Hicham Benaissa’s take on the problem with French secularism

Hicham Benaissa is a sociologist that has worked on the stakes of the sustainable implantation of Islam in France and Europe. He published an op-ed article entitled «Islam became a  “problem” in France when Muslims became French»   in Le Monde.

The Law against separatism we referred to in a previous article will certainly restrain the display of religious belonging in different sectors of public life. For employees of companies that are subcontracted by the State for example.

According to Hicham Benaissa, this is because laicité is more and more confused with religious neutrality, not only of the State but also of the people. His explanation as to why this is the case starts some 50 years ago…

The 1970’s

Soon after the major immigration waves from Algeria had hit France, factory workers started to make specific demands. The installation of prayer rooms in factories, or the modification of work hours and conditions during Ramadan for example. These demands were promptly met at the time, due to the fact that it was seen both by the State and by employers as a «strong means of social regulation».

Hicham Benaissa, therefore, asks: why has it changed so much between then and now? What is different? He brings the following answer to the table…

The Myth of Return

At the time, the French Government had realized that, given the economic situation and the state of France’s labour market, it was not fit anymore to host such a great number of immigrants. They took public action. Amongst others, the aid for the return program, which consisted of granting financial aid to any immigrant wishing to return to his or her country of origin. The nature of these policies further reinforced the global consensus in public opinion. « The immigrants would not stay forever », let alone become an integral part of French society.

The end of the myth, and why it is a problem

With time, it became abundantly clear that they were here to stay: people married, founded families and raised children on French soil. These children grew up between their culture of heritage, on one side. And on the other, the culture of their home country. 

Through education, they emancipated themselves from their parent’s social group affiliation. They made it obvious that they were willing – and succeeding- to integrate French society. After all, they had citizenship, and they simply felt French to an extend. Maybe a little different kind of French. But how many different kinds of French were there anyway?

The need for a new interpretation of the French concept of Nation

Hicham Benaissa concludes by underlining a fundamental problem in contemporary France’s public discourse. Its refusal to accept the fact that its society is not, and cannot be homogenous.

The instrumentalisation of laicité «reduced to its sole principle of neutrality» may seem like the perfect tool to erase these disparities in the short-term. But to constrain a country’s citizens on their fundamental freedoms is not a sustainable way of action for a democratic State. Like any other country, France will have to adapt to today’s globalized world. The time of all citizens of a nation having virtually the same cultural background is long gone. 

Recent events in France since the publication of the article can add to the debate. The Minister of Higher Education, Frédérique Vidal, as sparked a polemic. She ordered a report on the so-called «islamo-leftism» in the French academic discourse. The universities reaction was, on one side a very corporatist one. Claiming that the State had not to interfere with what was taught in universities. On the other hand, they were also extremely defensive.

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