France's banning of religious symbols in state schools is incomprehensible to many Europeans. But "laïcité" - French-style secularism - is an ideology, defining what it means to be Frenchby Tim King / March 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2004 issue of Prospect Magazine
In December last year I gave the children in my local primary school, deep in rural France, a taste of an English Christmas. While, with typically French good manners, they gazed in awe at the snow scene on the iced cake, I explained to them that, originally, mince pies were bigger and were made in the shape of the manger, you know, the manger where the baby Jesus was laid… at which point the teacher came rushing up shaking her finger: “No mention of religion in a state school,” she said, sternly. Not even at Christmas.
Later that month, and again in January, thousands of French women and schoolgirls took to the streets, demanding the right to wear headscarves in schools. Every year some 150 Muslim girls risk expulsion from their schools because they insist on wearing a headscarf, which, they say, their religion demands and French law allows. But the directors of the schools and most French people say headscarves are not just cultural emblems: they proselytise, thus upsetting the neutral balance of the classroom, essential for the “serene transmission of republican values.”
A few days before the first demonstration, Jacques Chirac announced there would be a new law forbidding the wearing of all “ostensible religious insignia” in state schools. This law was passed in the Assemblenationale by an overwhelming 494 votes to 36 on 10th February. Laïcité – a concept incomprehensible to many people outside France, would be upheld. Laïcité is a cornerstone of republican values. Derived from the Greek laos (the people, as distinct from the clergy), it is a specifically anti-clerical term. Its meaning is active, unlike the passive notion of secularism. Laïcité is about purging all state-run establishments – schools, prisons, hospitals – of any whiff of the soutane. The problem facing France today is that the priest’s black soutane has been replaced by the Muslim woman’s hijab. Or so in France we are led to believe. In fact, this is nonsense. The 19th-century Catholic clergy had real power in France, while today’s Muslim schoolgirls have none – except the considerable power of tying the French in knots.