From the 2011 veil ban law to the recent senate vote on the hijab, the French remain institutionally and instinctively committed to laïcité, the original model of secularism
Kenza Drider addresses the media in a protest against the veil ban outside Cathédrale Notre-Dame in Paris, April 11, 2011 (Photo: Getty Images)
Monday, April 11th, 2011 was a sunny day in Paris with intimations of spring. The Seine looked blue from any bridge, the temperature in the mid-twenties was pleasant, and the cruise boats were full. But there was an advisory about avoiding the vicinity of Notre-Dame. It was the day the Act Prohibiting the Concealing of the Face in Public (passed on October 11th, 2010) was to come into force and a protest was expected in and around the Île de la Cité. Two women would be arrested that day for participating in the unauthorised protest. They did not quite make history—which they would have, had they been detained under the colloquially called “veil ban law”. But it was a historic day. More than five years after the riots of 2005 in the banlieues and with four years still to go for the beginning of the serial wrecking of Paris—from the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015 followed by the Bataclan in November and subsequently the gilets jaunes protests through the rioting after the 2018 World Cup final—that incident near Notre-Dame, its cause and its consequences were a big deal. But first, the backstory.
Did the clergy fall or did the laity rise? The 1958 constitution on which rests the Fifth Republic, calls France “une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale (an indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic)”. The 1905 law on the Separation of the Churches and State made in the Third Republic never used the much-revered, much-abused and much more misunderstood word “laïcité”. That law, however, marks the beginning of France’s grappling with the problem of religion in the 20th and 21st centuries when it fully separated state and church, legally prohibiting the state from recognising any religion, let alone using its coffers to fund one.
Laïcité, of course, goes a long way back. In perhaps one of the most remarkable processes of re-definition after the Revolution of 1789-99, a word which was little different in its import from the English “laity” came to mean keeping the church (or religion) out of and away from government. The rationale was to protect public institutions from the influence of religion while also ensuring governmental non-interference in matters of religion, an essentially private matter for every citizen—except when a religious issue impinged on public order and the life of citizens in the Republic. But the 1905 law did not make laïcité a legally enforceable principle since it did not even use the term. That elevation was left to the ill-fated Fourth Republic and the Constitution of 1946. Yet, even after World War II, laïcité was left practically undefined from a legal perspective which, however, did not make it ‘meaningless’.
Laïcité, in the aftermath of the Revolution and then from the early 20th century through the first five decades of the Fifth Republic, was steadily valorised to become synonymous with the distinctiveness of French national identity, so much so that any compromise on it was seen as tantamount to negating the idea of France itself. (The separation of church and state does not apply to Alsace-Moselle, formerly Alsace-Lorraine, which was part of Germany since 1871 and did not return to France until 1918.) Laïcité does not infringe on the right of the individual to freely practise his or her religion and is, in principle, meant to preserve that right by keeping the state’s nose out of it. And yet, the debate on laïcité within French society has hinged on this point, both in the contemporary context of multi-religious democratic Western societies as well as the more historical, and specifically Catholic, question of anti-clericalism.
If we see laïcité as empowering, then not only does it keep public offices free of religious interference but it also protects minorities by linking the absence of state religion and the state’s distancing from religion to freedom of thought which would naturally extend to freedom of religion in private
If we see laïcité as positive and empowering, then not only does it keep public offices free of religious interference and the state unbiased (in today’s heterogeneous French society) but it also protects minorities by linking the absence of state religion and the state’s distancing from religion to freedom of thought which would naturally extend to freedom of religion. In the older context, going back to the beginning, this would mean an absence—of either state or church from the space of the other— thereby differentiating laïcité from the anti-clericalism that too had marked the revolt against the Church of Rome. This is the biggest strength of the ‘French model’ of secularism. It is, arguably, also its biggest weakness which critics and opponents of laïcité in practice have traditionally pounced on to point at its constraints on the free observance of religion and also its actual hostility to religion and, originally, the church, thus being a disguised form of anti-clericalism bequeathed to republican France by the Revolution. From this perspective, laïcité is negative and restrictive.
The trigger that reignited the debate, a little more than a decade ago, was pulled by Nicolas Sarkozy. The man who, as interior minister, had handled the 2005 riots believed the time had come for a little generosity towards religion and acknowledging its contribution to French history. If faith were to be partially allowed into the public space and discourse, perhaps the government—which recognised religious organisations but not religions—too could subsidise some religious groups?
President Sarkozy’s advocacy of a new “positive laïcité” found its most significant endorser in Pope Benedict XVI. And the man who had established the Fifth Republic in October 1958, Charles de Gaulle, twice saviour of France, had been publicly proud of France’s Christian heritage. But then, in early 2010, two criminals in burqas walked in and held up a post office at gunpoint. Sarkozy, who had already started voicing his reservations about the burqa and face-covering veils—his reopening of the debate was being opposed by private citizens, most of his own UMP and the Socialists, as well as various religious bodies— turned around and blessed the law prohibiting the covering of the face in public that was passed on October 11th, 2010 with overwhelming support from both sides of the political divide. It would come into effect on April 11th, 2011, with the six-month reprieve to be used for a public awareness campaign.
On April 11th, 2011, I had spent most of the day at Quai d’Orsay (metonym for the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs) and its vicinity, always at a stone’s throw from Notre-Dame but missing the most dramatic moments of the action. Asked to write on the débat du jour by the newspaper I worked for at the time, I spoke to bureaucrats at hand (including a top Sarkozy advisor at the Élysée whose name could not be disclosed then as offering an opinion on the law), legal professionals, students at Place Saint-Michel near the Sorbonne, as well as North African shop assistants in the 18th arrondissement. Retrieving my old notes (I never throw any paper away), what strikes me is the sincerity and naïveté verging on innocence of my interviewees who, like me, had little inkling as to the horrors that would unfold over the decade. The debate has moved much further and yet, the continued resistance to compromise on laïcité in France has kept them almost as relevant today as in 2011. A couple of these I am reproducing but only in their already-printed form.
Gabrielle, lawyer and feminist: “If one goes to southern France, one finds men in swimming trunks but the women covered up. Is this hideousness individual choice? If you leave it to choice, it’s the men who decide. That’s what happens in Britain. The British multicultural model was praised when we had our riots in 2005. Not anymore. Such punishment on women doesn’t square with French values. Some amount of integration helps immigrants’ children mix in society. That’s why immigrants are taught French! The veil is an enormous problem for integration. As a woman, I don’t believe any woman would choose it. This is the position of most thinking women in France.”
Rachid and Fayçal, shop assistants: “The veil ban is a manufactured issue. Crime in the banlieues? That’s unemployment. They won’t give us decent jobs. We don’t care about this law because ban or no ban, it’s not going to make any difference to our lives.”
In 2011, the Left hadn’t yet wholly repositioned itself on identity and the banlieues were still concerned about money and jobs. The controversy never came close to what happened after the French Senate voted to prohibit girls under 18 wearing the hijab in public in April 2021 (10 years after the veil ban).
Later in the day on April 11th, a young woman was fined €150 for keeping her face covered while entering a shop, becoming the first statistic under the law. As explained to the public, the law had three premises. One, liberty and gender equality: women concealing their face are prevented from socialising freely, failing to relate to other citizens, and being forced into exclusion from social life. This directly violated the French constitution on gender equality. Two, public security: the prohibition on covering one’s face at airports, exam halls, courts, poll booths, etcetera had preceded the ‘veil ban’. (In subsequent years, especially after the Nice attack of July 2016, further prohibitions came into force, culminating in the Senate’s headscarves ban in sport in January 2022.) Three, public order: the French would call upon their republican social pact and its inclusion of the rules of sociability and social intercourse.
In 2011, it was also argued by the Socialists that Sarkozy was pushing farther right because of the threat from Marine le Pen. After all, very few women in France, which had Western Europe’s largest Muslim population at the time, reportedly wore a face-covering veil although the government estimated the number to be almost 2,000. But that remained, in retrospect, a matter of political point scoring since most French citizens, like the government, were bothered by religious ostentation in public. Ironically, the veil ban was based not on laïcité but free social intercourse, equality and security. The police were not looking for every headscarf, just the burqa and the niqab that concealed the face. Even the French Council of the Muslim Faith had declared its provisions general and not targeted at Islam.
Ironically, the 2011 veil ban was based not on laïcité but free social intercourse, equality and security. Even the French council of the Muslim faith had declared its provisions general and not targeted at Islam. Things never came close to what happened after the French senate voted to prohibit girls under 18 wearing the hijab in public in 2021
The ground has been blown up from under France and Europe since 2011 through terror and the mass arrival of refugees. An indirect legacy of the law is an intellectual battle. It would eventually trigger the public feud between Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy.
Olivier Roy’s Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah (2006) argued that it’s not Islam that has been radicalised but rather radicalism that has been Islamised, that radical youth were predisposed to radicalism and the history of Islamic fundamentalism in the West had to seen against the backdrop of youth radicalism. From that perspective, even the Charlie Hebdo or Bataclan attack would have to be seen in continuation from, say, the Red Brigade in Italy or the Baader-Meinhof Gang in West Germany. Moreover, Roy blamed the burkini and veil bans in particular and laïcité as a whole for the hardening of Muslim opinion, provoking violence. This line of argument tied in rather neatly with his other idea that “re-Islamisation” is an attempt by Muslim minorities in non-Islamic Western societies to assert their identity. It’s not an exaggeration to say this is the essential, revised leftist position, put in place long before official wokeism.
Gilles Kepel, the author of Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (2000) and the more recent Terror in France: The Rise of Jihad in the West (2017), whose Jihad looked at the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s in the Middle East, has argued that the Islamist objective of establishing a global caliphate is based on a strict reading of the Quran. What Kepel called a “Salafi Volksgemeinschaft” would only lead to violence since it could not reconcile itself with the democratic West. The clash engendered by such “en-trenched Salafism” ultimately aims to destroy Europe by inflicting on it a civil war. In an interview with Israeli daily Haaretz in June 2017, Kepel said: “Roy’s theory on the Islamification of radicalism is the theory of someone who does not speak Arabic and does not look into the relation between jihadi actions and the Salafi doctrine behind them… The real challenge lies in understanding the radicalization of Islam and its connection to terrorism.” In response to Roy’s claim that “oversecularization” of France and Western society, by marginalising religion, had exposed the faithful to fundamentalism, Kepel countered: “Britain, they said, remains untouched thanks to a greater tolerance of religion. Now look what happened: France hasn’t been attacked in eight months, while Britain is constantly targeted.” (The reference was to the Westminster and London Bridge attacks of March and June 2017.)
Kepel has called terror in France a “retro-colonial resentment” that affects youth already socially isolated, a condition worsened by the financial crisis. But he also extends this to the UK: “Its imperial past in the Indian subcontinent, and particularly the situation they left in Kashmir, has an impact on local patterns of radicalization.” In Terror in France, Kepel draws the updated battlelines: “…after the banlieues riots of 2005, the UOIF [Union des organisations islamiques de France] has since suffered strong competition from the Salafist movement in the battle for French Muslim minds. This “total” (in French, intégrale) view of the Muslim religion relies on a grand narrative promoting cultural separation from “infidel” French society. It recruits primarily among disenfranchised young people in the banlieues, where that blend of “total” Islam has become not only the norm in many places, multiplying ostensible markers in the urban fabric, but also a portentous habitus for their residents.”
The events of 2012-18, beginning with Mohammed Merah in Toulouse, have shaken the foundations of French secular republicanism. But for all the bloodbaths, diluting laïcité has never been on the cards. For, laïcité is France. Unbiased (or equally biased) and non-discriminatory (the veil ban was not about Islam), laïcité has not meant the laity, who would still be people of the church, for a long time. For all its flaws and allegations of Islamophobia, the French model remains, in theory, perhaps the fairest of them all.