Is Laïcité a French Religion?

La laïcité, a source of misunderstandings between France and the United States, coincides imperfectly with its principle: It was entirely shaped, not by neutrality, but by conflict with Christianity and the influence of the Church.
© Eddie Junior

Hello, is this Ben Smith? This is Emmanuel Macron! The New York Times columnist was not expecting a call from the president of France – especially since Macron had previously declined an interview with the American newspaper. And Ben Smith certainly did not expect to be laid into by his caller, who delivered a true thrashing, prompting the columnist to take revenge the very next day by reporting the incident in detail to his U.S. readers. If Macron is to be believed, the English-speaking press, both British and American, had shown no sympathy for Samuel Paty, the teacher assassinated by a terrorist claiming to act in the name of Islam on October 16, 2020. Recall that Paty, a middle school history and geography teacher in the outskirts of Paris, had illustrated the right of freedom of expression, including blasphemy, by showing his students – some of whom were Muslim – a caricature of Muhammad that was frankly obscene. This drawing had previously been published in the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Recall as well that, in 2015, eight Charlie Hebdo illustrators and journalists were assassinated by a commando who also brandished the banner of Islam. Paty’s murder rightly moved all of France, while Macron, going further still, honored the victim at an official state memorial, elevating him to a martyr for laïcité, the French ideal of a secular or religiously neutral state.

Clearly the American view of this drama was not the same as the French version, at least the official one. Here we find two clashing interpretations, reflecting two conceptions of society: secular in France, multicultural in the United States. Macron reproached his American interlocutor for neither understanding nor respecting French laïcité. But is French society truly secular and American society truly multicultural? And just what is the meaning of these coded terms, which are more ideological than sociological, and more often celebrated than implemented?

French laïcité, a term that is difficult to translate into any other language, has been the law of the Republic since 1905, but its origin goes back to the Revolution of 1789. In theory, laïcité implies that the state has nothing to do with religions and that all public institutions are neutral towards all religions. On the other hand, each French citizen, whatever their beliefs, is supposed to show a quasi-mystical veneration for the Republic, the state, and its laws. In reality, the history of laïcité coincides imperfectly with its principle; this history was entirely shaped, not by neutrality, but by conflict with Christianity and the influence of the Church. At the same time, this same supposedly secular Republic continues to maintain churches as historical monuments, and declares public holidays for Easter, Pentecost, Christmas, and the Day of Assumption, the Virgin Mary’s holiday. This secular contract between citizens and the state, with all its flaws, was not a matter of dispute until the recent and significant immigration of a new generation of French people from North and Sub-Saharan Africa, who were generally, and often practicing, Muslims. Militant secularists, and especially the educational establishment – “the black hussars of the Republic,” as the poet Charles Péguy called them, referring to an elite cavalry unit – could not contest the citizenship of Arabs and Africans, since France is supposed to ignore races and does not allow them to be counted in a census. But is the religious faith of these newcomers sufficiently laïque, that is, compatible with a secular state?

The latent conflict between secularity and Islam broke out over the “affair of the veil” when, in 2004, the Islamic veil was banned in schools on the grounds that it is a sign of religious affiliation and an offense to the Republic. What then of crucifix necklaces? It was said that it was a sign discreet enough to be compatible with secularism. And the Jewish kippah? It is banned in public schools since 2004. Already at that time, American observers of French society, journalists and academics, began to scrutinize the concept of laïcité and to ask whether it was in fact used by many French people as an ideological mask for anti-African racism and Islamophobia. This was confirmed by certain French sociologists on the basis of meticulous studies of objective racial discrimination in housing, schools, and employment. These researchers were dismissed by French education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer as “Islamo-Leftists,” a meaningless neologism used to evade the core of the debate: Is laïcité really neutral towards all beliefs?

According to radical secularists, raising such a question grounded in history and sociology would amount to betraying what is distinctive about the French Republic and, even worse, wishing to substitute French secularity for American multiculturalism. The horror! As caricatured by militant French secularists, this American multiculturalism, which brings together all races, cultures, and identities without erasing their differences, is the cause of racism in the United States, of the political prevalence of identity politics, and of other racial aberrations such as discrimination positive (a biased translation of “affirmative action”). In fact, as far as I can tell, the United States is hardly more multicultural than France is secular: There is no objective equality among all the communities that make up the United States, as Black Lives Matter has shown. We can conclude that French rhetoric idealizes secularism in the way American rhetoric idealizes multiculturalism: to each their own utopia. Let us also acknowledge that both are still far from understanding each other and far from applying rigorous self-criticism. If George Floyd had not been Black, would he have been killed by a white police officer? Could Samuel Paty not have illustrated freedom of expression by something other than a picture of a naked Muhammad on all fours?

Let us conclude on a less dramatic misunderstanding, but one that illustrates the contradictory foundations of our two countries. I recall another altercation, between France’s then-ambassador in Washington, Gérard Araud, and the comedian Trevor Noah. In 2018, while the French were celebrating their victory in the soccer World Cup, Noah suggested that, considering the origin of the French players, the victory was more Africa’s than France’s. The ambassador reacted like Macron, observing that France recognized only citizens, taking no account of skin color. Ideally, the ambassador was right, but practically Noah was not wrong either.

Editorial published in the January 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.