Why is secularism so important in the French public debate?

The concept of ‘laïcité’ can be a real struggle to understand, especially for the British, whose head of state is the Queen and the head of the Church of England. In the United Kingdom’s second chamber there are 26 Lords Spirituals. The State and Church work together.

France is the only western country to insist on the separation of church and state. It has been the case since 1905, when a law was passed with the idea to promote more liberties.

Under the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, “laïcité” “assures the equality of all citizens before the law, regardless of their origin, race or religion. It respects all religious beliefs.”

But it seems like not only Britons get confused over the term. A recent study conducted by Cevipof and Le Monde surveyed 18,000 French citizens and, amongst other questions asked them what secularism meant to them. The three most frequent answers were: “difficult”, “complex” and “I don’t know”.

From a positive to a restrictive liberty

There is constant confusion about the meaning of secularism. Fast forward 101 years after the separation bill to 2004 when the French government passed a law prohibiting anyone to wear any sign of religious affiliation in public schools. The reason was to protect minors from social pressures, avoid any conflicts between minors showing religious affiliation and those who are not, and to encourage the development of a critical mind.

French secularism was until then a positive liberty that allowed anyone to worship freely. It now became a restrictive liberty by banning the manifestation of religious affiliation in some public places. This separation might look more like a way to promote the supremacy of the state over religions rather than to avoid any interference between state and religion.

Today all presidential candidates defend  French secularism, but in their own way. Nicolas Sarkozy, former president and candidate who was ousted by François Fillon during the centre and right primaries, portrayed France as “a country of churches, of cathedrals, monasteries and crosses, a Christian country in its culture and customs”.

François Fillon’s project has been accused by former Prime Minister Manuel Valls to be a “catholic project”. Marine Le Pen describes France as a country with “Christian roots”. For some the call for secularism is a disguise for islamophobia. This idea grew especially after the issues arose by the controversial topic of burkini on the French beaches during the summer 2016. The debate has hit a nerve as Marine Le Pen is assured to make it to the second round, according to polls.

So who is defending which “type” of secularism?

Le Pen uses “laïcité” against Islam and opposes this religion to one she believes is legitimate: Catholicism. The far-right candidate wants to extend the 2004 law to the entire public space – so religious signs would not only be forbidden in primary schools and high schools (which are public services, different than public space), but also in universities, public hospitals, public transports, in the streets. She confirmed this during the first presidential debate on 21st of March.

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Policemen ordering a woman to take off her clothes, August 2016, Nice.

Once again secularism was an important topic of the first debate. Even though 77% of the French believe we spoke too much about it, according to a survey conducted by Game Changers, Ipsos and Sopra Steria, . Macron raised his voice when Le Pen accused him to support the wearing of the burkini.

En Marche! candidate replied that he “wants to avoid -as the ones who want to divide society set up a trap for it- to make it a big debate about secularism”.

He accused the National Front Leader of wanting to divide France and make Muslims “enemies of the Republic”. “The veil is an obedience act for women”, concluded Le Pen.

“Only islam is a threat to our society” Fillon, August 2016

During a meeting in August 2016,  the candidate of the right and the center declared he wants to reinforce secularism, but target islam exclusively. He wants Muslims to adopt the “common rules that accepted, often after long fights, Christians and Jews”.

Benoit Hamon, Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Luc Mélenchon all defend the initial law of 1905 written by Aristide Briand. Socialist candidate Hamon said he is “for the law of 1905, all the law of 1905, only the law of 1905”.

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