Subscribe to Secularism is a Womens Issue

Secularism is a Women’s Issue

Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > Europe > Vive la laïcité!


Vive la laïcité!

Thursday 10 April 2008

President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan for ’positive secularism’ will be fought by the French - and rightly so

by Agnes Poirier
The Guardian, February 13, 2008

We thought we’d always be spared the kind of ideological turmoil Britain and Turkey have known in the last few days. It is indeed extremely difficult, almost impossible, to imagine the archbishop of Paris suggesting “a helpful interaction between the courts and the practice of Muslim legal scholars” as Rowan Williams did in Britain. And just as difficult to envisage the French government allowing religious symbols to be worn in schools, as Turkey did last week, overturning the country’s constitution.

In France, an overwhelming majority prides themselves on the hard-fought 1905 law of separation between church and state, a law that is crystal clear. France doesn’t recognise any religion in particular but protects them all. Religious beliefs have no room in public spaces and debates. Only reason should prevail. No passe-droit nor any specific rights should be given to anyone on the ground of their religion.

Sunday’s meetingin Paris around Ayaan Hirsi Ali seemed to prove France’s status as the bastion of secularism. She is living under constant death threats from religious fundamentalists. French intellectuals and politicians have asked that she be given French nationality and that France pay for her security after her country, Holland, stopped guaranteeing her round-the-clock protection.

France’s secular pride has, however, turned to anguish in the last few months of Nicolas Sarkozy’s chaotic and incoherent presidency. It started on December 20 when Sarkozy gave a speech at the Vatican. How painful to hear a Republican and secular leader distort gistory and invoke God with a big G, perniciously introducing the fraught concept of “laïcité positive”. As if there was such a thing as a negative secularism. At the time, few voices rose against his speech - Sarkozy had shrewdly orchestrated his Carla tsunami and we were all left agape on the shore. We did wake up, though, when he did it again, this time in Saudi Arabia, unashamedly celebrating religions and Islam in particular.

Sarkozy twists words in order to give laïcité a bad name. He feigns to forget that only secularism guaranties that religion does not spill in the political sphere and that religion not be instrumentalised by the state for political means. Secularism states very clearly that religion is of no public interest. Declaring, as Sarkozy did, that the development of religious beliefs would be “an asset” for a country like France would take the French back to before 1905, to a time when the Catholic church tried and succeeded in intimidating politicians and influencing public policy.

Sarkozy’s position is not new. He developed the idea in his 2004 book, La République, les religions et l’espérance. His model is American, one which embraces all religions and sects like the Scientologists and the Jehovahs as democratic interlocutors. In fact, he’d like to swap social hope for a spiritual one, thus leaving to religious communities the care of, say, looking after difficult neighbourhoods or banlieues. In his view, religious authorities could become political partners - when it is precisely their restriction to the private sphere which guaranties citizens’ freedom of opinion.

Officially, as Caroline Fourest explains very well here, the talk in favour of positive secularism is to help Islam catch up and provide decent prayer rooms for their fidels. But it is not the state’s role to finance the cult of any religion. Alright, says the president, but perhaps the state could still finance it on cultural grounds through associations. A very dangerous semantic slip - and a disastrous evolution if it was to be adopted. Believers don’t need the state. They can reach into their own pocket to pay for prayers’ room. And they do: in France, 16 mosques are built every year. There were 1555 official prayer rooms for Muslims in 2001, and the figure reached 2000 in 2006. Why should the state help further? Instead of financing the return of all things religious, it would do better to finance social and cultural regeneration in abandoned areas. Citizens will benefit more from new public transport, modern housing and libraries than from a new church, synagogue or mosque. But perhaps individual emancipation is not on the president’s agenda. If Sarkozy really intends to proceed with his positive secularism, he’ll find his fellow citizens ready for action.