Monday, February 28, 2005

In the name of French secularism?


Naima Bouteldja

“It is clear that having Spanish, Polish or Portuguese people… poses fewer problems than having Muslims or blacks. How do you think a French worker feels when he sees on the landing a family with a man who has maybe three or four wives, about twenty kids, who receives around 50,000 francs in social services, of course without working...and if you add the noise and smell...no wonder the French worker across the landing goes mad.”

Even in today’s race to the right over asylum, no British politician’s career could ever survive such a preposterously xenophobic outburst. But in Le Pen’s France it is an all too common feature of public debate. The irony, however, is that these are not the words of Jean-Marie Le Pen but of French President Jacques Chirac, uttered in 1991 when he was Mayor of Paris. Chirac’s public immersion in the murky waters of national populism certainly had no ill-effects on his remarkable rise to the Presidency a few years later. He was even cast as France’s saviour in restoring the Republic’s honour during the 2002 elections with his defeat of the far right candidate Le Pen.

Chirac has since embellished this dubious role as protectorate with appeals to another pillar of French republicanism – la laicité (secularism). For Stuart Jeffries, writing in last week’s Guardian, the French government’s banning of religious symbols in schools is a welcome return to the French secular tradition, at the heart of which is the insistence that “a flourishing multicultural society… needs spaces where different races and religions can meet as equals.”

The reality of French secularism is far removed from this lofty idealism. The public debate and subsequent banning of “conspicuous religious symbols” from French schools has focussed exclusively on the wearing of the Muslim hijab rather than the display of Christian or Jewish religious symbols. The issue has divided French society and with every new “affaire du foulard” (headscarf affair) the collective hysteria has reached a quite disturbing level. The intensity of this debate cannot be explained in terms of secular ideas.

French secularism is a historical construct that blossomed with the victory of the Republic over the Catholic Church. Its three founding juridical principles are the separation of Church and State, expressed in the law passed in 1905; the freedom of thought; and the free exercise and organisation of worship. Contrary to received opinion, the practical implementation of French secularism has been achieved in a piecemeal fashion, very often on the basis of negotiation and compromise. For example, the laws on secularism have never been applied to the three départements of Alsace-Moselle, which was under German control when most of France’s secular laws were implemented and became French again only after World War I.

Secularism has never led to the cleansing of all religious expression from the public sphere – collective expressions of religious life are tolerated so long as they do not affect public order. Neither has it led to an absolute separation between Church and State, nor even to a strictly neutral and egalitarian treatment of all religions by the State. Several measures place the Catholic Church in a privileged position with respect to other religions, and in this case particularly Islam. The physical maintenance of all buildings of worship built before 1905 is the responsibility of the local authorities, a tradition that obviously discriminates against the needs of Muslims whose presence was barely felt in the urban centres of France at that time. With five million Muslims in France, Islam now constitutes the second most important religion in the country but all Mosques must be privately built and maintained by France’s most impoverished community, a situation not experienced by Christian and Jewish faiths. This, however, is only the start of the problem: licenses for the construction of new buildings of worship can only be issued by the local Municipal councils and permission is frequently denied when it is for the building of mosques.

Ironically, it is in the education sector that the inequalities between the different religions are most glaring. The 1880 education laws made state education secular, free and obligatory, and have gradually led to the secularisation of teachers and other education workers. But it is a very Catholic kind of secularism. The state school calendar remains based around Christian holidays and, under pressure from the Catholic Church, a day off has also been imposed in the middle of the week for religious education. In contrast, no planning is allowed in schools for religious minorities, not even for the supply of halal or kosher food in the school canteens for Muslims and Jews. More significantly, a series of laws enable private faith schools to have access to State and local funding under certain conditions: 95% of the schools who benefit from these grants are Catholic.

It is within this context, well understood by Chirac’s government, that the ban on the wearing of all ostensible religious symbols was passed on the 14th March 2004, with the backing of all the major French political parties, including parts of the so-called communist left. This despite the fact that a 1989 ruling by the State Council, France’s highest legal institution, decreed that the country’s 1880 statutes on secularism did not apply to pupils – only schools, the curriculum and teaching staff.

If the wearing of religious symbols does not contravene French secularism then why pass such a law? Or does the French Republic, which usually bellows so loudly against any form of “communitarianism”, really want to see the development of Muslim faith schools who will welcome expelled adolescents? This, however, might take some time to arrive as there is currently only one Muslim school in the whole of France – it is on l’Ile de la Réunion, in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

By imposing secularity on pupils for the first time in the history of the Republic, the French government has put into question the very foundations of the secular schooling system. Or rather, the right of every child to a free education. But the ban on the hijab had very little to do with reinforcing secularism. In reality, the debate on the headscarf has merely served as a magnificent political diversion masking France’s deeper and more important social and economic problems with the rise of unemployment and casualisation. It has also helped to undermine the rise of a serious and growing social movement opposed to public sector retrenchment, whose nerve centre just happens to be in the radical teachers and students of French schools.

As the French philosopher Pierre Tevanian has argued, what is most interesting about this debate around the ‘veil’ (headscarf) is not what it has veiled (social issues) but what it has unveiled. “There exists in France a cultural racism, which targets the descendents of the colonised and primarily picks upon their Muslim identity.” This post-colonial anxiety helps us to understand the ubiquity of appeals to “reaffirm” the secular principles of the Republic, even as it reinvents and distorts those very traditions. But if the basic texts from the 1880s do not justify in any way the banning of religious symbols worn by pupils, what then has to be found or remembered? One possibility, argues Tevanian, is that it reaffirms “a symbolic order… which we can call colonial, where certain people were considered sub-human primarily due to their Muslim identity, dedicated to remaining docile and invisible servants or targets and scapegoats.”

Naima Bouteldja is a French journalist working on a study of Muslim participation in social movements in France and Britain

This article was recently published in The Guardian of UK.

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