Voltaire is Not the Answer for France

The New York Times has published at least three pieces in the past three weeks documenting France’s reassertion of its historic secularism — known as laïcité – in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo killings and the accompanying attack on a Jewish supermarket in early January.  See here, here, and here.

A policy of state-promoted secularism, laïcité was advanced in the French Revolution and saw its triumph during the Third Republic, culminating in the landmark 1905 law that separated church and state in a way that gave the state great control over the Catholic Church.

Now, France is doubling down on laïcité, making December 9th a new Day of Laïcité; requiring prospective teachers to demonstrate their grasp of laïcité; and forcing students and parents to sign a charter pledging respect for the principle. Such a draconian reassertion appears motivated by shock and fear, not only towards the attacks themselves but also in reaction to the large number of Muslims students who refused to observe a moment of silence for the victims.

While the students’ refusal is troubling, and while sympathy for the attacks, and ever more so the attacks themselves, are reprehensible, I wish to argue, as I did in an earlier post, that more laïcité is not the answer.

Towards Muslims, laïcité has meant a ban on headscarves and veils worn by girls in schools; the heavy restriction of minarets on mosques; the state’s failure to build enough mosques to accommodate Muslims; and attempts to pass laws banning Islamic sermons not in French, halal meat, and slaughterhouses that observe Islamic law.

By contrast, the state allows Catholic schools (which it also heavily governs) to hold mass every day; sanctions public holidays on Catholic holy days; and allows schools to serve fish on Fridays and to observe the liturgical calendar.

Add to this combination of restrictions and allowances the state’s permission of magazines to publish pictures that render in obscene fashion both the Prophet Mohammed and the members of the Trinity, and it is not hard to see why French Muslims fail to feel respected as equal citizens.

It is time for France to reconsider its history of the state managing religion and imposing secularism on the nation and rather adopt the principle of religious freedom, which allows religious people to manifest their faith freely and to govern their own communities — as long as, crucially, religious people are willing to respect the full human rights, including the religious freedom, of others.  In this sense, Muslims will have to do their part.  But will they not be more willing to do it if they are respected as equals?

One of the Times pieces quotes political scientist Dominique Moïsi as calling for moving on beyond laïcité, which “has become the first religion of the Republic, and it requires obedience and belief.”  He continues, “[t]o play Voltaire in the 21st century is irresponsible.”






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Daniel Philpott

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