The Concept Of Laicite In France
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Published: Tue, 25 Apr 2017
In France laÃ¯cité has shaped the relation between religion and the State through enhancing a separation between them. This separation has been possible thanks to the existence of a legislation that has relatively succeeded in drawing the lines for both sides. However, the societal developments have influenced their relations and raised many questions about the State’s role in the face of the challenges on the ground. And so laÃ¯cité in theory has been found to be incompatible with laÃ¯cité in practice. How laÃ¯cité has been challenged over the past years and how the State has reacted towards the influence of religion are major issues. Therefore, should laÃ¯cité accommodate itself in view of the changing facts on the ground? The debate is now whether laÃ¯cité is a rigid concept that refuses to change and recognize the role of religion and people’s rights to freedom of belief, or a dynamic concept that embraces multiculturalism and fosters religious groups’ rights without affecting the neutrality of the State.
So this paper will answer the question about whether laÃ¯cité is a rigid or a dynamic concept in view of the challenges facing the State. French laÃ¯cité is taken as a case study in order to scrutinize to this question. The paper starts with a definition of laÃ¯cité, it traces historical facts about its evolution, highlights the challenges that it has encountered, identifies the new laÃ¯cité forms before concluding on its capacity to adapt to societal developments.
2 Definition of LaÃ¯cité
Quite a good number of researchers tend to use the laÃ¯cité and secularization interchangeably in their works about the place of religion and the relation between state and religion. In fact the two terms hold different definitions regarding the connection between religion and state. Though in English the word secularization to describe the relationship between them, the French word laÃ¯cité is used also in English to refer to the unique separation between religious institutions and the state. According to Olivier Roy (7-8: 2007) the two terms are dissimilar. On the one hand, secularization is “a social phenomenon that does not require a political implementation” and is not “anti-religious and anti-clerical, and so the place is defined by the people themselves. On the other, laÃ¯cité is “a political choice that defines the place of religion in an authoritarian, legal manner”, and so it is “decreed by the state which organizes public space”. Roy adds that it is “a body of laws before being a system of thought (p.17)”. The term laÃ¯cité was first used in the 1870s, as were its counter parts the verb laÃ¯ciser (to secularise) and the nouns laicisation (the action and the result of laÃ¯cité) and laÃ¯cisme (the doctrine of laÃ¯cité) (Jansen 476:2006).
Moreover, the two terms are contrasted in this way ” à la différence du processus de sécularisation mouvement qui s’inscrit sur une longue durée, la laÃ¯cité relève plutôt d’une volonté de la politique étatique qui définit a la fois les institutions et une vie sociale conforme à ses principes”(Göle 77:2005). In this view, secularization is a social process that has evolved over a long period of time, while laÃ¯cité entails a political decision on the state level. “The historian Jean Bauberot has argued that laÃ¯cité was the result of a condition in which the state had to destabilize religious institutions – mainly Catholic- to assert its authority and ensure democratic liberties, whereas secularization should be viewed as a cultural transformation that has taken place mostly in countries with a Protestant culture” (Caron 115:2007).
Blandine Kriegel, president of the High Council for Integration, in an interview published in Le Monde defines laÃ¯cité as follows:
Tout simplement la neutralité de l’espace public qui permet à une pluralité de croyance et à une multiplicité de citoyens ayant des croyances différentes de vivre ensemble de façon tolérantes et respectueuses les uns des autres”.
3 Evolution of LaÃ¯cité
After the Revolution of 1789, one finds two Frances. In one camp, there are those defending the notion of a homeland founded on the Catholic Church and the army, often being anti-Protestant, anti-Jew and anti-freemason; they are conservative, even reactionary, and often monarchist. In the other camp, one finds the defenders of the republican ideals of 1789 founded on Reason (not on Catholicism), freedom, religious tolerance, a strict separation between the public and the private domains (Brulard 176:2002.
Moreover, a law that separated the Church from the State and abolished Le Concordat of 1801 was voted by la Chambre in July 1905 and by le Sénat on 9 December 1905. Since then, France has had neither official religion nor a privileged religion (Brudy/Marcon 3:1995). The 1905 law complemented the 1901 law which forbade secular associations from having religious activities (Brulard 177:2002). It is important to point out that this law was not negotiated with the religious institutions since it was a legislative act; it is based on the principle of freedom of conscience; it is the implementation of the principle of laÃ¯cité; and it is however, not a creation of the State, it is fundamentally the realization of a long struggle for the human liberation and the secularization of the society (Scot 54-56: 2005).
In order to protect the republican nature of the State, “Republicans needed to develop an ideology that could replace Catholic Morality and that would spread the ideal of secular citizenship across the country” (Jansen 477:2006). In a report titled “Rapport sur la laÃ¯cité et l’obligation de l’école primaire” the school is viewed as follows:
L’école devra donc être ce qu’on appelle en France laÃ¯que, en Hollande neutre, et dans les pays anglo-américain unsectarian. (Journal Officiel de la République française, du 26 mai 1880)
On 28 of March 1882 came the law known as the Ferry Law after the Minister of Public Instruction Jules Ferry, which effectively laicized public education (Fetzer/Soper 70:2005). In fact public education became crucial to “prevent people from voting for an authoritarian (Catholic) regime” (Jansen 477:2006).
In 1946, after the trauma of war and occupation, the principle of laÃ¯cité was enshrined in the constitution, and is one of the major characteristics of the republican state: “France is an indivisible, secular, democratic, and social republic” (Article 2 of the Constitution). In addition, the State does not subsidize the religious institutions according to Article 2 and guarantees freedom of worship according to Article 1.
It is also important to mention in this respect that not only did the changes on the ground contribute to the shaping of the idea of secularism; but there were also “the French Protestants, for whom, the cause of laÃ¯cité was synonymous with that of freedom: their wish was to reconcile religion and freedom” (Brulard 177:2002). The Protestants found refuge in laÃ¯cité as it is the only guarantee for them as a minority to practice their religion without being discriminated against.
As we have seen so far laÃ¯cité was used, and is still used, to confront the influence of religion. Olivier Roy says that laÃ¯cité, “historically a matter of dispute between the republican state and the Catholic Church is founded on anti-clericalism” (18:2007). However, it “aimed not to exclude believers but to define a space of neutrality” (Roy 21:2007).
4 Challenges Confronting LaÃ¯cité
Since the 1970s, immigration penetrated the public and political spheres as a social problem of ethnic / cultural relations. From “guest-workers”, factors of production, “immigrants came to be perceived as objects of political controversy defined in terms of citizenship and identity” (Inès 182:2002)
The debate about laÃ¯cité started in the school. The school system is described as a sanctuary for preserving the French laÃ¯cité. The new diagnoses related to the threats against laÃ¯cité emerged in school (Bertossi 17:2006). In 1989, two girls in Creil came to class wearing Muslim scarves. This raised a legal challenge to laÃ¯cité as there are no school uniforms in French state schools, and it was unclear whether there was an explicit rule preventing pupils from wearing religious symbols (Laborde 52:2008). “Since the republican school was conceived as a microcosm of republican political society: within its walls, children would learn to become citizens, a shared public identity that transcend their local, cultural and religious affiliations” (Laborde 49:2008) Consequently, any religious sign is considered as a threat to the particularity of the educational system, which is supposed to be neutral, and of course a threat to the ideals of the Republic.
The legislation of 15 of March 2004 reversed the 1905 approach to laÃ¯cité; instead of being an abstract principle of State neutrality. It was converted into an identity principle; instead of being exceptional cases of proselytism, according to the 1989 State Council’s decision, the interdiction became the common law (Bertossi 19:2006). As a result of this law, laÃ¯cité is no longer a matter of the place of religion and its relationship with the State, but rather it is a matter of the French identity (17:2006). This has shifted the discussion about laÃ¯cité from its being discriminating against religious minorities to a national issue that concerns every French.
4. 1 The Challenge of Multiculturalism
In France multiculturalism is looked down upon because it is perceived to reinforce particularist and divisive identities that threaten the unified French identity. It is believed that associating laÃ¯cité with multiculturalism and the recognition of “identités collectives” is the emphasis of the religious identities, and this emphasis will lead to the “fragmentation of the society and pose a threat to liberty since the radical religious people will keep making more pressure” (Cohen 5:2007).
In the French approach towards the cultural diversity, individuals are to adhere to the body of the nation; they have to adhere to the national values. This model is often referred to as assimilationist because it does not admit the other’s difference of cultural particularism (Inès 183:2002).
In the 1970s, the concept of assimilation was challenged because it was found that the State did not have the right to erase the regional or ethnic differences. As a result, the term “integration” was introduced to refer to an “open process” in which the fundamental values of French society have to be preserved, but without incurring total renunciation of the immigrants’ original culture(Inès 183;2002). The efficiency of integration measures is somewhat doubtful, as politicians on the Left and on the Right keep advocating policies which are contradictory: integrating on the one hand and control on the other (183: 2002).
Since laÃ¯cité has been also associated with the national identity as I have mentioned earlier, it is endangered since there some minorities which have debated the national history and all the controversial issues during the period of the French colonization. Some of these cultural minorities which come from French-colonized countries raise other issues besides the one related to religion. And so, multiculturalism in this context is seen as a threat to the universal values of Enlightenment that was at the basis of all the advancement in France (Cohen 7:2007).
4.2 The Challenge of Religious Groups
The diversity inside the religious groups brings up the issue of the contradiction between the State’s position based on the constitution which requires it to intervene in the religious matters “l’ordre privé”, and the right of the small religious groups to equality (Cohen 4:2007). For instance, in Islam women are not considered as equal to men, however, men and women are equal according to the French values. Therefore, should the State intervene in matters pertaining to internal religious issues? If the State is to be involved directly in such sensitive issues for a reason or another, the social pressure is building up to push the State to impose equality between men and women (Cohen 4:2007).
Moreover, the problem of the sects in France comes to the surface whenever the debate about laÃ¯cité starts, even when the attention is, as it the case most of the time, directed to Islam as an issue of controversy. The sects are weighed in the same manner like the radical and dangerous groups which tend to be violent. The challenge is that the as long as the sects do not resemble any of the known monotheistic religions or Buddhism or Hinduism, they remain unrecognized by the State (Göle 3: 2005). Therefore, the question is whether the State should intervene on one side to ensure that equality is granted to all religious groups and on the other, to control the groups classified as dangerous (like the sects and the extremist groups). When these two conflicting issues are addressed to the State in order to resolve them, it is confronted with the Law of 1905, separation between the State and the Church and the neutrality of the State in regard to internal religious affairs (Cohen 2:2007). In other words Olivier Roy adds that “the phenomenon of sects is troubling to the French society, and the temptation to legislate against them is as strong as in the case of Islam” (Roy 6: 2007).
The challenge is to give a place to religions in the public domain without running the risk of any of them becoming hegemonic and recovering their institutional authority on individual’s conscience. While the conception of laÃ¯cité confines religion to the private domain, the headscarf affair raised the issue of social dimension of religion and demonstrated that religion and the surrounding society are far more intricately interrelated (Inès 186: 2002).
In the light of the ongoing changes in the demographic texture in the French society, changes linked to the growing influence of religious minorities on the one hand on their own members and on the other, on the State itself, which should be neutral towards religion. Since the sects are gaining a place in France, the State is in a position of either legislating laws against them or accommodating them within the French society. But the question is who is to be recognized, so some criteria are developed to legalize the sects. Again the State is facing the challenge of deciding which sect can be considered as eligible for its ‘respect global de l’ordre public’ (Cohen 3:2007). Besides, the debate goes even further in relation to religion. Which religion is defined as a religion by the State? To this end, the State has to include or exclude some religious groups. In both cases, it risks losing its impartiality, a value enshrined by the constitution.
To expound the previous point, the secular State has no competence when it comes to assessing the validity of doctrine. In the case of the Church of Scientology in 1997, the ruling of the court was based on the fact that freedom of belief is one of the fundamental elements of French public liberties expressed in Article of the 1789 Declaration of Human and Citizens’ Rights and that article 1 of the Separation Law ensures freedom of conscience and beliefs subject to observance of public order, and considering article 9 of the European Convention recognizing religious freedom for all persons. (Proeschel 14: 2008). The ruling stated that “there is thus no point in wondering whether the Church of Scientology constitutes a sect or a religion, as freedom of belief is absolute, that to the extent a religion can be defined by coincidence of two elements, an objective element, the existence of a community, even a small one, and a subjective element shared faith, the Church of Scientology can claim the title of a religion and develop its activities in all freedom, within the framework of the existing laws, including its missionary activities, or even those of proselytism” (Proeschel 14:2007).
The Commission Stasi published a report on 11 of December 2003 in which it recommended the interdiction of religious signs in public schools as well as the fight against urban and social discrimination against racism and anti-Semitism, the appointment of Muslim chaplain in public institutions such as hospitals, prisons and the military and the creation of new public holidays. Only the first recommendation was finally implemented with 15 March 2004 and became a law.
Yet, this law has been criticized over the compatibility of such ban with European Convention on Human Rights. In their turn official republicans point out to a number of decisions by the European Court of Human Rights which have recognized that a state like Turkey which is the only other laÃ¯que state in Europe may have a legitimate interest in preserving a secular public sphere (Laborde 59: 2008).
Furthermore, the French State reacted towards the growing challenge of Islam by setting up a committee at the initiative of the Ministry of the Interior and Religions and chaired by Jean-Pierre Machelon who made a report in 2006. He came up with a plan to enable local authorities to make direct grants for construction of buildings for religious purposes within their boundaries (Proeschel 11:2008).
Given the challenges facing the State, new laÃ¯cité politics developed around two main issues. On the one hand, it focused on the so-called fight against collective ethnic and religious identities, what is referred to as communautarisme. On the other, counter- arguments emphasized the anti-discrimination agenda and used notions such as ‘Islamophobia’ to describe the new context. The issue of gender equality appeared at the intersection of both lines of this debate (Bertossi 17:2006)
In a report for the United Nations Commission on Human Rights titled Civil and Political Rights, Including the Question of Religious Intolerance submitted in 2005 by Asma Jahangir, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, the Special Rapporteur “has observed that the government may have contributed to a climate of general suspicion and intolerance towards those communities on the list created by the National Assembly in 1996, of movements and groups classified as sects” (109). And the report adds “[a] number of improvements â€¦remain to be carried out to ensure that the right to freedom of religion or belief of all individuals is guaranteed (â€¦)” (110). And in paragraph 97 in the report, the Special Rapportuer “â€¦considers that a thorough assessment of [laÃ¯cité’s] application in the present context of religious pluralism is a necessary process in democratic society based on the rule of the law.”
5 Forms of LaÃ¯cités
As a result of the controversies about laÃ¯cité and the changes that have taken place in the French society; flow of immigrants with different cultural heritages and religions. The French State has found itself in a position where it needs to make decisions and respond to the rights of the religious groups. Two types of laÃ¯cité have developed throughout past years; the ‘soft’ laÃ¯cité and the ‘strict’ laÃ¯cité. The dichotomies between the two show the degree to which laÃ¯cité is being challenged in the French society. “Many of the supporters of ‘soft’ laÃ¯cité accuse the proponents of the ‘strict’ form of trying to make secularist laÃ¯cité the ‘state religion’ in France” (Fetzer/Soper 74:2005). In fact, Olivier Roy says that laÃ¯cité is moving towards becoming a dogma (22:2007). A few defenders of ‘soft’ laÃ¯cité also lament that the ‘strict’ version tends to sterilize the society of all cultural diversity and to strip public school students of all individuality (Fetzer/Soper 75:2005).
In her book Critical Republicanism – The Hijab Controversy and Political Philosophy, Cecile Laborde exposes the ongoing debate about laÃ¯cité and identifies two versions of tolerant republican laÃ¯cité towards the case for allowing religious signs in the schools. The first version, secular laÃ¯cité, it might be an appealing ideal, but on no plausible interpretation does it mandate that school children’s right to wear religious clothing be restricted. The second version of tolerant republican challenge goes further, and casts doubts on the laÃ¯que ideal itself (80:2008). She also adds in her criticism of the tolerant laÃ¯cité the following:
As separation is no more than a historical myth, and the French public sphere is far from neutral in the laÃ¯que sense, contextual fairness demands that privileges historically granted to Catholics be extended to minority religions such as Islam. Tolerant republicanism, therefore, substitutes pragmatic even-handedness between religious groups to abstentionist neutrality, and allows for the recognition of collective religious identities in the public sphere (80:2008).
In addition to the two versions of tolerant republican laÃ¯cité, comes official republican ideal of laÃ¯cité, according to which, republican equality is best promoted through maintenance of secular nature of public sphere and non-interference by the state in religious matters. Finally, “critical republicans – in contrast to both official and tolerant republicans – explicitly confront this complex question and believe that answering it would go a long way towards addressing the legitimate grievances of Muslims in relation to the existing practices of European State” (Laborde 89:2008). “Critical republicans tend to be fairly tolerant of the religious expression of ordinary citizens, but they adopt a less tolerant stance towards display of religious allegiance or support by the state institutions” (86:2008).
All in all, there are three attitudes that can be defined in relation to laÃ¯cité. Some, advocating an ‘open laÃ¯cité ‘, are concerned with the free exercise of religion, but are also tempered by a revision of the 1905 law. Those favoring a ‘laÃ¯cité in movement’ are sensitive to social and religious change, but remain faithful to the history of the secular ideal. Finally, the more militant laics defend the French republican model by denouncing the dangers of ‘communautarisme’ and calling for the strengthening of the 1905 law (Caron 117: 2007).
In the light of the societal developments in the French society, laÃ¯cité has encountered great challenges stemming mainly from the claims by the cultural and religious minorities. These minorities, and in particular, Muslims, have simply demanded that their rights to freedom of belief and expression be guaranteed by laÃ¯cité, but instead of granting them their rights, they have been confined to more restrictions in expressing these rights. Ironically, their requests have been estimated to be a threat to laÃ¯cité and, of course, to the national identity. There is no doubt that laÃ¯cité has evolved over the past years; an open form has come to existence as a result of the stagnation in the process of recognizing the religious groups’ rights More than one hundred years has passed since the 1905 Law, and the sects and other religious groups are still seeking the State’s recognition. Though laÃ¯cité requires the State to be neutral in matters of religion as they belong to the private domain (l’ordre privé), it has practically failed to curb the State’s intervention in the internal affairs of the religious groups.
Ingemund Hagg says in a paper presented in 2005 in Bulgaria that “l’état laÃ¯que is an ideal but 100 years of French history shows that it is difficult to obtain, it has to develop in steps, and within new steps in accordance with societal development in each particular country”
Consequently, the fact that laicite is not perceived in the same way by its proponents; some believe that it is the only guarantee for freedom of belief and that the State instead of being neutral is abusing the rights of religious minorities under the pretext of protecting laÃ¯cité itself. Therefore, laÃ¯cité does not, as Claude Proeschel says in the end of her article French LaÃ¯cité Confronted with New Challenges “involve ignoring religious facts. It requires not mere tolerance on the part of the State, but active organization”(15:2007). In that sense, it does embrace differences, but its implementation by the State that renders it rigid. As a result, laÃ¯cité as a concept is rigid given the State’s practices towards the religious groups, but again it is dynamic regarding the controversies about it; different trends of laÃ¯cité soft or open. Therefore, in theory, it is dynamic, but in practice, it is rigid.
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