Pseudo-secularism and the French Left

‘We have ceded too much ground on secularism,’ announced Olivier Majewicz, the socialist mayor of Oye-Plage in the north of France, after enforcing a burkini ban in his own seaside commune. Majewicz joined the ranks of other mayors from across the political spectrum, but many from the Right and Far Right, who followed the lead of Cannes mayor David Lisnard, who on 28 July banned the burkini from all beaches in his municipality.

#WTFFrance was the hashtag du jour, as the images of four police officers surrounding a woman sitting on the beach in Nice, who appeared to be undressing before them, went viral. As the many posts using the hashtag on social media pointed out, in any other context, four armed men coercing a woman into removing her clothes would be sexual assault. Yet, since the first burkini ban took effect in Cannes on 28 July, this policing has been done in the name of ‘good morals and secularism’.

Despite the Conseil d’État, France’s highest administrative court, ruling that the ban enacted by 31 French municipalities was illegal, a majority of those towns continue to defy the court’s ruling and enforce the the ban. While it makes sense that the Right and Far Right would uphold the Islamophobic burkini ban, it might seem curious that sections of the Left have joined in the chorus. While the ban has caused divisions within the Socialist Party, Majewicz’s stand has been backed all the way to the top, with French Prime Minister Manuel Valls unconditionally standing by all the anti-burkini mayors. Even after the Conseil d’État ruling, Valls reiterated that the burkini is an ‘affirmation of political Islam in the public space’. Women who choose to cover their limbs at the beach, in the eyes of Valls and co, pose the biggest threat to French secularism today.

Much of the English-speaking commentary points to the concept of laïcité, translated often and imprecisely as ‘secularism’, as the root philosophical ideal underlying this ban that has left the Anglosphere baffled. It is presented as a uniquely French phenomenon, one of the main pillars of France’s republican tradition. While it’s true that since the Revolution there has existed a strong anti-clerical streak among the population, the idea that secularism originated as some lofty, philosophical ideal that is now ingrained and immovable within the French national conscience, encoded in the country’s DNA, needs to be interrogated.

In truth, the mutation of secularism – moving from the notion that governs the state’s relations with other institutions to an ideology that must be internalised by the individual citizen – is a process that has its roots not among the xenophobes and racists of the Front National but rather sections of the Left and defenders of liberal, republican values.

The adoption of secularism by the French state can be traced back to two sets of laws: the Ferry Laws of 1881 and 1882 establishing free, mandatory and secular education, which replaced instruction delivered by priests with a system of state schools staffed by lay teachers; and the 1905 law separating church and state. Each of these laws governs how the state interacts with other institutions, namely religious institutions. Nowhere does it limit an individual’s choice to pursue their religion. For example, Article 2 of the Ferry Laws allowed pupils to take Thursdays off for catechism; indeed, the first article of the 1905 law stipulates that the purpose of the Act is to ensure ‘freedom of conscience’ and ‘free exercise of religion’. At the time, an amendment was tabled to ban priests wearing the soutane, robes worn by Catholic priests. This was decisively rejected and instead, a different amendment was adopted by the Assembly extending religious expression in the public space: ‘Respect for freedom of conscience leads to the mutual respect of beliefs and not to the prohibition of external manifestations of a cult in public,’ said the deputy moving the amendment.

‘When I was a child,’ French philosopher Jacques Rancière wrote, ‘on the day of solemn communions we’d go to school to meet our non-Catholic friends, wearing our communicants’ armbands and handing out pictures. No one thought that this was a threat to laïcité.’ So what changed? How did the onus to subscribe to secularism shift from the state to the individual?

In 1989, three young Muslim women were suspended from a school in Creil, in northern France, for refusing to wear remove their hijab. Education minister at the time was socialist Lionel Jospin who did not defend the young Muslim women but instead said it was up to schools themselves to decide whether the wearing of the hijab would be allowed on a case-by-case basis. Intellectuals of the Left, such as Régis Debray and liberal feminist Élisabeth Badinter, felt compelled to urge Jospin not to ‘capitulate’. In the end, the Conseil d’État ruled that the wearing of the hijab was not in itself against secularist values. But in 1994, the Bayrou memorandum was issued by then education minister François Bayrou, effectively banning the hijab in schools, as it made a distinction between ‘ostentatious’ religious symbols like hijabs and ‘discreet’ religious symbols.

Fast forward a decade and again it’s the Left advocating for the expulsion of two Muslim women, Lila and Alma Lévy, from an Aubervilliers high school. Their father Laurent Lévy argued his daughters were being used as ‘cannon fodder’ by authorities wanting to test rules against religious symbols in schools. This kicked off a sequence of events resulting in the 2004 law against conspicuous symbols in schools. While the law technically forbade all religious symbols, from crucifixes to the kippah, those most affected have been Muslim girls and women. This today has extended to not just within the classroom, but campaigns to ban mothers wearing the veil as they drop their children at school and banning wearing of the veil at university. The niqab and burqa have already been banned in public places, again in the name of secularism and feminism. This liberal defence of secular values came hand-in-hand with the rise in Islamophobia.

Historian Jean Baubérot notes that it’s not radical Islam but rather the territory of Alsace-Moselle which ‘is the most important departure from secularism’ in France today. The territory, which includes the cities of Metz and Strasbourg, does not subscribe to either the Ferry Laws or the 1905 law separating church and state. Religious education is compulsory in schools, with four official religions recognised by the French state (not Islam) and religious ministers in each of those religions receive a salary from the Interior Ministry. This is because at the time that France was in the process of secularising, Alsace-Moselle was annexed by Germany and when it re-joined France after the First World War, it retained the Napoleonic Concordat allowing for the recognition of its four religions. Yet apart from a challenge in 2013 by a small secularist group, not a single defender of laïque values has ever campaigned against this blatant defiance of secularism. Their campaigns have solely focussed on Muslims in France.

Since the end of the Second World War, it’s no longer acceptable to engage in biological racism, with anti-immigrant proponents preferring cultural justifications. As Rancière says: ‘republican, socialist, revolutionary and progressive ideals have been turned back against themselves. They have become the opposite of what they were meant to be – no longer weapons in the battle for equality, but arms for discrimination, distrust and contempt directed against a supposedly “brutish” or “backward” people.’ The hijab, burka, and now the burkini, enjoy a status in France as the exemplary symbol of women’s subjugation – anathema apparently to France’s republican, feminist spirit, which only granted women the vote in 1945. The policing of the hijab has then become the easiest way to maintain liberal racism hiding behind laïcité. The hijab is at once a symbol of Islam’s backwardness and a tool with which its adherents proselytise. The irony is that rather than empowering Muslim women, these laws exclude Muslim women from public life on account of their dress and religion.

The dismal position by the Left on the question of Islamophobia came to a head in 2010 when the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) preselected hijab-wearing Ilham Moussaïd as a candidate, prompting vicious criticism from the ranks of members and the rest of the Left, like Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the Left Party, who said: ‘You can’t call yourself a feminist while displaying a symbol of patriarchal submission.’ As a result, Moussaïd and others resigned from the NPA in 2011.

It should be noted that the French Left has come a long way from 2011. In the past couple of weeks, the NPA have been responsible for launching protests on French beaches against the burkini ban, like in Port-Leucate where they were hosting their annual summer school. And for some socialist politicians, this ban is a step too far. But in a climate where the government continues to prolong the state of emergency, where state repression of Muslims is becoming more intense and frequent, and where the Far Right continues to enjoy success in the polls, the Left cannot hesitate to stand by Muslims or qualify its support. If we don’t reject the racism inherent within a defence of laïcité today, we only continue to do the Right’s dirty work for them.


Image: ‘Unity of Strength La liberte pour la France’; The national Archives UK/Flickr

Chris di Pasquale

Chris di Pasquale is a Master of Translation student at Monash University and a member of Socialist Alternative.

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  1. Clearly the secularism of Europe, like socialism and fascism, reflect the authoritarian and nationalistic system developed as a reaction and/or as outcome of religious catholic political institutions that were consistently fighting the far more flexible British Liberal tradition that never really found footing in continental Europe. That is why GB, USA, Australia and most Anglophone nations tend on the whole to have avoided authoritarian long-term political systems, the exceptions of slavery in the antebellum south of America or South African apartheid were rooted in Dutch, Flemish and French traditions an inherently antithetical to British liberalism. British liberalism, the foundations of the Magna Carta, possibly reflect the closest link to the imaginings of Athens 500BCE and US’ universalism more to do with the Roman Republic than the French Terror.

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