By Emma Gill
Over the past few years – but especially in the recent months – the French concept of laïcité has been subjected to global scrutiny. And not without reason; it is a concept that even the French grapple with. For those unaware of the term, laïcité can be loosely defined as French secularism, or the separation of church and state in the governing of a nation. However, secularism itself doesn’t encompass laïcité in its entirety, as the term has accrued somewhat of a deeper significance for French people that seems to have burrowed its way into the fabric of France and French identity. It could fit perfectly into their national motto, liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity), but it doesn’t – and that’s key.
It may help if we take it back a century and give a bit of context and history to the concept. In 1905, the French government passed a law that separated the Churches from the State, prohibiting the State from recognising or funding any religion. It was rooted in this concept of laïcité, which relies on the division between private life – where supporters of the concept believe religion belongs – and the public sphere, in which all citizens should be equal and devoid of ethnic, religious, or other individualities. This is important because it harks back to the national motto and the point of égalité. It enshrines in law the freedom to practise a religion as well as the freedom from indoctrination into a specific faith. Hence the prohibition of all religious clothing and overt religious symbols in public spaces or the civil services and, more recently, in educational establishments – the theory behind which being that it may sway the (young) public towards a certain religion rather than letting them choose of their own accord.
Nevertheless, the word laïcité was never actually included in the 1905 law, meaning its power as a legal principle is heavily contentious. In actual fact, it first appeared as a legal principle in the Constitution of 1946, and it was not until 1958 that its integrity, as a word and concept, to French law and national identity, was specified. Despite this, it is surrounded by a certain aura of antiquity and sacrosanctity that appears to give it a “free pass” of sorts when it comes to religious and political debates.
If we compare the historic implementation and integration of laïcité in French law to the present climate, it is easy to see how and where difficulties have arisen. When the 1905 law was initially passed, the main religion in France was Catholicism, and although it still is, a whole plethora of other religions have also steadily established themselves in France since then, with over 5 million Muslims in the country today. As a result, laïcité can now no longer merely be portrayed as a fundamental pillar of French identity that enables liberté, égalité, fraternité. Because Catholicism does not require the wearing of the cross of its followers, and its holy garb is very particular to specific roles within the faith. Islam, on the other hand, necessitates the wearing of head coverings for women. Other religions such as Judaism are impacted by this too, but Islam has faced increased levels of scrutiny and prejudice in the global West in the 21st century that have brought it to the centre of the laïcité debate.
And so, that brings us to the climate of 2021, where France has yet again been accused of Islamophobia. Being half French, I often find these discussions surrounding France, Islamophobia, and laïcité both hurtful and shameful, because I don’t want to be associated with such discrimination, but nor do I want to ignore half of my identity. Having spoken to both my mother and grandmother (the French family in question), it seems that laïcité is a rather confusing and contentious concept for the French too. Laïcité undeniably affects and discriminates against certain religions more than others, and the laïcité of a century ago can no longer provide the country with the liberty, equality, fraternity, that they so cherish.
Most worrying of all is the weaponising of laïcité in a way that allows Islamophobic actions to take place and attitudes to be adopted in French society. Certain terrorist attacks, including the Charlie Hebdo shooting and the November 2015 Paris Attacks, have led to an increase in anti-Islam sentiment throughout all levels of society. Consequently, some laws passed in “the interest of public safety”, such as the 2010 ban of face-coverings in public, which includes the burqa but also motorcycle helmets, have sometimes been defended using laïcité, despite it not playing a role in their initial legislation. Islam, Islamophobia, laïcité, French law, and French identity have therefore become entangled in a complicated and messy mass that is proving very difficult to unravel.
Unfortunately, I have no answers for you. After all, I’m still trying to figure it all out for myself and where I personally stand on the issue of laïcité in modern day society. What I am certain about, however, is that laïcité at the very least needs to undergo a process of modernisation in order to adapt to the ever-changing, multicultural, and incredibly varied nature of the 21st century. Because at the moment, it can still be seen as outdated, but with the potential to adapt. If it doesn’t do so, however, and the French government repeatedly refuses to listen to its public, then it can and will justifiably be understood as a clear example of Islamophobia.