Back in September, I blogged about the unveiling by the French education minister, Vincent Peillon, of a “Charter for secularism” (charte de laicité) to be displayed in all state schools in France. The charter has 15 articles, the first of which reasserts the “secular, democratic and social” character of the French republic, with the second emphasising that the secular republic enforces the separation of church and state: “The state is neutral with regard to religious and spiritual convictions”.
State “neutrality” with respect to religion comes in many forms, of course, with the French version requiring fairly strenuous efforts to remove those “religious and spiritual convictions” from the public square. (Rowan Williams’s distinction between “programmatic” and “procedural” versions of secularism is useful here. French laicité is “programmatic” in Williams’s terms—that is, it assumes “that any religious or ideological system demanding a hearing in the public sphere is aiming to seize control of the political realm and to override and nullify opposing convictions” and takes it for granted “that the public expression of specific conviction is automatically offensive to people of other (or no) conviction”.)
In the specific case of schools (though the principle applies to higher education, too), secularism à la française requires that pupils have access to “a common, shared culture”. And a number of obligations on teaching staff follow from this. They must, in accordance with article 10 of the charter, “transmit to pupils the meaning and value of secularism [laicité], as well as other fundamental principles of the Republic”. Teachers have a “strict duty of neutrality” (article 11), while pupils are not permitted to appeal to religious or other convictions in order to have certain subjects taken off the syllabus (article 12) nor to advertise their religion through the wearing of clothes of certain kinds (article 14)—headscarves, skullcaps and crucifixes all fall foul of this edict.
That’s all pretty clear cut. The state school is a “republican” space and must therefore be kept free of religious insignia of all kinds. For better or worse, teachers and pupils know where they stand. But what about others who are required sometimes to enter the school? For example, mothers of Muslim pupils who wear the headscarf? Do they have same obligation to neutrality?
This is a question that the Conseil d’Etat (Council of State), roughly equivalent to the US Supreme Court, has been considering recently. And yesterday it reported on its deliberations. Parents collecting their children from school, the report says, are merely “users” of public services, as opposed to “agents” of or “collaborators” in those services. Therefore, they are not subject to the “demands of religious neutrality”.
To British or American ears, this sounds like a self-evidently sensible judgement. Yet it hasn’t been welcomed unanimously. It was predictable that Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National, would heap opprobrium on the decision (and in doing so offer a reminder of how the FN has co-opted the language of republicanism and secularism)—Le Pen said it “confirmed the weakening of the principle of secularism in [France].” But there has also been opposition from more mainstream sources: Peillon’s predecessor as education minister, Luc Chatel of the right-of-centre UMP, insisted secularism couldn’t be applied “à la carte” or with a “variable geometry”. He suggested that the Council’s ruling was not consistent with the 2004 law forbidding the wearing of religious clothes and insignia in schools.
There’s a lack of agreement on the (Socialist) government side too, it seems. A blog on the Le Monde website on Friday suggested that the administration is split between “partisans of strict secularism”, who want to preserve schools as wholly “protected” spaces, and “pragmatists” who think the desirability of involving parents in the life of the school outweighs concerns about what they might be wearing when they gather at the gates.
This argument has been going on in France for almost 30 years now, and it shows now sign of being resolved any time soon. We in the UK shouldn’t be complacent, however. The fallout from the recent case of the Muslim employee of Marks & Spencer who refused to sell alcohol to a customer suggests that our own jerry-built, rather more ad hoc notions of secularism and religious freedom contain tensions of their own.