PARIS -- Two weeks ago, one of my seven-year-old son’s classmates arrived at school with pastries to pass out to the class. His mother, a non-observant “cultural Muslim,” had spent the weekend preparing the delicacies that traditionally accompany the celebration of Eid al-Adha, as a way for her son to share the cultural tradition with his friends. But when he asked for permission to hand them out, the teacher refused. The pastries, it seems, would have violated France’s strict code of laïcité forbidding among other things, the introduction of religious dress or symbolism into the public school system.
At first glance, the episode seems like another illustration of the fundamental difference between the American and French understanding of secularism and the separation of church and state. With its origins in the Protestant flight from established religions, America’s republican tradition emphasizes the individual’s freedom of religious belief and its expression. By contrast, with its origins in the anti-clerical Enlightenment, France’s republican tradition emphasizes the collectivity’s freedom from religious beliefs and their expression.
The difference reflects the role of the French state as a counterweight to the—historically Catholic—church. Whereas Americans rely on Constitutional safeguards to defend the private sphere of religion against the encroachment of the state, the French look to the state to defend the public sphere of la République from the encroachment of religion.
So it would be easy to chalk the pastry incident off to an overzealous defense of a principle that, for cultural reasons, Americans have difficulty appreciating.
Except for one detail. At the same time that my friend’s son was told that he could not pass out the pastries, both of our children—along with the entire class—were busy learning songs for an upcoming recital for parents. Not just any songs, though. The children were being taught Christmas carols.
What’s more, it’s not at all unusual to find galettes des rois—a cake consisting of frangipane-filled pate feuilletée (puff-pastry)—in French schoolrooms. The galettes appear in bakeries every year around Jan. 6, the Christian festival of the Epiphany. The rois, or kings, that figure in their name are the same ones—Balthazar, Melchior and Gaspard—that, in the Christian tradition, visited the newborn Baby Jesus in a Bethlehem manger, giving the holiday its popular name, Three Kings’ Day.
Even the Ministry of Education’s official school calendar includes two religious holidays—la Toussaint, or All Saints’ Day, and Christmas—alongside the more laïque Winter and Spring vacations.
The typical French response to this sort of observation epitomizes the country’s inconsistent and incoherent approach to laïcité: Christmas is a cultural holiday, I’ve often heard, not a religious one. The galettes des rois are French, not Christian.
The problem is more than one of politically correct syntax. If there is nothing inherently religious about the galettes des rois, and there isn’t, then there is nothing inherently religious about the pastries that accompany the Eid al-Adha celebration either. So if they were excluded from my son’s classroom, it was not because they violated the principle of laicité, but because they were not French.
Not that I believe my son’s teacher made a conscious decision based on cultural prejudice. Rather, her response reveals a national blind spot, and helps explain France’s failure to formulate a cohesive and inclusive cultural identity that represents both its historic traditions and the demographic changes in its population over the past fifty years.
The reminder that the need for one is urgent comes every few years in the form of urban uprisings in the banlieues, when the French-born children of Arab and African immigrants battle the police and burn cars for days on end in the housing projects.
To be sure, there are many underlying historic and socio-economic factors that contribute to the failure of the French model of assimilation. Despite the solemn calls for national resolve that follow each new outbreak of violence, none of them have been effectively addressed. The financial crisis, which is sure to be disproportionately felt in the underdeveloped periphery of French society, will only aggravate the conditions that contribute to the social fracture.
But the reflexive recourse to laïcité as a guardian of French insitutions serves to mask the cultural component of the problem. So long as French citizens of Arab and African descent fail to see themselves reflected in the nation’s cultural identity, the resulting resentment will serve as a reservoir of fuel, easily ignited by the tiniest spark of injustice.
In light of the recent events in Greece, France has once again turned a watchful eye on its banlieues, wondering whether the pent up frustration that resulted in the past week of violence will prove contagious. But it would do well to examine itself as well. Its face has changed, and it might be surprised at what it does—and doesn’t—see there.
Judah Grunstein is the managing editor of World Politics Review. His coverage of French politics, foreign affairs and national security issues has also appeared in the American Prospect online, the Small Wars Journal and French Politics. He is currently based in Paris and has lived in France for eight years.
Monday, December 22, 2008
Laïcité? (Guest post)
The following is a guest post from Judah Grunstein. It encapsulates everything I find so hard to accept in the French attitude toward laicité.