On December 9, 1905, there was a very significant change made in French society that still marks it profoundly today – the French law separating church and state, known as la laïcité (lah lay-ih-see-tay) came into effect. The idea is that government must not appear to take any role in the exercise of any religion, nor must it appear to make any decision that would favor one religion over another. There is a strict separation between la vie privée et la vie publique.
For instance, early in his mandate, former President Sarkozy attended a funeral as a representative of the state. The funeral was in a Catholic church and Sarkozy is a Catholic. At one point in the service, he crossed himself. You would have thought that he made a vulgar gesture for the furor that this caused. I was never a fan of Sarko, but I defended him on this instance on the grounds that this act was a reflex for a Catholic. My French friends would have none of it. One told me that Sarkozy needed to control his reflexes when he was representing the government.
I tend to be pro-laïcité and my francophile daughter is anti. One of the recent controversies in France is based on a 2004 law that bans the wearing of any “conspicuous” religious symbols in public schools. This ban applies to crosses, stars of David, turbans, veils, you name it. I see it as a neutral policy that keeps all religious references out of schools, and my daughter sees it as an unjustified interference of the state in her right of religious expression. Our disputes about this law show how it polarizes French society.
Another highly controversial outgrowth of both laïcité and concern for public safety was the 2011 law against covering the face in public. Here’s how I see it. The French love to protest – always loudly, generally peacefully. Over the past few years on the French news, I watched police try to deal with bands of hooligans who infiltrated peaceful protests in order to commit acts of violence and vandalism. Due to the sophistication of face recognition technology, the hooligans covered their faces with ski masks to avoid detection. In 2009, a bank was robbed by burqa-clad bandits who were clearly just using the garments to mask their identities. A law was drafted to address this – all face coverings were banned in public. The total ban included the traditional Muslim burqa or niqab, and an unholy furor broke out. The government followed through with the ban despite heavy opposition. Statistically, very few women in France actually wore the burqa at the time that the law was proposed, but no one likes to be told what they can’t do, and burqas sold out all over the country. Burqa-clad women would appear in groups in public places in order to be arrested as a form of protest. It seems as though things have calmed down, however.
Still, there are plenty of weird exceptions to laïcité in French life. The school vacations tend to follow the liturgical calendar, for example les vacances de la Toussaint (All Saints’ Day vacation at the beginning of November). It’s typical at the end of the weather report to talk about which saint day tomorrow will be, “Demain, on fête tous les Thomas,” because people used to be named according to the saint associated with the day they were born. The government pays the salaries of chaplains in prisons, but the ratio of imams to Catholic chaplains is not at all proportionate to the religious affiliations of the prisoners. In fact, one of the most effective ways to fight the spread of terrorism through radical Islam might be to ensure that there are enough moderate imams working in prisons around the world, including in France.
This is a complicated and nuanced subject. I hope that my effort to be succinct does not suggest lack of sensitivity to the mixed viewpoints on this topic, especially the two most recent laws. But I prefer laïcité to unending wars in the name of God.
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