A wave of knife attacks in France has come amid a government crackdown on what President Emmanuel Macron has described as “Islamist separatism”. The killings, in particular the killing of history teacher Samuel Paty in the Paris suburbs, sparked demonstrations in France, but in some Muslim countries, there have been calls for a boycott of French goods in retaliation for Macron’s perceived attack on Islam.
In the English-speaking world, there is confusion over the debate about French society that has followed these attacks.
The common factor is that the government and the demonstrators see themselves as defending France’s principle of “laïcité”. So why do people outside France struggle to understand what laïcité is? And why are the French so attached to it?
One problem for English speakers is that we have no satisfactory equivalent for the word laïcité. It is usually translated as “secularism”, though this tends to imply scepticism or hostility rather than neutrality towards religion. The “lay principle” may be a better equivalent, but laïcité has so much history behind it that you need to know something about France to understand its nuances.
Every country has to find a balance between the authority of the state and the influence of religion, arising from its particular history.
The French Republic in its modern form was established in the late 19th century, after long struggles by republicans against royalist and authoritarian movements that were supported by the Catholic church. The religious differences were settled in 1905, when the church and the state were legally separated. The state was declared neutral with respect to religion, and people were free to believe and practice any religion or none. In French, this became known as laïcité (lay-ness).
After the separation, laïcité faded into the background. Few people had a problem with it, including the main religious organisations. And there were pragmatic exceptions to the principle. For example, the state funds historic religious buildings (not just Notre-Dame in Paris). It funds Catholic schools in Alsace-Moselle, which was under German administration at the time of the separation. The lay principle was eventually embraced by all religious groupings, as well as by France’s large minority of non-believers. It has been included in the constitution since 1946.
What brought laïcité back to prominence was the large-scale migration from North Africa after decolonisation in the 1960s, and the emergence of new generations of French-born Muslims.
In 1989, disputes began over whether Muslim girls should be allowed to wear headscarves in state schools. Politicians from right and left piled in, and it rapidly escalated from there.
The boundaries of the lay principle were tested to the limits, focusing mainly on religious symbols: what they were, where they could be worn or displayed, and by whom. New laws were passed in 2004 banning people from wearing conspicuous religious symbols in state schools and 2010 banning face coverings in public spaces.
Every dispute and every round of national elections has produced new debates and has increased the range of interpretations of the lay principle, taking in questions of women’s rights, civil liberties, freedom of speech and many other issues.
One prominent analyst has identified seven distinct meanings of laïcité, which may now be an underestimate.
With more political groupings claiming it as their core value, it has increasingly been accepted as an important marker of French identity – part of the national DNA, as former Prime Minister Manuel Valls put it.
Islam and laïcité
Although the lay principle applies to all religions, the debate around it has become increasingly focused on Muslim practices. Tensions were raised by right-wing movements hostile to immigration and have been raised further by the terrorist attacks carried out by supporters of al-Qaida, Islamic State and other extremist groups.
In January 2015, the shooting of journalists at Charlie Hebdo and the murder of Jewish hostages at a supermarket sparked mass demonstrations. In November that year, 130 people were killed in a spate of attacks, including at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris. Attacks of different kinds have taken place many times since then, most recently the murder of Paty and of three Christian worshippers in Nice in October 2020.
These attacks have intensified the feeling among many people in France that they are embattled. At the same time, French Muslims are put under pressure to disavow the extremists or to accept guilt by association with them. In either case, Muslims’ place in the nation is in question.
What is at stake in these debates is not just the secular state, but also the wider framework of rights and responsibilities, and ultimately the very identity of the French Republic.
So, from being the basis of a religious settlement, laïcité has increasingly become an expression of French identity. It now acts as a touchstone for le vivre-ensemble: how French people can live together.