06 September 2023, The Tablet

French secularism tested by public controversies

The 1905 laïcité law barred the state from recognising any religion, removing faith from public institutions such as state schools.

French secularism tested by public controversies

The statue of St Michael the Archangel, in a square in front of St Michael’s Church in Les Sables d’Olonne.
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France saw two controversies over its legal separation of Church and State in late August that revealed how its laïcité law can be used and misused depending on how it is read.

The 1905 law barred the French state from recognising any religion, removing faith from public institutions such as state schools and civil service posts.  Its principal purpose was to counter the traditionally-powerful position of the Catholic Church in French society.

In the Atlantic port of Les Sables d’Olonne, the secularist group La Libre Pensée sued two years ago to have a statue of St Michael the Archangel removed from a square because it was a religious symbol on public property.  

The town fought to save the popular statue and the case went all the way to the Council of State in Paris, which ruled the town must comply with the secularist law.

On 28 August, Mayor Yannick Moreau announced he would sell a strip of the square to the parish, thereby making that land private property, and move the statue from one side of the small square to another.

“The ayatollahs of laïcité made us move our statue a few meters, but they advanced our will to defend our culture and way of life,” said the mayor, who added the strip will also be used for an access ramp to the adjacent St Michael’s Church.

La Libre Pensée said it would find out how much taxpayer’s money will be spend “in this affair”.

By contrast, education minister Gabriel Attal announced  that two free-flowing garments mostly worn by Muslims in the Middle East were a religious symbol that he would ban from state schools.

Already barred by law from wearing headscarves in school, girl pupils have begun wearing abayas to class.  Some boys wear a long shirt known as a qamis.  

“I shouldn’t be able to tell a pupil’s religion when I enter a classroom,” Attal said in justifying his decision.

But the French Council of the Muslim Faith protested that these were not religious symbols but modest cultural styles that do not fall under the laïcité law.

It contested whether “a secular authority can define what is or is not religious in place of the religious authorities of a faith, whichever it may be”.  Presuming these clothes to be religious is discriminatory, it said.

There was praise for the decision from teachers unsure how to react to this new trends and conservative to far-right politicians who sometimes promote laïcité as a pretext against French Muslims and immigration. 

Attal now has to write an instruction to headteachers explaining what new trends followed by largely-Muslim pupils are religious rather than a form of cultural identity politics.  

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