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Why France can’t stop talking about religion

By Jonathan Derbyshire  

In late July, there were riots in Trappes, south of Paris, after a woman was stopped by police and instructed to remove her full-face veil in accordance with legislation passed by the government of former president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2011. Her husband, who came to her aid, was arrested. The rioting that followed lasted two nights.

Shortly afterwards, the interior minister Manuel Valls—who, in a spasm of Sarkozyesque hyperactivity, seemed to spend the whole of August in the office while his ministerial colleagues were, in the best French tradition, on the beach—welcomed a report by the High Council on Integration that called for legislation banning the displaying of religious symbols in institutions of higher education. (The report was structured around a rather crude polarity between the freedom of academic inquiry enshrined in the Educational Code—“The public service of higher education is secular and independent of all political, economic, religious or ideological influence…”—and the kind of identitarian or “communitarian” claims, “often of a religious character”, that the authors alleged are becoming increasingly common in French universities.)

There’s nothing new about such anxieties. At the end of 2009, almost three years into his presidency and with his poll numbers in the doldrums, Sarkozy announced that he would be inaugurating a “national debate” on French identity. Any lingering doubts that Sarkozy was more interested in manipulating the electoral cycle (and neutralising the threat to his re-election posed by the far-right Front National), than in making any serious contribution to a long-running national conversation about the limits of France’s strenuously secular model of “republican” citizenship evaporated not long afterwards.

His proposal, early in 2010, for a ban on the wearing of the burqa and niqab in public places (which became law the next year) was followed, that July, by the declaration of a  “war on delinquency”, after rioting in a suburb of Grenoble, a programme for the dismantling of Roma settlements and an announcement that French citizens of “foreign origin” could be deprived of their citizenship if they were found guilty of certain serious crimes. This latter suggestion led to Sarkozy being denounced for offending against the very republican conception of citizenship and nationality (a civic rather than an ethnic one) that he’d appealed when launching his abortive national debate.

In truth, however, the notion of a form of citizenship that entails integration in a common culture grounded in the universal values of liberty, equality and fraternity had been in crisis for some time. And, as this summer’s events attest, it still is. Critics say that the republican ethic of assimilation (and the related notion of secularism, or laicité, which, among other things, prohibits the wearing of “ostentatious” religious symbols in schools) does not allow for the public recognition of the status of ethnic and cultural minorities. Such questions are particularly acute in the case of France’s Muslim population, which is somewhere between five and six million strong.

In that context, it’ll be interesting to see what sort of response yet another government initiative on secularism in education will elicit. Last year, the education minister Vincent Peillon caused a stir when he suggested that the teaching of “secular morality” (morale laique) be introduced in French schools from nursery upwards. The proposal was put on hold, but Le Monde reports that in a speech in the Parisian suburb of Créteil today, Peillon unveiled a “Charter for secularism” (charte de la laicitié) to be displayed in all state schools. (Private schools will be exempt.)

Beyond the predictable bromides about peaceful coexistence among pupils, however, it’s not clear how far Peillon intends to go in reasserting the principles of laicité in education. As one teachers’ union leader observed: “Who could be against a charter? But it’ll take more than yet another set of rules to change behaviour. If you really want to reduce inequalities and to fight the communalism that we’ve allowed to grow in certain schools, then you need to change the way catchment areas are drawn, which has exacerbated the phenomena of ethnic and cultural separatism.”

And doing that will take political courage of a sort that has been in short supply since François Hollande replaced Sarkozy as president in May 2012.

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