By Evi Tsakali,
Every time a terrorist attack takes place in French territory -which, unfortunately, happens quite often these years- France, along with the rest of the global public, are led once again into the timeless controversy regarding a notion that seems exclusively French: laïcité.
Laïcité is a form of secularism that is of pivotal importance to French history and identity and usually misunderstood by the international political sphere. It derives from the very first article of the current French Constitution (that of 4th October 1958), according to which the French Republic shall be “indivisible, laïque, democratic and social”. It should not be considered as state atheism or as the outlawing of religion, but rather as a means of keeping religion out of public affairs. That implies, among others, that no French President is sworn on a holy book; no French state school could hold a nativity play and no French marriage is legal if celebrated only in a place of worship.
From an historical perspective, the notion of laïcité is a symbol of overcoming the struggles imposed by the Catholic Church and the Republic’s battles to take away schools, army and politics from the hands of the clergy during the 19th century, until the law establishing laïcité in 1905. A more vivid description came from the socialist minister René Viviani during a speech in the Assemblée Nationale (the French National Assembly): “We have torn human conscience from the clutches of faith.”
Why are the French so attached to laïcité?
It is often difficult for the rest of the world to conceive in its totality the notion of laïcité. First of all, the English language does not have a satisfactory equivalent for laïcité. Its most common translation is secularism, a term that tends to imply skepticism rather than neutrality towards religion, when laïcité has so much history behind it as a notion, that someone need to have a better grasp of the socio-political situation in France in order to fully understand it.
On the occasion of every national election, deliberation of related legislation or terrorist attack in France, the same debate about the interpretation of laïcité emerges, on the grounds of women’s rights, civil liberties, freedom of speech and many other issues. Meanwhile, more and more political parties and groups claim it as one of their core values, recognizing it as part of the French identity (“part of the French DNA”, as former Prime Minister Manuel Valls put it). According to analysts, seven meanings of laïcité can be identified, however -taking the aforementioned into consideration- that would be an underestimate…
Islam and laïcité
Despite the fact that the principle of laïcité is applicable to all religions, nowadays the controversy surrounding it is mostly focused on Muslim practices. On the one hand, France has to deal with the tensions instigated by the islamophobic right-wing parties and movements hostile to immigration and asylum policies and on the other hand the terrorist attacks carried out by the supporters of al-Qaida, ISIS or other extremist groups. The tragic events speak for themselves: in January 2015, the journalists of Charlie Hebdo were shot and the Jewish hostages in that supermarket murdered. During the same year, in November, 130 people were killed in a series of attacks including that of the Bataclan concert hall in Paris. More recently, humanity has witnessed the murder of the middle school teacher Samuel Paty and of the 3 Christian worshippers in Nice in October 2020.
This series of events has put the French identity and France itself into question, not only as secular state, but also regarding the wider framework of rights and responsibilities in the country as well as the place of the Muslim population within it. What is now at stake, and it seems that a possible outcome is a big step ahead, is the role of laïcité as a sort of guardian of the “ordre public” (public order) and the “vivre ensemble” (conviviality) in France.
- France’s laïcité: why the rest of the world struggles to understand it. The Conversation. Available here.
- What is French laïcité?. The Economist. Available here.