Understanding Laïcité, the French principle of secularism

It involves the complete removal of religious values from the public sphere and their replacement with secular values such as liberty, equality, and fraternity. The underlying goal of Laïcité is to implant tolerance and assimilate people

September 05, 2023 08:30 am | Updated 12:55 pm IST

A young woman wears an Abaya as she crosses a street in Nantes, western France on August 31.

A young woman wears an Abaya as she crosses a street in Nantes, western France on August 31. | Photo Credit: AFP

Recently, the French government announced that the practice of wearing abaya would be banned in state-run schools as it violated the principle of Laïcité, which is the French idea of secularism. The education minister said, “When you walk into a classroom, you shouldn’t be able to identify the pupils’ religion just by looking at them. Secularism means the freedom to emancipate oneself through school.” He described the abaya as a “religious gesture, aimed at testing the resistance of the republic towards the secular sanctuary that school must be.”

The move was met with criticism by many. Some said that this amounts to a policing of teenagers’ clothing (public schools in France do not have a uniform). Some said that it was an attack on freedom and women’s bodies. Others said that this was yet another instance of Laïcité being used as a tool of oppression rather than assimilation.

The meaning of Laïcité

Coined in the 19th century, Laïcité is a complicated and politically charged term. It is understood as a formal separation of the State and Church. It involves the complete removal of religious values from the public sphere and their replacement with secular values such as liberty, equality, and fraternity. The underlying goal of Laïcité is to implant tolerance and assimilate people. As per the principle, religion is to be confined to the private sphere. It is important to note here that the state plays an important role in ensuring that affairs are run according to the principle of Laïcité.

Laïcité, a product of the struggle of anti-clerical Republicans against the power of the Catholic Church, was an abstract idea following the French Revolution in 1789. It took a concrete shape in the form of The Law of 1905 in the Third Republic when state-run secular schools were established. The Law of 1905 guarantees freedom of conscience and freedom of worship except when it clashes with public order. It states that the Republic would neither pay for nor subsidise any form of worship. Today, while there are publicly funded Catholic schools in France, most children attend public schools which are secular spaces and free of cost.

Change in demographics

Laïcité was not seen as problematic for the most part of the 20th century because France was largely homogenous. In the 1950s and 1960s, however, there was large-scale decolonisation in North Africa, which led to an influx of immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries such as Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. The change in demographics caused episodic tensions.

The incident that particularly rattled France and drew extensive press coverage was in 1989 when three Muslim girls, who refused to remove their head scarves in class, were expelled from their school in the town of Creil, about 48 kilometres from Paris. The headmaster claimed that he was enforcing Laïcité. Muslim leaders as well as Catholic leaders decried the move, arguing that Laïcité meant respect for and tolerance of religious differences among students. The confusion over the term was clear, for the incident was both condoned and opposed in the name of Laïcité. In November that year, the Supreme Court ruled that the headscarf was not incompatible with the principle of Laïcité.

This incident, in particular, brought Islam to the centre of the debate. Over the next few decades, global developments, such as the 9/11 attack and the invasion of Afghanistan by the U.S., and domestic ones, such as the rise of the National Front, which was avowedly anti-immigration; the shooting of journalists at Charlie Hebdo; and the killing of three people at a church in the city of Nice all contributed to this and arguably led to anti-Muslim sentiment.

Following the recommendation of the Stasi Commission, which was set up to reflect upon the application of the Laïcité principle, France passed a law in 2004 prohibiting the wearing of “ostentatious” symbols that have a clear religious meaning, such as a Catholic dress, a Jewish kippah, or a Muslim headscarf, in public spaces. In 2011, France banned the wearing of face-covering veils in public places. Every such controversial decision of the French state in the name of Laïcité has led to new interpretations of the principle. Although Laïcité applies to all religions — there was a row in 2012 when a Sikh man was asked to remove his turban for an official photograph — the debate has increasingly moved to Muslim practices in the last few decades.

In 2015, a Muslim girl in France was banned from class for wearing a long black skirt that was seen as “too openly religious” despite the 2004 law allowing for “discreet religious practices” and the girl arguing that it was not a “religious sign.” In 2018, there was an outcry when a student wore a headscarf during a television interview in her university campus even though this is not illegal in France (headscarves are allowed in universities since students are adults). In 2020, following the beheading of a school teacher for showing cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammed, French President Emmanuel Macron banned homeschooling for children over three years old and asked Muslim leaders to agree to a “charter of republic values” as part of a broad clampdown on radical Islam. Long garments like abayas have been seen as a grey area so far, since Muslim groups have said that an abaya is not “required religious attire” but is in fact a fashionable garment tied to Arab culture. These incidents have led to the belief that promoting discrimination against Muslims has become acceptable under the guise of Laïcité.

A different approach?

Yet, despite efforts to ensure secularism, 36% of French people said in a survey in 2022 that they believe that secularism was “rather not sufficiently” being defended in France, while 21% said it was “not at all” being defended.

The question now is whether Laïcité actually helps people integrate into society or whether it is being used as a tool to oppress communities. Do people have to give up their own traditions and practices in order to assimilate (Mr. Macron said there was a need to “free Islam in France from foreign influences” and build an “Islam of Enlightenment”)? Or should France let religious identities “dissolve into more diversified practices and identities” (Roy, 2005; translated by Yolande Jansen) in order to ensure integration, which would be a challenge to the principle of Laïcité itself?

Mr. Macron said, “A united France is cemented by Laïcité.” Yet, there is some concern that a tool to prevent social fissures and promote universalism may, in fact, cause more fractures if there is a rigid, unyielding commitment to it.

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