With the French law against conspicuous religious signs, the outer world gets a glimpse of a key-instrument of France’s social-engineering invented along centuries of internal conflicts : laicity. At a time of growing internal and international social conflicts, it may be good news that this French debate finally crosses borders.
Wherever I travel recently, I get the same interrogations about the French law on conspicuous signs of religion. People abroad are obviously interested by the idea, most of the time they are critical (certainly because their national media are) but also curious to learn more about it (obviously because they sense there is something there to understand). This short article is my contribution to the clarification the French owe to all those who wonder about this “strange initiative”.
A few precisions about the French law on religious signs
First of all, the law applies to all religious signs (Christian big crosses, Jewish kipas, Muslim veils, and so on), so I really wonder why the media are so much focused on denouncing possible harassment for the Muslim population only (the US media in particular, strangely enough as they were the ones who lit the fire about some Christian-Muslim clash of civilization, a fire which requires Europe to take measures of exception in order to maintain social peace among their population made up of many Muslims).
Secondly, the law does not concern people’s religious appearance in the streets of France ; it only concerns their appearance within state-facilities such as schools (teachers and pupils), local, regional and national administrations (servants only),…
Third, this law is meant to support state agents to enforce the French structural principle of “laicity”. It was created in reply to a many year-old growing demand from school-teachers and directors in particular, who lacked tangible tools in their effort to enforce laicity within their schools. Therefore the debate that took place in France never questioned the grounds on which the law was based (the fact that pupils should not expose conspicuous signs of religion is perfectly accepted by French multi-religious population) ; it questioned whether a law was really necessary when the French Constitution was already clear about the principle of religious neutrality inside Republican facilities.
The re-birth of laicity in France
In the last 30-40 years, laicity was almost completely forgotten and misunderstood. Apart from small groups of French “Republicans” defending the “values and institutions of the Republic” (laicity, democracy, equality, freedom…), laicity had less and less echo among younger generations. It had turn into one of those empty meaning theoretical words that represent nothing. There are two reasons to this :
. the level of social coherence in France (and in the Western world on the whole) was high enough and required no interrogation as to its improvement
. but also, the classification of laicity among “values” was a killer : happiness, democracy, freedom, peace… are values which societies must constantly put their effort in tending to. Laicity ranges among the instruments designed to conduct society towards the ideal state of social peace. People do not dream to live in “laic” societies ! They dream to live in peaceful societies and they expect their political leaders to use all the instruments available to that purpose ; among them is laicity.
Since September 11th, Europeans and the French in particular who count between 4 and 5 million Muslims among their population, have become greatly aware that the risk has considerably increased of some internal social conflicts to take place. This awareness leads to the adoption of a growing number of measures, some of which are based on more police and surveillance of the populations concerned ; others are aimed at avoiding those groups to turn into closed communities. The law on religious signs belongs to the second category of measures : instead of isolating a group and reinforcing the police, increase the pace of their integration !
How was laicity invented in France ?
French unity is the result of centuries of policies aimed at integrating geographical regionalisms, cultural communities, language colloquialisms, etc… France is the result of the integration of Germanic and Roman cultural features, of protestant and catholic religious traits, of repeated military invasions (remember how the Normands invaded Normandie and … became so French that the King entrusted them to protect Paris from more Normand invasions in the Xth century !) and of regular waves of immigration. France is not a “one ethnical culture” society ; its only legitimacy lies in the fact that “France is a French-making machine”.
Even though it is indeed quite often the authoritative method that was used for the purpose, something more sustainable has always been involved in this process. Centuries of cultural integration have conducted the French to distinguish between success-bearer measures and failure-bearer ones, and have helped them define more and more precisely the most efficient instrument to promote social coherence This instrument took the name of “laicity” and was based on a principle of strict separation between the various levels of social integration of the individual. Indeed, the individual is the result of a combination of different social groups : his family, his region/village/town, his religion, his state, etc. ; the free individual does not have to choose among those traits of his individuality which must by all means avoid colliding otherwise the individual’s freedom is at risk as well as social peace : Corneille’s theater displays cases of individual destruction resulting from diverging injunctions between family code of honour and state reason. Laicity is a matter of good organization : don’t install voting urns in churches, don’t speak Basque when representing the national level, don’t wear big crosses in a state’s school, etc. Just as you don’t dine in the toilet or sleep in the kitchen ! In the same way, the priest doesn’t care about one’s nationality which is totally irrelevant to expose in church – yet it doesn’t prevent anyone from being French, German or British ! Why then should the nation care about one’s religion and why should one find it relevant to expose it in school ? Being Christian, Jewish or Muslim should be enough, shouldn’t it ?
Of course the enemy of laicity is extremism and that’s why the only voices heard during the debate about the law on conspicuous signs were those of the less tolerant communities who fulminated against the “intolerance” of the law while moderate open-minded Catholic, Jewish or Muslim believers (fortunately 95%) fully understood the need to enforce more strictly those rules of laicity which they know is a guarantee of their freedom of religion.
Laicity serves one purpose : to create social coherence among multicultural societies
Any society is made up of differences. These differences are a source of live, richness, success, momentum, but under some circumstances they also become seeds of self-destruction. Managing differences is the role of all leaders (family patriarchs, school directors, company chairmen, national presidents, …) with the aim to create synergies and to reach a state of social peace. For this purpose, 3 methods exist and 3 only :
1. The authoritative method : That’s the most primitive and obvious method based on the idea that all diverging differences are suppressed (imprisoned, killed, exiled, marginalised…). Dictators apply this method to all the aspects of the group they lead. Political systems based on this method of social engineering are doomed to self-destruction : in their pursuit of an homogenous society, as soon as they get rid of one heterogeneous sub-group, a new one appears : the Jewish, then the dark-haired, then the black-eyed, then the dark blue-eyed, etc…. The only society authoritarian systems can manage is one of clones ; that’s probably why cloning and nazism were so often linked together in our imaginations !
2. The tolerant method : It is the other extreme and a method in rapid diminution worldwide. It is based on the idea that the majority group should make the effort to “tolerate” (the word is explicit about the method’s limits !) all the others as they are. The prerequisite for this method to have some efficiency is that there is a dominant sub-group whose rules are THE rule and therefore likely to harass minority sub-groups. Tolerance is really an efficient method to respect human rights in a society heavily controlled by one group (e.g. the WASPS in the US). However the generous feeling that founds this method results from a very strong social self-confidence. Therefore this sort of society is very fragile : as soon as some social stress diminishes the main group’s self confidence, the risk becomes high that it turns to authoritative methods. And as it is a fact that the implementation of this line of social policies results in strengthening minorities and therefore in weakening the main group, the tolerant method is not sustainable. Another flaw related to this method is that it does not enable mutual enrichment : each social group lives immutably next to the others ; it is a “be nice to the ghetto” system ! “Political correctness” has been the most famous ideology related to this method for some years !
3. Laicity : It is meant for multicultural societies. Indeed laicity does not favour one group over the others, it favours common rules for everyone. It is based on the XVIIIth century concept of “contrat social” meaning that being French does not mean being white catholic, but means that each member of the society agrees to sign for a certain number of values and instruments : contributing positively to a society by means of a common education made possible by the use of a common language etc. The French-style “laic” Republic takes the individual –and not the group – as the only relevant basic unit of society in order to ensure equality among its citizens. Thus, the very concepts of “dominant group” and “minorities” are absurd and incompatible in a multicultural society based on laicity. For this reason, this system is the only one sustainable and capable to stabilize a society (into a “state”). Cultural variety fully belongs to the features of laic societies but the environment provided for these differences enable them to communicate, exchange, interact, mutually enrich each other, contrary to the partitioned “patchwork-type” societies typical of the previous method (tolerance).
Laicity in the 21st century
Due to the fact that the main foreseeable characteristic of the 21st century worldwide is its multiculturalism, laicity has a future beyond French borders. Indeed until the middle of the 20th century, France and the US were probably the only large, democratic and united national societies strongly multicultural. From the 1950’s onward, the US “melting-pot” system of integration died and the US became a “patchwork-type” society more and more illegitimately ruled by a dominant group (the Wasps) giving itself good conscience because of its “tolerant” attitude towards “minorities”. Simultaneously many mono-cultural democratic countries (most European countries), as a result of immigration flows, started to develop into multicultural societies ; the way they managed this complexification of their societies quite naturally followed the model of a dominant group “tolerating” the presence of different minorities. These countries now realize that they have reached a limit in this way of dealing with immigrants ; laicity would certainly bring fresh ideas for these societies to avoid that racism replaces tolerance and that extreme-rights replace democratic political trends.
One problem however : the word “laicity” conveys an outdated, post-revolutionary, anti-clerical and very French image due to its trip across French centuries of use and abuse. But the principles and rules along which laicity has built its efficiency are worth the debate within every multicultural society eager to maintain freedom and equality at their heart. After all, why not invent a new name for laicity ?