Issue 5

Understanding the French Principle of Laïcité

Shrishti Agrawal

While the principle of laïcité was intended to instill secularism in France, it was created at a time when the French Constitution did not need to worry about the practices of many religions. Although the complete removal of religion from public spaces may have worked in the past, growing religious and cultural tensions have raised many questions with regards to this French notion.

On 16 October, Samuel Paty, a 47-year old teacher was brutally beheaded in northern Paris outside his school. Days before his beheading, Paty had been receiving online death threats for showing his students controversial cartoons of Prophet Mohammed which were first published in Denmark and then reproduced by the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. In France, the right to offend has always existed. Thus, the horrific murder of Paty was viewed as a violation of these rights that allow the people of France to commit acts that offend religion. The incident sent shockwaves across France because it was also viewed as an attack on education and education lies at the heart of what it means to be French. The outrage created swells of demonstrations and fueled deliberations over the longstanding French notion of secularism.

To understand the notion of secularism in France, it is necessary to examine the French principle of laïcité, under which the state is obliged to adopt a position of neutrality towards religious beliefs. Personal laws, inherent in every religion, find no place in the French Constitution. Thus, there is complete isolation of religion from the public sphere. While the wearing of overt religious symbols is not allowed either in the civil services or public spaces like government hospitals, post offices and government schools, there is complete freedom to exercise religion in the private realm. People are free to attend any religious institution and follow any religious norm as long as they do so in private spaces.

This notion of laïcité, where the state adopts a position of neutrality towards religious beliefs, was not inherent to the French system of governance. A great deal of historical struggle and fighting led to the acceptance of laïcité as a principle. It is important to recognize that religion lies at the heart of all the wars in France.

Between 1562 and 1598, the French witnessed the Wars of Religion. It was a series of nine bloody wars fought between two factions of the same religion, Catholics and Protestants.

Then, from 1789 to 1799, during the French Revolution, Louis XVI, who had exercised complete control of France between 1661 and 1715, was overthrown. A National Constituent Assembly was formed and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was proclaimed. This declaration was important for France because it established individual rights that were protected by law. The revolutionaries declared the French Republic and stripped away special powers of the Catholic Church in an attempt to tame the Church that had enjoyed centuries of control. For the first time, the Jews, who were an outlawed community, were finally allowed to own property. In 1791, the first French Constitution was adopted and introduced the idea of freedom of religion in the land. The freedom to practice different faiths was allowed.

Between 1799 and 1905, a progressive dilution of the powers of the Catholic Church took place in post-revolutionary France. During this period, the Jules Ferry Laws were established. Catholic clerics were not allowed to infiltrate schools by becoming teachers. Thus, the laws ensured secularity in the schools of France. The systematic chipping away of the powers from the Church eventually led to the creation of secular laws in France.  

Finally, in 1905, the French law, on the separation of the Church and the State was introduced. It was based on three ideas: neutrality of the State, freedom of religious exercise and public powers related to the Church. This means that while the State maintains neutrality, it continues to exercise discretionary powers that allow it to intervene in religious matters. This was the period when the French notion of secularism emerged and the principle of laïcité was established.

When the law came into force, the State declared that the citizens of France would be recognised independent of their religious or ethnic background. Although initially, the immigrants and minority communities of the country did not face issues of discrimination, instances of everyday racism increased after the 1970s.

In the post-war era, there was a steep decline in manpower in France. Thus, France invited male immigrants from many countries to work in the booming industries of the State. While France had existing immigrants from neighbouring countries like Italy, Spain and Portugal, for the first time, this wave of immigrants also included people from non-White countries like Northern Africa, namely Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, as well as sub-Saharan Africa, where Islam is widespread. Leaving their families behind, due to restrictions from the French state, these immigrants lived in poor suburban communities where instances of racism and discrimination were not that widespread.

Problems started emerging during the 1970s economic downturn. Just like most countries, France was also severely impacted by the 1973 oil crisis. This led to the closing of several factories in France. By this time, the French state had reunited the immigrants with their families. Living in the fringes of society, the immigrants suffered due to increasing unemployment and the burden to feed their families. The immigrants from Europe and other white Caucasian countries were able to merge into a predominantly Judeo-Christian France. Physical differences, like the colour of one’s skin, made it difficult for the African immigrants (mostly Muslim) to assimilate into society. Communities of immigrant workers became increasingly isolated and the instances of everyday discrimination started becoming more prominent.

Although under laïcité, rights are given to every French person, these rules were made at a time when the country did not experience a wave of non-white immigrants. Religious diversity was not prominent in 1905. Assimilation of North African communities who came to live in France and the French-born Muslims, proved to be difficult. Adding to this, several disputes started arising with issues of religious freedom and the notion of laïcité.

In 1989, tense debates started growing on the wearing of overt religious symbols in France after three Muslim girls were suspended from a public school upon refusing to remove their headscarves. After years of debate, the 2004 law which banned “the wearing of symbols and apparel by which a student conspicuously expresses religious affiliation in public schools”, was passed by the French parliament. The Jewish skullcap, Christian crosses and the Hijab, all religious symbols we banned. Then in 2010, a law was passed prohibiting the concealment of the face in public, thus banning clothes like the niqab. Such laws, which have created hostility between the Muslims and the French State have only intensified due to the increasing number of terrorist attacks in France by radical-militant Islamists.  

Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical magazine that produces cartoons and jokes about religious heads who promote blind belief, pokes fun at obscure existing norms and calls out forms of absurdity. After the 2015 attacks on the magazine by terrorists of militant Islam and al-Qaeda, people increasingly began looking at Islam as a religion that promotes violence, contributing to the ever-growing Islamophobia in the country.

While the principle of laïcité was intended to instill secularism, it was created at a time when the French Constitution did not need to worry about the practices of a diverse range of religions. Although these controversial laws apply to all religions, the last few years have shifted the focus of discourse to Islamic practices. The complete removal of religion from public spaces may have worked in the past, but growing religious and cultural tensions have raised many questions with regards to the French notion of laïcité. Till what extent is the State willing to go, to maintain its principle of laïcité? If a community feels marginalized, should the state alter its principles?

Shrishti is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In her free time, you’ll find her cooking, dancing or photographing.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

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