Laïcité not Secularism: Understanding the French Debate on the Veil

Diego FiliuSIPA Class of 2018

Three policemen came up to a woman on a French Riviera beach and forced her to remove her burkini. A nearby photographer caught the whole incident on camera and pictures began circulating the web, garnering reactions ranging from shock to enjoyment. This particular ‘burkini episode,’ which took place this past summer in my home country of France, caused major controversy in French society. On top of that, it also had a ripple effect in American news.

Americans react to ‘intolerant France’

I still remember many of my horrified American peers here at Columbia, looking in despair at what they believed to be an authoritarian and intolerant French state. This image, as well as the entire public debate which surrounded it, truly hurt me. It is nonetheless reflective of one of the core cultural differences between France and the United States, a difference that goes too often unnoticed in the one-sided American debate on the French laïcité. One cannot understand the French debate on the veil without first understanding the inherently French concept of laïcité as well as its implications, positive and negative alike, for public debate in France.

I use the French word here, not out of an obnoxious sense of national pride, but because the English “secularism” really does not do justice to what laïcité is, and to what it represents for the French. In order to fully understand the concept, one must take a trip back in history.

History of laïcité

In 1905, the French state made itself legally separate from the Catholic Church –and from all religions for that matter. Since then, French state authorities have been legally forbidden to fund or promote any religion in any of its shape or form. In school, there is no class on religion. In the public space, there can be no “explicit” sign of belonging to one faith or another. The Islamic veil is as such banned from all French public learning institutions until university, but so are Jewish kippas and Christian crosses. The French President, unlike the American one, does not swear on the Bible. Any explicit reference to religion has been systematically removed from our official state protocol. Culturally, religion is felt as something intrinsically private in France, as something that does not belong in the public sphere.

This perception has puzzled many of my American peers. Going beyond religion, laïcité embodies the very depth of the construction of the French nation. The French Republic was built against regional and cultural separatisms. It was heralded by a centralized and authoritarian state that perceived cultural assertions as an existential threat to nation building. Unitary French civil law was imposed with the Code Napoléon. All regional languages were banned from French schools and public administrations. This explains why, until now, there is no genuine movement of regional separatism in France. It also explains why ethnic statistics, which are widespread in the United States, are altogether banned in France.

In post-revolutionary France, the relationship between religion and state and society has been constructed through this perspective of unity. France not only sees itself as a race-blind society, but also as a culture-blind nation. Whatever your personal cultural origin or your faith, you are a French citizen before and above anything else.

This way of managing difference is at the core of our French Republican model. While it certainly entails many disadvantages, it is ultimately appropriate to its own cultural context. The American system of heralding and promoting cultural and religious differences is simply alien to the French nationhood –as is the French system to the Americans. Understanding this intimate cultural difference is a prerequisite to accurately approaching the current debate on the Islamic veil.

Right-wing reaction

In April 2011, Nicolas Sarkozy, the right-wing President of France at the time, passed a law banning the niqab in public space. In 2016, after several terrorist attacks carried out in the name of Islam struck France, the debate on the veil resurfaced. Right-wing municipalities of the French Riviera, which had been struck by a murderous attack during France’s National Day on July 14th, banned the burkini. The French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, stood by such decisions, later on asking for an extension on the veil ban to French public universities.

Throughout the entire summer, the French debated on the issue of the veil. While the aftermath of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks saw one of the largest popular gathering ever to be witnessed in Paris, a true image of national unity irrespective of religious affiliations, the 2016 Bataclan and Nice attacks were followed by such toxic unproductive debates, barely falling short of singling out French Muslims for their supposedly mealy-mouthed reaction to terrorist attacks.

French must reclaim debate about laïcité for the good of French society

The veil debate is decidedly a toxic one, tearing apart the core principle upon which the French nation rests: the primacy of common citizenship above all else. While such debates are inherently counter-productive, taking the attention of policy-makers away from core policy domains, they are even more dangerous in France, precisely because they undermine the very concept upon which our national ideal rests. Reacting to terrorist attacks by banning the Islamic veil is not defending laïcité; it is heralding a short-minded, historically inaccurate and politically skewed vision of the concept, ultimately threatening multi-cultural coexistence in France. A self-defeating position, promoting the veil ban singles out one kind of citizen, i.e. some groups of devout Muslims, from the rest of the French nation which is counter to our core principles.

Laïcité in France is not going away anytime soon. It sure is a thorny concept, but, should it be revived and reassessed, could provide a solid basis upon which to fight for the sake of cultural and religious integration in France. France, like the United States and many other of the world’s greatest countries, is a nation of immigrants, built by Poles, Algerians, Lebanese, Morrocans and Vietnamese. As the current government’s spokesperson eloquently said, “France is a tree with its roots all over the world.”

Indeed, unlike the United States, the French nation has made the historical choice of organizing difference through a powerful and officially culture-blind State. Embracing our cultural diversity, while retaining our ability to prioritize citizenship over faith-based affiliations, is not only the way for France to rebuild its now undermined internal coherence, but also the way forward to once and for all distinguish the majority of ordinary Muslims from jihadists. Drop the veil, France, and find yourself again.

Diego Filiu (MPA, 2018) is a French student born in the United States and raised in the Middle East. He concentrates on International Security Policy.


One thought on “Laïcité not Secularism: Understanding the French Debate on the Veil

  1. Pingback: Q & A with The Morningside Post’s EIC :: COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY - SIPA Admissions Blog

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