Does France, as sundry analysts have argued, view religion as a threat to its national identity? Looks like it.
Emmanuel Macron, recently elected for a second term as president of the French Republic, stood under the chandeliers of the Elysee Palace on Saturday to deliver his acceptance speech to an audience of 500 dignitaries.
There was nothing unusual or unexpected about the relatively short, 10-minute speech, in which he promised to “make the country a great ecological power through a radical transformation of our means of production, our way of travelling, our lives”, and warned the attendees that “rarely has the world and our country confronted such challenges”.
He ended by invoking France’s tripartite national motto, “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite”, originally the famous slogan of the French Revolution. Nothing unusual or unexpected here either. Most countries have tripartite national mottos that their politicians parrot in speeches, like, say, Canada’s “Peace, Order and Good Government”, inherited from the heyday of the British Commonwealth, and America’s “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”, taken from the preamble to the US Declaration of Independence. And let’s not forget Veni, Vidi, Vici (I came, I saw, I conquered), Caesar’s choice as a suitable motto that defined Rome’s martial spirit.
Except in his speech President Macron tagged an addendum to the French motto by verbalising it, in a sentence, as “liberte, egalite, fraternite et laicite”.
And why did he feel it necessary, on that august occasion, in that grand setting, to add laicite to that trinity of precepts that since 1789 had alone embodied the national soul of France? And what, pray tell, is laicite anyhow?
People outside France, especially in the English-speaking world, have struggled to understand what laicite stands for in French society and why the French have become so attached to it, so obsessed by it and so protective of it?
Laicite translates loosely as secularism or “being lay”, but that doesn’t come anywhere near interpreting what it means in law, in culture and in quotidian life, where it has played a significant role.
The term, you see, is more semantically complex and, in the French public discourse, more politically charged, than it is when translated into English simply as “secularism”. In short: laicite resonates differently in French ears than it does in other ears because its application in France is unique to French political culture.
Thus, though to everyone and his uncle laicite is a benign term that loosely means “secularism”, in contemporary France it is a battle line defining that uniquely French insistence that religion, along even with religious symbols such as the Muslim Hijab, the Jewish Yarmulke, the Christian Cross, the Sikh Turban and the like, should be absent from the public sphere.
Since 2004 and right up to 2021, several laws were legislated in the French Assembly that forbade the wearing of “ostentoires”, or showy, religious garments and symbols not just in public schools but in the public domain as well, including government buildings.
By contrast, in the US, students wear whatever religious clothing and carry around — even flaunt, should they wish — whatever religious symbols they please. And public servants, including the president, are free to make proclamations, as they often do, of religious faith. Moreover, sessions of both houses of the US Congress typically open with a prayer by a minister of some faith or other.
In 2019, Muslim Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib, who was born in the US of Palestinian parents, and Ilhan Omar, who had arrived in the country with her family as a child, after fleeing the civil war in Somalia, were both sworn in with their left hands on the Quran.
In the United States, this is not an issue, let alone a controversial one. It is, however, in France.
Perceptions of secularism
Few countries have histories as deeply entwined as those of France and America. Yet, though both, in their constitutions, guarantee freedom of religion, not to mention laws separating church and state, their respective perceptions of secularism diverge in significant ways.
“The United States, in guaranteeing freedom of religion, sought to shield religion from state involvement”, Rachel Donaldio, the Paris based contributing writer for Atlantic, wrote recently in the magazine. “[Whereas] France, in guaranteeing freedom of expression, sought to shield the state from religious involvement”.
In France, the struggle by the state to protect itself against the power that the church had wielded is centuries old and remains, one imagines, part of modern Frenchmen’s archetype. American history doesn’t carry on its back similar baggage.
In 2021, in the midst of the heated public debate over the laws legislated that year, seemingly to protect the state from “les rituels intrusifs” (the intrusive practices) of religion, and to protect the sanctity of laicite, the noted French intellectual, writer and social critic Elizabeth Badinter said, when asked by a reporter what she thought would be the glue that held the nation together, “Laicite, that is the heart of the French nation”.
Many other intellectuals, writers and social critics, equally noted, have, since the 1950s, argued vehemently against that view. One such is French philosopher Jacque Maritain (d. 1973), who, pointing to the distinction between the French model and the American model of laicite, called the latter “a treasure” He advised Americans “to keep it” and “not to let your concept of separation [between church and state] veer you round to the French model”.
Certainment pas, Monsieur Maritain! I assure you it won’t — not by a stretch, not after we’ve seen what a mess it has planned out to be in France.
And, Oh, why is France so afraid of religion? Search me. But if I were France, I would check with my shrink about what do with that complex.
Fawaz Turki is a noted thinker, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile