France Has a State Religion: Secularism

New York Times, USA
February 8, 2004


1789 TO 2004

PARIS — Who would have thought a piece of cloth could threaten the stability of the French state?

For four days last week, France's National Assembly debated the wisdom of a draft law that would ban most religious symbols from public schools. Although the move is aimed at preventing Muslim girls from showing up in the schoolyard with various degrees of swathing on their heads, President Jacques Chirac and his ministers, in a bow to egalitarianism, have also declared that items like Christian crosses that are deemed too large and Jewish skullcaps will also be prohibited.

The debate has little to do with the usual reasons for school dress codes and everything to do with the French state's historical impulse to impose its republican value system on an increasingly diverse population that now includes five million Muslims, about 8 percent of the population.

The practices of these new arrivals are often cast as a challenge to Christianity, but in many ways they challenge another religion entirely - the unofficial creed of secularism, which underlies the French conception of government and dates to 1789 and the French Revolution itself. In contrast to pluralist societies that try to accept, or even celebrate, cultural differences among their citizens, the French ideal envisions a uniform, secularized French identity as the best guarantor of national unity and the separation of church and state.

These days, a small but determined minority of France's Muslims has begun to make demands that clash vividly with that ideal. They include calls for sex-segregated gym classes and swimming pools for girls and prayer breaks within the standardized baccalaureate exams at the end of high school. Some teachers complain that hostility from Muslim students toward Israel has made it impossible to teach about the Holocaust. Some Muslim men have refused to allow their wives or daughters to be treated by male doctors in hospitals.

The visibility of Islam is striking. Because of a shortage of mosque space, thousands of Muslims pray on public sidewalks and in the streets outside their places of worship.

Then there is outright criminal behavior. A young Arab-Muslim underclass is blamed for anti-Semitic acts, yelling racial slurs in public and destroying Jewish property.

In this atmosphere, the law of laïcité, or secularism, has taken on a do-or-die, us-against-them urgency, and the proposed ban on the veil in school is an effort to draw a line against any further demands.

The emphasis on a show of cultural uniformity, paradoxically, comes at a time when the broader European ideal is evolving toward an acceptance of differences. Last July's cover of "Social Agenda," a European Union magazine on social affairs that is published in Brussels, illustrated a cover article titled "Making Immigration Work" with a photo of a female graduate, a head scarf under her mortarboard.

There is also this complication: Instead of promoting integration, the new French rule could create a deeper cultural divide. In the debate in Parliament on Wednesday, for example, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin called for a national contract of "republicans" against "extremists."

Still, it is natural that France's government would pick the Islamic veil as a symbol of everything un-French and potentially dangerous about its Muslim population.

Ever since 1789, images and symbols have been used and abused to educate the French people about the republican ideal and the conformity it required.

What better emblem of the nurturing French state could there have been than the engraving of the 1790's titled "Republican France Giving Its Bosom to All of France''? It shows a strong-featured woman with a carpenter's level (symbolizing equality) strategically placed between her exposed and nurturing breasts, and a Gallic rooster sitting on her Phrygian bonnet (a symbol of liberty).

The belief in the republican ideal so permeated the political culture of the 1790's that there were numerous artistic renderings of a fictional woman who chose to blow up herself and her children rather than surrender to counterrevolutionary enemies.

In those days, good revolutionary citizens were forced to wear emblems of the republic. Revolutionaries donned the "cockade," a round red, white and blue ribbon signifying a citizen's liberty; one could be imprisoned for refusing to wear it.

In 1905, a law codified the separation of church and state. But the struggle for a perfect fit between a powerful central republican state and religious practice has never been completely resolved. Nor has official France erased symbols of Catholicism, a pillar of its pre-revolutionary identity.

Seven of the 11 national holidays, including the feast of the Virgin Mary's assumption into heaven and the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jesus Christ's disciples, celebrate Catholic events. The Catholic catechism is taught and the crucifix is hung in public schools in Alsace-Lorraine, which is exempt from the 1905 law because the area was still in German hands when it was adopted.

At the same time, Mr. Chirac has rejected a proposal that France move toward treating its faiths equally by creating one school holiday apiece for Jews and Muslims.

Underscoring the inconsistencies, private Catholic, Jewish and Protestant schools, which would be exempt from the law banning religious symbols, receive state financing. The administrators of the country's first Muslim high school, which opened in Lille last fall, are hoping it, too, will qualify. Some Muslim leaders have pledged to create Muslim schools throughout France, meaning the state could find itself financing schools where the head scarf is the norm.

Even some members of the president's own commission have criticized the recent focus on Muslim head scarves, saying it betrays the spirit of their report, which they had hoped would help unify the country.

"The political response is absurd and laughable," the historian René Rémond told Le Monde. "It feeds the illusion that all we have to do to solve the problem of integration is to vote through a law."

Alain Touraine, a sociologist on the commission, told France Inter radio on Friday: "I used to always say to my foreign friends, 'France doesn't have ghettos.' Well, yes, we have ghettos.''

Both men criticized Mr. Chirac for acting on only one of the commission's 26 recommendations, ignoring, for example, proposals for eradicating "urban ghettos'' and creating Arabic language programs in schools.

That means the huge problem of integrating Muslims into French society is being argued on a much smaller scale, over issues like whether bandannas and beards are religious symbols and when a cross is too big.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company


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