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French Law and Secularism

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The origins of laïcité in French law: the 1905 separation of Church and the State

So-called laïcité (which is to be understood as a french twist on secularism, closer to religious neutrality) is one of the central values of the French Republic. In 1905, a law was passed that « separated Church and the State ». At that time the « Church » was meant as encompassing all religious communities and organisations: the Jewish community for example was equally affected. The law meant to guarantee every citizen the free practice of their faith, giving religious associations and organisations the right to organize themselves the way they wanted. It also promoted the absolute religious neutrality of the State, through measures such as prohibiting the State from funding religious associations.

What one should keep in mind is that when the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish communities were separated from the French State, they each were already owners of various churches, synagogues, and in general real estate across the country. This allowed the law to have little to no impact on believer’s day-to-day practice of their faith. However, when the majority of the French Muslim community came to France throughout the 70’s and 80’s, they had nothing to begin with. Muslim associations were formed after non-nationals were granted the right to freedom of association in 1981, but mosques and prayer rooms were located in small, ill-suited apartments. Constitutionally, every individual should however be allowed to freely practice his or her faith, which proved to be difficult without at least minimal funding. Some associations ended up being funded by foreign salafists, who used this as a lever to encourage their radicalisation. 

The threat of radical Islamism in France, or what justifies a need for preventive policy

Since the 90’s up until today, there has been a rise in French Muslims gravitating towards radicalized forms of Islam, as well as some of those individuals planning terrorist attacks on french soil, with a more or less high success rate. This threat pushes the French Government towards proactive action, putting measures in place that are said to be targeted against radical forms of Islam as well as separatism, and not in any case against muslims as a whole. It is important to note here that separatism is to be understood in the sense of a violent rejection of one’s belonging to the French Nation. 

Jean Castex, France’s Prime Minister, actually said in an interview for LeMonde (French leading newspaper), that he thought that « muslims are the first victims of radical islamism ». Indeed, the mediatic focus of these events, coupled with their broad political instrumentalisation by far-right parties such as the RN (Rassemblement National), formerly called Front National, have caused a general rise of islamophobia in France. 

The latest law touching on this subject is stirring debate in France and abroad. It is called « Law for the reinforcement of Republican values » , and commonly referred to as the « Law against separatism ». Some of the controversial measures of this law include: the enhanced control over the organisation and funding of religious associations (especially coming from abroad), broad restrictions on homeschooling (to prevent clandestine separatist schools), and the reinforcement of penalties concerning hate speech on social media.

The leader of the Grand Paris Mosque, that acts as the head of all French mosques, Chems-Eddine Hafiz, expressed his opinion on the matter in the form of an opinion piece published by Le Monde in October 2020. In his piece, he denounces the far too often made amalgam between Islam and Islamism. He also acknowledges and cautions against the reality of Islamist separatism in France, which translates into a refusal of the French law by extremists, who act within enclaved zones: popular districts inhabitants are trapped into. Finally, he underlines the responsibility the State bears in this situation, given that local representatives have been in denial of the situation for a long time. The omnipresent political discourse of victimization and infantilization of the Muslim community, as well as the fact it is being treated as « only Muslim », and not also as a group of rightfully French citizens, has also contributed, according to him, to the propagation of this dangerous phenomenon. He then states his full support for measures against Islamist separatism, stressing they cannot merely consist of superficial actions playing into the game of political opportunism. He prescribes fighting the source of the problem within the enclaved zones he describes, and countering the hate speech of salafist recruiters by delivering the true islamic messages to French believers.

The problematic shift in French laïcité

Asking for transparency in religious organisations to prevent the funding of terrorist organisations is one thing, but exercising control on these organisations is already another. Sadly, the concept of laïcité is shifting from the incarnation of absolute religious liberty towards the State to a secularization of society by the State. 

The essence of laïcité according to France’s constitutive texts is to guarantee the right to believe, or not, as well as the equality of all in front of the law regardless of their beliefs, which is made possible only if the State remains neutral and impartial. This means, for example, that public service should be exempt of the display of religious symbols. Moving this ban onto public spaces however infringes on the very first principle of laïcité, which is the freedom to practice one’s religion. This nuance is what makes for the difference between laïcité of the State and secularization by the State. 

Finally, the fact is that debates such as those on wearing the veil are highly unlikely to occur if a parent joining their child’s school trip was wearing a cross around their neck instead of a hijab. Of course you could argue that it is less obvious to the eye. But in reality, the terrorist threat and the political instrument that has been made out of it have caused an obsession with Islam in France. The many who talk about laïcité with the sole Muslim faith in mind should not call upon French Republican values to justify their agenda. 

As for policies meant to prevent radicalisation, they can simply not infringe upon french Muslim’s freedom to practice their faith. Nor should the French Muslim community be treated any differently than the Christian or Jewish ones, that is according to the original definition of laïcité by the law. If the French Government carries on to address the « muslim question » hand in hand with the terrorist one, it opens the door to a rise in radicalisation. Indeed, this attitude buys into the argumentation of Salafist recruiters, who are known to present a radicalized version of Islam as a legitimate answer to the discriminating attitude French Muslims are facing from their Government.

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