France`s great paradox to pursue secularism with religious zeal
February 12, 2004
Years of church-state conflict can help explain why the veil has been banned from schools, writes Sophie Masson. It`s on. The lower house of the French Parliament has overwhelmingly voted to make into law the proposal to ban wearing “ostensible religious symbols“ such as veils, yarmulkes and large crucifixes in public schools. The idea seems to be catching on elsewhere – Belgium and Germany have indicated they would consider a similar law. To many Australians, however, it seems bizarre. What are the French on about? What has caused the country which trumpets itself as “the home of the rights of man“ to indulge in such clumsy, unjust attempts at anti-religious repression? Well, it`s the latest instalment in a 200-year-old French battle. To understand the situation, it`s useful to know that background, which shows a long-standing tension between religion and the republic. It began in 1792, with the extremist Jacobins seizing power in France. Jacobinism is a paradox: a mix of revolutionary atheism and authoritarian republican statism. This resulted in a concerted attack on religion, leading to a hideous civil war which claimed hundreds of thousands of victims in the west of France. The coming to power of Napoleon meant the repeal of much Jacobin anti-clericalism and for a time, there was peace between politicians and the church. However, in 1880 the militantly atheistic Jules Ferry (an ancestor of the present Education Minister, philosopher Luc Ferry) started the war with religion again, expelling all religious staff from public schools, and nuns from hospitals. France seemed set for turmoil again, but fortunately moderate elements intervened. In 1902, under another militant atheist, Emile Combes, it flared up again. Not content with closing down more than 2500 religious schools, Combes`s government forbade all people from religious orders to teach. It went too far when one minister attempted a secret purge to rid the bureaucracy of anyone with religious convictions. It was too much for Parliament, and the government fell. The separation of church and state law of 1905 was an attempt at balancing the different forces, going some way to reaffirming freedom of worship. But it caused strife by forbidding any religious instruction at all in public schools, nationalised much church property, and forbade the erection of new religious symbols in any public space (including graveyards). And it was not until after World War I that diplomatic relations were resumed between the Vatican and France. In 1941, the collaborationist Vichy government repealed the 1905 laws. When Charles de Gaulle came to power after the liberation, he restored some but not most of the 1905 laws, for instance, allowing the church to keep its property. Today, France faces resurgent religion, and resurgent Jacobinism. The difference is that it`s not Christianity, but Islam, that`s the challenge to the unitary state and republican secularism these days. The state has been pussyfooting for a long time over Islamist militancy in the “zones“ as they`re called in France (outer suburbs of big cities), rising anti-Semitism, and a rise in what is euphemised as “incivility“, which includes violent misogyny among some Muslim boys. The new law is an attempt to show that they can still control the situation. By banning symbols and depriving people of the right to religious expression, they are stirring up trouble but are not targeting the real problem – the failure of French society to integrate its Muslim youth, and the consequent rise in the influence of radicals. It`s not necessarily about prejudice, incidentally, but rather a problem of mixed messages: French politicians and intellectuals denigrating their heritage, particularly that of non or pre-Jacobin France, yet at the same time they are most punitive if young people do not show respect for the “saints“ of the Revolution, and for “republican values“. Young people end up not respecting anything at all about their country. Who can be surprised? Luc Ferry said recently that his ideal is a system of religious-style ethics: a secular system that goes deep but keeps religion well out, calling it “sacred secularism“. He was not challenged on the contradiction. Perhaps that was because it perfectly illustrated the French paradox.
Sophie Masson is a French-Australian author.