Many have argued all this is the product of a complete misinterpretation of the 1905 law which introduced ‘laïcité’ in France.
Jean Beauberot's book looks at the contemporary debates and argues first Sarkozy, and latterly Marine Lepen – who has become the most recent champion of ‘laïcité’ – have broken with the original intention and meaning of the 1905 law. He argues that their ‘new laïcité’ has nothing to do with laïcité as it emerged historically.
Firstly on some semantics: how should the word laïcité be translated into English? This immediately brings us to the core of the entire controversy.
Bauberot would argue strongly against translating it as ‘secularism’ pure and simple. He would argue the accurate translation to be ‘state secularism’ as the 1905 law deals with the political as opposed to the social field – contrary to what its falsifiers argue to justify their attacks on Muslim rights.
The name of the law spells it out clearly: it is the law of ‘Separation of the Churches and the State’.
The 1905 law was progressive and a gain for the left in France.
Before the French revolution, the autocratic power of the monarchical state was legitimised by religion. The 1789 revolution liberated the state from the sway of the Catholic church. But this did not last long and throughout the 19th century the issue was fought out between the Catholic church allied with the monarchists on the one hand, and the left and republicans on the other.
This religious and political ‘conflict between the two Frances’ as it was called reached its highest peak with the Dreyfus affair, which polarised society between the Conservative, Catholic, pro-Army forces and the anti-clerical, republican camp.
The victory of the republican camp, including the exoneration of Dreyfus in 1906, was the context for the passing of the 1905 law, which epitomizes this victory.
Far from being a repressive law against religion, the 1905 law protects freedom of faith. Its first article states: ‘The Republic guarantees freedom of conscience’ and ‘freedom of worship’. Its 5th chapter affirms the right to public expression of faith.
These are the points on which Sarkozy’s and Marine Lepen's ‘new laïcité’ are a complete break with the 1905 law.
In 2010 Marine Lepen caused a furore when she compared Muslim’s participating in prayers in the street – due to a lack of space in mosques or prayers rooms – to the Nazi occupation. Her comments were strongly condemned across the whole political spectrum but the ideological damage was immense.
For example, in response to a question in a poll ‘How many streets do Muslims pray in on Fridays?’ the average answer was 195. This is a delusional figure! Marine Lepen herself had reckoned it was between 10 to 15 streets, but the reality was less than 10. So it was a real success in terms of creating Islamophobic myths.
She then followed this up by explicitly claiming that Muslims were not applying the approach of laïcité, arguing this means religious beliefs should remain in the private domain, therefore Muslims should pray at home.
Evidently this is a complete falsification of the 1905 law which talks about and defends the public manifestation of religion.
But she set the agenda. Now a lot of people, including on the left, think that religion should be confined to the ‘private’ sphere and that this is the real meaning of the idea of ‘laïcité’.
This is not a correct interpretation of the intention of the 1905 law, which defends the right for religion to be expressed publicly, through processions, religious events or speeches and through the establishment of religious buildings etc.
The law ensures that the state cannot impose a set of religious beliefs on the population, and that a particular faith or sect cannot determine the law or approach of the state. Religion maybe a personal conviction, but the requirement on the state is that it ensures all religions have an equal right to be expressed publicly.
But Marine Lepen’s falsification of the meaning of state secularism would not have such an impact if the 1905 law was not also constantly distorted by the right wing UMP for their own purposes of promoting Islamophobia.
The UMP when it was in office before May 2012 organised two national debates which helped spread Islamophobic sentiment.
The first was on ‘national identity’ and the second was on ‘laïcité’. The UMP’s real intention was shown by the agenda for the latter which was divided into two parts: the first was on state secularism as it applies to all religions, and the second was just on Islam. In response all six of the major religions of France (Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism) denounced this stigmatisation of Islam, and 26 secular organisations (including 6 Freemason groups) condemned the setting up of a false debate about Islam and laïcité.
Despite this opposition the conference took place, and although it was a fiasco, it further spread the idea that Islam is uniquely contrary to ‘laïcité’.
Behind these misinterpretations of the right and extreme right of ‘laïcité’, a repressive intent is being smuggled in.
The idea that the state should control religion has nothing to do with the spirit of liberalism of the 1905 law, but is reminiscent of the way state Catholicism persecuted Protestants for several centuries in France.
Sarkozy went even further in this revisionism claiming ‘laïcité’ was linked to France’s ‘Christian roots’. This is to deny the real history of state secularism in France, which came out of conflict and civil war - three centuries of religious wars, persecutions, anti-Jewish pogroms, colonisation and immigration.
Whereas in the past the idea of state secularism was seen as a concept of the left in France, nowadays the right and the far right have become the strongest defenders of a distorted ‘laïcité’, which they use to promote their Islamophobic agenda.
Although the right are clearly diverting the concept of state secularism from the original meaning of the 1905 law, we should not forget that this has only been possible because the left itself has been so deeply divided around the question of the hijab.
It is time all the parties of the left came to terms with the disastrous consequences of such confusions and backward debates in allowing a huge tide of racism and Islamophobia to develop.
It is time to launch a new debate on the left on these questions, to return to a progressive, liberal concept of state secularism that defends freedom of conscience, faith and cultural expression while maintaining the separation between religion and state.
This could create a basis to start to unite to confront the advance of Islamophobic, racist and neo—Nazi trends in France.