The Crisis of French laïcité

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The principle of “laïcité” –separation of church and state – has long been an expression of French identity. Now it is in crisis.

In France, the debate between religious freedom and state neutrality towards religions has taken a particularly toxic turn. On the one hand, “la laïcité,” the French model of secularization based on a strict separation of church and state, is invoked by the far right to stigmatize immigrant populations by highlighting a few marginal behaviors. On the other, part of the far left, under the pretext of combating Islamophobia, has come to support religious extremists and even flirts with anti-Semitism. To make matters worse, the slightest media scandal compels politicians of all stripes to set up commissions, organize new high masses with representatives of the various cults, and enact new laws.
Intellectuals are also investing in the field, and there are countless books, articles, and grandiloquent debates that often do little to clarify the issue. This legislative, theoretical, and rhetorical inflation indicates that “la laïcité,” considered by 80% of the population as one of the symbols of national identity, is in deep crisis. In this article, we’d like to give readers with little knowledge of French realities a few pointers for understanding the situation.

First of all, let’s remember that “la laïcité” was born with the French Revolution, of which it was the linchpin, since it accompanied a revolution that was as much political (passage from monarchy by divine right to a republic), social (end of ecclesiastical privileges, expropriation of church property) as administrative (birth of civil status and later public education).

The bourgeoisie’s struggle against the ancient régime and the assertion of its hegemony without any compromise, unlike in England and elsewhere, with the aristocracy, presupposed this strict separation of Church and State, and the numerous retaliatory measures taken against the clergy over the course of successive republics. At the same time, and without any simple cause-and-effect relationship, we have witnessed a vertiginous decline in religious sentiment, making France one of the most atheistic countries in the world.

After much controversy and violent confrontations in the early 20th century, and the reactionary backlash initiated by the Vichy regime installed by the Germans during the country’s occupation in 1940-44, “la laïcité” largely ceased to be a subject of debate from the 1950s onwards, and there were no controversies or legislative initiatives until the 1980s.

At that period and almost at the same time, two religious communities – one in decline (Catholicism) and the other on the rise (Islam) – were re-mobilizing. After decades of silent decline, many Catholics began to radicalize, first in defense of religious schools, then in opposition to abortion, gay marriage, and surrogate motherhood. This radicalization, which mainly concerns segments of the traditional bourgeoisie experiencing inexorable economic decline and marginalization, continues to this day, as evidenced by the high proportion of Catholics who voted for far-right candidates in the presidential election.

Their attacks on the principles of secularism are rather indirect, notably in the form of an emphasis on what they call France’s “Judeo-Christian roots” and the defense of “Western civilization.” In recent years, they have succeeded in gathering around them a number of ex left-wing intellectuals who are officially atheists but who mask their transition to fascism under the cloak of “civilizational” concerns. Of course, the repeated atrocious attacks by Islamic fanatics on French soil have added fuel to their fire. If there’s a real risk of victory of the extreme right in the next presidential elections, it won’t venture to call into question the pillars of “la laïcité” as most of their electorate is secular – and as they’ve made a useful business out of it, using it to embellish their usual xenophobic diatribes.

So, while the radicalized Catholic fringe has proved able to make its voice heard and influence debates, it is highly unlikely that it will be able to rise to a political and social role equivalent to that of the American or Brazilian evangelicals. Repeated sex scandals (216,000 children have been raped by priests since 1950, according to official investigations) targeting an ageing and conservative clergy seem, on the contrary, to be one of the last nails in the coffin.

On the other side of the religious spectrum, from the 1980s onwards, one has witnessed the rise of Islam among people who had emigrated to France in the 1960s and 70s. This rise calls for a multifactorial explanation. First of all, of course, there was French colonization, which, by violently destructuring traditional societies, often transformed Islam into a revolutionary force, or at least an anchor for nationalism. The fact that this colonization had little positive effect on the subsequent development of these countries meant that mass emigration often became a kind of social safety valve for the regimes in place, even though Fordist France was in dire need of manpower.

Unlike Germany, France did not believe it could turn these immigrants into “gastarbeiter” who could easily be sent home. France soon found itself with a large population of Muslims, whose harsh living conditions – with employers shamelessly playing the ethnicization card to exploit the workforce – did not facilitate secularization. With the onset of the recession in the 1970s, these immigrant workers, many of whom were just beginning to have access to decent housing, were the first victims of restructuring and mass unemployment. And it was their children, who came of age in the 80s, who were to face the full force of economic impoverishment and social marginalization in suburban neighborhoods that were gradually becoming ghettos.

After much controversy and violent confrontations in the early 20th century, and the reactionary backlash initiated by the Vichy regime installed by the Germans during the country’s occupation in 1940-44, “la laïcité” largely ceased to be a subject of debate from the 1950s onwards, and there were no controversies or legislative initiatives until the 1980s.

The result is a perverse logic that continues to this day: pushed into crime by poverty and lack of prospects, this generation quickly become the target of public vindictiveness, increasing their sense of exclusion, which a few skillful politico-religious entrepreneurs will steer towards an Islamist revival, the participation in which for many youth is the only way out of juvenile delinquency. The stigmatization of their criminal behavior is compounded by the stigmatization of this return to religion, which is fueled by the provocations of a few activists who seek to challenge certain principles of laïcité, notably in schools. This vicious circle feeds an assertion of religious identity. The radicalization of some of these former delinquents led to several waves of increasingly atrocious terrorist attacks as radical Islamist insurgencies spread around the world.

So, while French-style secularism has indeed been shaken by these two distinct waves of religious radicalization, the real problem is that the State believed it could be used as a smokescreen to avoid tackling the underlying social problems. The result has been an almost uninterrupted succession of reforms and mutations which, in the end, have drained much of the original corpus of its meaning without, of course, resolving any of the problems. The very word “laïcité” is so much in demand in public discourse that many people have no idea anymore of what it actually means. So, this crisis is at the crossroads of, and in fact sums up, several other crises: the decline of a religion and a social group (Catholicism and the traditional bourgeoisie); the crisis of an economic model notably based on the exploitation of an immigrant workforce kept in a state of social marginality; and the crisis of a political class running after the latest event and multiplying fake solutions.

In such a situation, there’s nothing to expect from the institutional authorities, and it’s pointless to add one’s voice to the chorus of invocations of the famous laïcité. At the same time, it has to be said that the two poles of this radicalization hope to feed off each other: the Islamist attacks were clearly aimed at facilitating the election of Marine Le Pen and thus provoking a revolt among Muslim youth, while the far-right takes advantage of the slightest controversy surrounding Islam in France and hopes to use the fear of this religion to encourage ever greater adherence to its organicist program. This unnatural alliance reminds us that these two radicalized poles share a common enemy: individual autonomy and atheism as the sine qua non of emancipation. In this sense, they are no different from their counterparts in the North and South. It is this fundamental unity that must be recognized and fought against as such, without falling into the rut of political and cultural maneuvers that seek to benefit from this crisis.

As we have been able to experience on our modest scale, a good way to advance and densify this awareness is to highlight solidarity in struggle with free thinkers who are victims of repression and fundamentalism around the world. In every discussion we’ve had on atheism around the world, we’ve seen how its emancipatory potential, too often forgotten or trivialized, can be rediscovered by raising awareness of the courage and determination of those who refuse religious obscurantism in Bangladesh, India, Africa, and the Arab world. In turn, this internationalist awareness enables us to better understand and combat the mortifying logics at work in our secularized societies.

For a long time, a certain quietism reigned here, the “faith” that religious illusion would dissipate of its own along the march of progress. The rise of the reactionary backlash and the rise of fundamentalism in impoverished and marginalized immigrant communities remind us, as do the struggles of atheists in the South, that the end of religious alienation is also a daily struggle here, and that it is even the condition of any struggle for general human emancipation.

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