Is France still a secular state?
There is an urgent need to lay the foundation for a genuine social cohesion while respecting citizens’ diversity.
“Being French means being European, white and Catholic.” One could be forgiven for thinking that this phrase is attributed to a thinker from Europe’s medieval period or even the time of the Crusades. However, this is 2016 and these are the words of Robert Menard, an elected French politician, mayor of the city of Beziers, one century after the 1905 law that enforced the separation of church and state and emphasized the state’s neutrality towards all religions and citizens.
Menard’s perception of what it means to be French reflects a growing pattern among French politicians and statesmen whose recent rhetoric places emphasis on the French identity’s Christian roots.
Recently, Nicolas Sarkozy, former president and presidential candidate for the 2017 election, portrayed France as “a country of churches, of cathedrals, monasteries and crosses, a Christian country in its culture and customs”.
One might be tempted to believe that French politicians’ rhetoric is merely for media consumption at a time of election fever, however, these political diatribes have occured over many years at various occasions and not necessarily election-related.
Neutrality of the state
In 2012, a few months after Francois Hollande had been elected president, his interior minister at the time, Manuel Valls, affirmed, while wearing a Kippah yarmulke, that “France’s Jews could wear with pride their kippa as does the interior minister”.
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A similar incident took place earlier this year when – in an unprecedented move – two French MPs wore Kippa inside the National Assembly in solidarity with a French Jewish teacher who was attacked a few days before.
Also, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks against Charlie Hebdo magazine, both Hollande and Valls wore Kippas during a memorial ceremony for the victims held at the Paris Great Synagogue.
Such examples call into question the neutrality of the state – and its representatives – vis a vis the different religious communities. Similar gestures of solidarity by French politicians towards French Muslim citizens, whose faith is constantly vilified, are non-existent.
It would be surprising – and surely anti-secular – to have a minister or an MP wearing a veil in a symbolic gesture to show solidarity with veiled women who frequently come under attack nationwide.
While the state’s representatives can obviously express solidarity with citizens, and for the sake of consistency with the state’s secular nature, this should neither be done through embracing any religious symbols nor in a selective manner, as has been the case with French politicians who show respect for one religion while demonising another religion and holding its symbols in contempt.
It would be surprising - and surely anti-secular - to have a minister or an MP wearing a veil in a symbolic gesture to show solidarity with veiled women who frequently come under attack nationwide.
This is not to mention regular tirades against Muslim women’s veil such as the one made by Laurence Rossignol, France’s minister for women’s rights, who, in March 2016, compared “Muslim women who wear the veil with American Negroes who accepted slavery”.
This problematic approach suggests that the state has failed to address such contrasting realities by not holding some of its officials, who fan the flames of Islamophobia, to account, particularly when considering that Article-1 of France’s constitution states that: “France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion. It shall respect all beliefs.”
Symbol of the French republic
This begs the question: how faithful are the state representatives and politicians to the state’s secular principles? And are they upholding the constitution when they embrace religious symbols or engage in stigmatisation of one particular religion – Islam – and the French citizens who adhere to it?
The question is almost rhetorical. Recently Valls suggested that the symbol of the French republic, Marianne, “isn’t wearing a veil because she is free”, in a display that puts a religious practice – the wearing of the veil by Muslim women – in conflict with a founding principle of the republic which is liberty.
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On another occasion, Valls strongly vilified Muslim women’s veil, when in April 2016 he described Islamic veil as symbolising the “enslavement of women“.
Such practices and discourses, that have helped frame Islam as a religion incompatible with the republic, are in complete contradiction with the French constitution’s secular spirit and can only reinforce the stigmatisation of Muslim citizens, thus reinforcing their isolation from the rest of society.
In the long term, such a stigma endured by Muslim citizens would force them into seclusion, which could entail grave consequences for France’s social cohesion because isolation helps religious extremisms taking roots and develop.
In that sense, Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies Tariq Ramadan recently wrote: “Instead of defining an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ that distinguishes between Europeans and Muslims, we have to say ‘us’, together, and with conviction. […] We urgently need to establish partnerships based on respect, trust and critical debate between political institutions, social organisations and citizens.”
Therefore, there is an urgent need for a serious reflection on the part of the state to work on laying the foundation for a genuine social cohesion while respecting citizens’ diversity and equality, therefore adhering to the principles that constitute the true essence of the secular state.
In view of the current socio-political setting, the answer to the question of whether France is still a secular state becomes more evident: The French Republic’s secularism is a noble theoretical vision of the state’s duties towards its citizens; however it remains just that; a theory that urgently needs to be implemented.
Ali Saad is a French sociologist and media critic, focusing on the influence of mass media on society.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.