Are the French Taking Secularism Too Far?

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Jean-Paul Pelissier / Reuters

Women wearing niqabs and hijabs wait at a bus station in Marseille, France

For most of the 105 years it's been in force, France's secularity law has endeavored to segregate private religious belief from the strictly agnostic sphere of public life — usually without too much friction. But that relative harmony has given way to tension and conflict in recent years, as secularists have turned their attention to the spreading influence of Islam, now France's second largest faith.

Whereas secularism — or laïcité — traditionally sought to create a wall between religious expression and the public domain, critics claim its defenders have become far more militant. In some cases, that's creating a zero-sum showdown in which France's secularists, who dominate public life and debate, are exhibiting a quasi-evangelical zeal in imposing the values of laïcité on the private observance of religious minorities, particularly Muslims.

"The 1905 law establishing secularism describes it as a measure to protect individual citizens' freedom of religion and faith by rendering the state totally neutral to — and disconnected from — religious matters," says Jean Baubérot, a professor emeritus of sociology and expert on secularism at Paris University's École Pratique des Hautes Études. Baubérot notes that secularity was initially meant to reduce the Catholic Church's influence on society by tasking the state with removing religious instruction from public schools as part of a general effort to relegate questions of faith to the private sphere. "Now we frequently see secularists urging the state to intervene in the private religious affairs or practices of people or organizations," Baubérot says. "Increasingly, secularity resembles what Jean-Jacques Rousseau called a 'civil religion': the values and dogma of a state that individual citizens must submit to — or be made to respect."

The most controversial example of secularism's evolution is the pending French law to ban full-body coverings like the burqa and niqab, whose final passage is expected in October. But that headline-grabbing measure (which will affect only an estimated 370 to 2,000 women) was preceded by the 2004 prohibition of headscarves being worn by Muslim women in public schools. More recently, pundits, bloggers and others have entered a loud public debate over whether the serving of halal beef by fast-food outlets is also a violation of laïcité. Meanwhile, militants of extreme right- and left-wing groups have banded together under the banner of secularity to stage public gatherings in which attendants eat pork sausage and sip wine — an attempt, organizers say, to send Muslims the message that their religion won't be tolerated within the tableau of French daily life.

France's fractious relationship with Islam isn't new. What is new, though, is the way the nation is radicalizing secularity by setting limits that effectively invade the private religious lives of its Muslims. Islam seems to have taken the place of Catholicism as the main target of secularist ire. Catholics initially decried early secularist measures as unfair and abusive. As segregation of private faith from public life became the norm, however, impassioned tussles between the state, institutional advocates of secularity and religious groups gave way to administrative formality and legal process.

In July, for example, the Conseil d'Etat — one of France's highest legal bodies — heard a request by the France-based International Observatory of Secularism to strike down 2008 educational accords between the Foreign Ministry and the Vatican. The Conseil's ruling upheld the bilateral agreement, under which France recognizes diplomas granted by Catholic universities operating outside the French educational system. But the Conseil's decision also required that state colleges and institutions reject any applicants who hold Vatican-sanctioned degrees that education authorities deem inferior to official French standards. Such is the studied, sober manner in which France tries to decide the limits of Catholicism's reach.

At times, however, that approach is overtaken by more emotional secular sorties. In late July, two Communist Party parliamentarians proposed legislation to "prohibit [any] President of the Republic from receiving any religious title" — a belated response to President Nicolas Sarkozy's 2007 acceptance of the honorary canon of St. John Lateran (a title the Vatican has for centuries bestowed upon French heads of state). The reason, the proposal reads, is that France's constitution defines the nation as "secular" — a legal obligation making "this mix of activity between politics and religion ... intolerable in our Republic."

Secular watchdogs have been even touchier elsewhere. In 2007, Christine Boutin, then France's Urban Housing Minister, tapped a Catholic priest to act as adviser on policies to improve the nation's troubled housing projects. The French public let out cries of protest in response — ignoring the priest's experience and social work in suburban ghettos. More recently, Green Party politicians in the northern Paris suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois aired concern in July over the city's decision to create meat-free menus in public-school cafeterias. The move, critics claimed, was fine for vegetarians but would look too much like acquiescence to Muslim parents who had requested halal meat in school lunches.

To some observers, such protests sound a lot like secular fundamentalism. "As secularists become more militant, their arguments have gotten less rational and have begun to ring with the righteous conviction you usually associate with religious forces they oppose," says Rokhaya Diallo, founder of Les Indivisibles, an association that celebrates the diversity of modern France. "My perception of secularity has always been one of protection, of the state and society defending individuals and minority religions from coercion. Now we frequently see the opposite at work."

Both Diallo and secularism expert Baubérot attribute the trend to rising secularist concern about the spread of Islam's influence. That feeling, Diallo laments, has led "people from politicians to ordinary citizens to recognize secularity as an alibi to express increasingly Islamophobic attitudes." Baubérot says this is mostly a reaction to France's wider worries about where its society is headed — so it uses the tradition of secularity to respond to what it regards as the challenge posed by Islam. Only time will tell whether France can establish with Islam the happy balance it generally maintains with other faiths — or whether laïcité will become synonymous with the state's interference in how Muslims practice their faith.