Laïcité: French Educational Values at Play

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A commentary by

David Do Paço
(HEC MW Fellow 2013-2015) (*)







Although the attacks in Paris failed to meet their goal, to generate terror in France, they nevertheless raised many issues on freedom of expression and its potential limits, on our intelligence system and our educational ideals. Indeed, so many reports arrived at the Ministry of Education denouncing the lack of respect for the minute’s silence in homage to the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks that, on Monday 12th, the minister summoned in Paris representatives of teachers, parents and school students. Among other points, they echoed the very sensitive concern about the fragility of laïcité expressed during the Sunday 11th rally. More recently, the prime minister and the minister of education announced together the implementation of new civics classes, reaffirming laïcité – the secular tradition – as an untouchable principle, and this has generated many comments and misunderstandings in the international media.

Improving the Ferry Laws (1881-2) that made school obligatory and free, Laïcité does not result from a simple process of secularization. In classic French political culture, religion is regarded as a form of alienation of the mind. Thus, from 1905, when Church and State were separated by law, a teacher’s mission was also to emancipate young people from religion in order to make them “true republicans”. Nevertheless, and even if we have continued to think that the word of a teacher – “black hussar of the Republic” as Charles Peguy said – matters more than that of a clergyman, laïcité progressively accepted religion, in so far as it was restricted to the private sphere. The hijab has been forbidden in schools, along with the crucifix and the Star of David. This is not racism – and laïcité cannot be understood if we do not take into account that in France no-one can legally ask publicly the religion or the ethnic background of another – but the expression that school is the matrix of French citizenship that no religion can divide.

Nevertheless, school has never denied religions as social facts. I received a Catholic education through my family and, while I was preparing my communion as a 12 year old boy, the school of the Republic taught me the five pillars of Islam, as well as the difference between Judaism and Christianity and between Catholics, the Orthodox and Protestants. Later, I entered a private high-school, one of the five former Catholic high-schools that remained open in 1905, since the priests accepted the secular Republic and were defrocked. Though deeply atheist today, I have to confess that the implementation of laïcité was not always very fair, tending sometimes to stigmatize the Catholic past of France – associated with the Ancien Régime – and showing deep sympathy towards other Christian confessions and other religions. All this has certainly fed into the background of my Ph.D. and broadly into research dealing with religious diversity and Muslim communities in Early Modern Europe.

As a secondary school teacher in history, I also faced the strong reaction of students on identity issues, though in a much more relaxed context than today. By the way, when I had to refer to laïcité it was always to ask for the removal of a pendant with a cross, or a hidden ugly – “republicanly speaking” – sweatshirt with an enormous cross drawn on it, which was very fashionable a couple of years ago. If the media are focused only on the Muslim population – according to Olivier Roy “in France, there is not a Muslim community, but a Muslim population” – and the apparently difficult integration of Islam with Western societies, it always makes me smile to compare the supposed habitus of the children of the Muslim migrants from Maghreb with that of the Portuguese community, which through my own family history I know pretty well and which is definitely very well integrated. In both cases, it is the second generation that totally recreates, first, a national and, then, an ethno-religious identity, which the first generation may have never endorsed, claimed or sometimes even heard of. Although, this has nothing to do with the origin of the parents or with religion, this fits in with postmodernism, the reinvention of specific imaginary community bonds and the promotion of a diasporic narrative, but mostly, this is the consequence of an inability to put forward a republican ideal and to make more important what is shared than what divides.

Over the two last decades, numerous reforms to the French educational system, reforms of secondary school teachers’ training and their selection, and the development of insidious discourses, generated first by former governments, undermining the authority of scholars and teachers, are partially responsible for the difficulty in promote laïcité in schools and making it respected. If the problem of French persons shooting at other French persons, apparently for religious reasons, cannot be fixed without deep socio-economic reforms, it is essential to create the conditions for reaffirming this civic ideal. What people on the street said on Sunday 11th was also that our democracy somehow needs a stronger Republic. And France is not an isolated case. Celebrating the 20th anniversary of German reunification, the former federal president, Christian Wulff, explained that political unification has to entail social unification:  “Islam gehört zu Deutschland” (Islam belongs to Germany), he said. This is a principle that Angela Merkel reaffirmed recently. This is more broadly true for the whole of European history, a fact that historians have emphasized almost for a decade.

To be clear, I consider Islam as humanism that is definitely compatible with laïcité, not because I philosophically think it but because for decades, if not centuries, French Muslims have been demonstrating this. Islam is not the point, Islam is not even a point but a social fact. Moreover, it is urgent that we come back to the true definition of words. Jihad is a deep and respectable cause; this is before everything the struggle between a Muslim and evil temptations, so that he lives his life in accordance with Mahomet’s teaching, i. e. with faith, devotion, compassion, tolerance and pity. A man who runs the jihad is not a “jihadist” but a mujahidin and the true mujahidin was Lassana Bathily, a Muslim Malian illegal immigrant, who works in the Hyper Cacher in Vincennes and risked his life to save four Jews. Another was Ahmed Merabet, a policeman who died protecting a magazine, whose stated ideas he didn’t necessarily share. Rehabilitating these terms is the first step to reaffirming the place of Islam in Western societies and, of course, its entire place in the French laic system.

(*) The MWPBlog is a platform for MW Fellows to address scholarly topics and comment on current affairs. The thoughts expressed in the posts represent solely the views of the posting Fellows and not of the Max Weber Programme