symbols in the schools.”  The commission’s report came down categorically: The “reaffirmation of the principle of secularism must take the form of legislative action explicitly to ban the visible wearing of any sign of religious or political allegiance on school property,” both public schools and private schools operating under contract with the National Education system.

At the same time, at the behest of President Jacques Chirac, Bernard Stasi—who holds the post of “mediator of the Republic,” a kind of national ombudsman—and 19 prominent citizens studied “the application of the principle of secularism within the Republic.”  This body’s mission was to discuss the question: Is a law to protect secularism necessary?

As the weeks went by, French society found itself split into three camps: the “pro-law,” the “anti-law,” and the undecided majority, torn between conflicting, often persuasive arguments from political parties, labor unions, nonprofit organizations, people involved in the day-to-day management of the issue, or experts in secularism.

On the Internet, sites about secularism have experienced record-breaking traffic. “We’ve recorded peaks of 10,000 hits per day,” says an astonished Serge Farnel, general secretary of [“Laïc” is the French word for “secular.”] This site, which went online on July 14, 2003, France’s Independence Day—to stress its strong symbolic value—aims to educate the average citizen about the various elements of the debate in all their complexity. “Discussions are fine. But if somebody doesn’t understand the real issues, he or she can be easily manipulated,” says Farnel, who is firm on one point: “There are areas where the foundations of secularism have been shaken. Perhaps the house isn’t on fire, but it would be risky to go to sleep right now.” The hottest area, the one that has elicited the vast majority of public expressions at all levels, is certainly the wearing of the veil—in the public service, in the Republic’s schools, and even in hospitals. Could it be that this piece of cloth, all by itself, threatens a century of secularism in France?

“I’m a teacher, I’m French, I’m of Moroccan origin, and I’ve found some of my colleagues consider me out of place as a defender of secularism and equality of men and women in the schools,” recounts Faïza Alami, assistant principal at the Stendhal Middle School in Besançon. “It’s just this background that makes me particularly sensitive to the issue of secularism, one of the most precious principles, which is at the heart of France’s universalist message,” she says.

A teacher who has been dealing with the veil issue in school since 1988, Alami isn’t gentle with those who, through their hesitations and compromises, “make it possible for little girls to be discriminated against and stigmatized already beginning in school.” Her eyes grow fiery as she tells of  “women who have stayed behind in the North African countryside, who are enraged when they see their sisters who have left for Western countries come back veiled and submissive.” Alami says that it’s in the name of all these women that she defends “the right to anonymity.”

It’s hard to resist these arguments, which she elaborated passionately at hearings of the Stasi committee. Arguments that have the approval of the Independent Union of Management Personnel in National Education, whose general secretary, Gabriel Marcq, sums up his vision of secularism in these terms: “Freedom, neutrality, tolerance, independence vis-à-vis the various religions, but also vigilance.”  Vigilance especially in the face of the display of ostentatious religious insignia, starting with the veil, which, he says, “is emblematic of whole series of disturbing acts that are working to undermine republican secularism.”

But it’s difficult, too, to resist the reasoning of Pierre Tournemire, deputy general secretary of the Education League: “The French state is secular, but the French nation is pluralist. This is a basic fact that we mustn’t lose sight of in thinking about French secularism. Today, emotions are high. The catchphrases are flying. Is our secularism in danger? Come on—let’s be reasonable! Let’s accept that within secularism, people have the right to be indifferent to differences! There’s a French-Canadian expression I like very much: ‘reasonable accommodations.’  The phrase bears witness to a realism that we in France are lacking.”

The Education League sees itself as an old friend of secularism, defined at its 1989 congress at Lille as an ethic of diversity. “This means a right not to become part of a melting pot,” Tournemire stresses. “But in France, we have a historical difficulty with managing things that aren’t within our norms: ranging from left-handed people—the devil’s hand, people used to claim—to regional dialects. Today it’s the veil; tomorrow it might be Che Guevara T-shirts!

“And for those who argue that communitarianism is shaking the foundations of the Republic, I would suggest a better target, which someone like me born in the Aveyron [a mountainous and relatively isolated region whose people are reputed to be of an especially rugged independence—WPR] knows very well: regional communitarianism, which has always existed and is more structured and solid than religious communitarianism.”

That said, at the Education League, nobody is surprised to see the issue of Islam monopolize the discussions of secularism. In 1996, the league set up a committee on Islam and secularism (which in 2000 was transferred to the control of the Human Rights League). The committee wanted to take a very broad approach to the issue and include in the discussions various components of Islamic opinion, from Tariq Ramadan [a Swiss-based Muslim philosopher, grandson of the founder of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, who is seen in different quarters as a promoter of moderate Islam and as a demagogic anti-Semite—WPR] to Soheib Bensheikh [Algerian-born grand mufti of the mosque in Marseille, who espouses the separation of religion and the state—WPR].

This was an approach that aroused much criticism. “You were in the hands of people who got you to buy their sales pitch,” blurted the Islamic studies specialist Gilles Kepel to a delegation from the league that was heard by the Stasi committee. But officials of the league say they’re acting in good faith. These officials don’t hesitate—and what a provocation this is!—to evoke the exceedingly communitarian model followed in English-speaking countries to manage diverse populations. They affirm that this model can work smoothly within the bounds of the 1905 law on the separation of church and state.

Should we then conclude that everything is fine in this best France of all possible Frances? “I don’t believe that secularism can be threatened by a few veils, and if it could be, that would mean it’s already been damnably weakened,” says Biot. “On the other hand, I do acknowledge that we need to bolster secularism in this country.

“Secularism is a constitutional value, one that goes to the heart of our identity as a nation; the secular republican contract is at the heart of our model, but nobody has used it as a reference for a couple of decades. Perhaps we believed in France that secularism went without saying! I don’t believe that you’re born with secularism in the blood: It’s a value that must be learned, practiced, taught, transmitted. It’s a very positive value, which deserves to survive! To learn about secularism in a nay-saying manner, for example through the banning of religious symbols, isn’t the best way to promote it.”

It’s a line of reasoning that isn’t disavowed by Jean Riedinger, who is spokesman for the Christian Monitor of Secularism, an organization founded in July 2003, whose aim is to “restore the full meaning of the secularist program,” a program that can be summarized in a few words: separation of the political and religious spheres and respect for personal freedoms—freedom of religious belief and the freedom to criticize belief systems.

“But you can’t say that these are mere words,” Riedinger stresses. “In today’s Europe, where secularism is generally understood to mean tolerance, we must mobilize to protect the advances brought about by the law of 1905 on the separation of the churches and the state. The danger as we see it lies above all in Article 51-3 of the European Constitution. This article stipulates that ‘recognizing their identity and their specific contribution, the Union maintains an open, transparent, and regular dialogue with the churches.’

“Certainly the issue of the veil is important for the people who have to deal with it, but admit that there’s something more serious going on: This constitutional article calls our entire secularist approach into question! And when I hear the French Bishops Conference [of the Roman Catholic Church] use the ambiguous expression ‘open secularism,’ I’m not reassured.”

There’s one point on which all the differing opinions converge: France’s republican secularism, whether it’s been weakened or not by recent events, has a crying need to be reaffirmed just the same. “Let’s not wait for the worm to get into the fruit, and for the fruit to rot,” thunders the anthropologist Malek Chebel, one of the co-signers of the May Appeal published in 2003 by the Movement of Secular Muslims of France, urging an “escape from the traps set by the fundamentalists for the Republic and for Islam.”

Adds Patrick Gaubert, president of the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA), “Secularism can no longer remain a simple neutrality; it must become an absolute demand.”

Thus we return to our initial question: Is the Republic burning? “Really, it’s excessive to talk of peril or danger,” Jean-Louis Langlais says with a smile. He heads an inter-ministerial committee known as Miviludes, an acronym for “Committee of  Vigilance and Combat Against Sectarian Abuses.” In something of a contrast to his reassuring words now, Langlais listed the defense of secularism as his top priority when he made his first speech as head of the committee set up in November 2002. His first public initiative was the creation of a university seminar on the theme “Sects and Secularism,” running from October 2003 to June 2004 and bringing together 50 participants ranging from jurists, sociologists, and historians to representatives of various religions, even to doctors.

Why all this brouhaha over a problem that doesn’t exist? “Our secularism deserves a constant, ever renewed attention,” Langlais says. “Perhaps because it was conceived as a confessional neutrality of the state—of the public sphere, not all of society—it can at first glance seem to constitute a weakness. But let’s not forget that we live under a government of laws, with structures that protect us from all kinds of possible abuses. As I understand the call for secularism, it is a call to combat individualism and its corollary, communitarianism, which may in fact be stalking our society.”

Should we then make Secularism the fourth pillar of the Republic, after Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity? That’s what LICRA’s Gaubert is after. But then you’d have to figure out what everybody wants to throw in under the heading of Secularism.