Friday, February 22, 2008

Laïcité: No Taboos

Henri Guaino says that in a democracy it should be possible to discuss any subject "without taboos." As is his wont, he expects to disarm--or is it to provoke?--opposition by stealing a line from ceux d'en face: "To utter the word 'God' does not frighten me," dixit Jean Jaurès.

Let us therefore discuss laïcité without taboos. Joan Scott, in her book on the politics of the veil, rejects the insistence of many French writers that the word is untranslatable because it is so uniquely bound up with the history of France. This insistence on French uniqueness, on French exceptionalism, is therefore a first taboo that needs to be broken. All modern polities have had to cope with the need to regulate, confine, constrain, and legislate with regard to religion. All modern polities have had to contend with the conflict between faith and reason. Many countries besides France have experienced strife and even violent conflict between religious groups. The Wars of Religion may have been bloody, but no bloodier than the Revolution of Saints, or than strife between Catholics and Protestants in the United States in the 19th c. Hence it makes no sense for France to claim that the particular way in which it dealt with these problems makes comparison impossible.

Second, there is a tendency in France to exalt particular historical moments as definitive resolutions of problems that may in fact change in nature over time. Thus one repeatedly hears that the "Law of 1905" resolved the religious question once and for all; that this law is a cornerstone of the Republic, hence that any question as to its adequacy poses a threat to the existence of France's political system; and that the effect of the law was essentially to bracket religion, to relegate it from the public domain to the realm of purely private devotion. Never mind what the law actually did; never mind the accretion of subsequent accommodations of state and religion in both law and practice. As a matter of "political philosophy," one might say, the discussion is supposed to have ended in 1905.

Consider, then, the fact that the demographics of France have changed considerably since 1905. Consider that a substantial proportion of the population now consists of people from the former colonies, where religious issues were regulated in ways quite different from the metropolis. Consider that the historical experience of these people is therefore quite different from that of the Catholics, Protestants, and Jews resident in France during one or more of the periods of heightened religious and philosophical controversy in the metropolis. Consider, therefore, that to this new population laws concerning the role of Catholic religious orders in the public schools or state funding of organized religion may have little relevance to their concerns about where the prerogatives of the state and the claims of religion come into conflict. Consider that for them an historical debate that draws on the long and contentious relationship between an Enlightenment that "dared to know" and a faith that, even with knowledge, conceived of man as but a "thinking reed" is not part of their cultural baggage. In light of all these considerations, it does seem that Guaino has a point, that there is room for a fresh discussion without taboos.

But is that discussion best guided by a presidential speechwriter and a president who, by the very nature of his functions, cannot debate but can only pronounce, and then only in symbolic settings that color and perhaps distort the limited content of his words, be it at Saint John Lateran or in Riyadh or on a factory floor evoking the need for "firmness" against cults while defending his aide's call for tolerance of religious associations whose beliefs may seem peculiar or even offensive but that break no laws? France does need to reflect anew on the proper limits of religion and on the state's role in defining those limits, but it needs to do so in greater calm, and--if I may put it this way--in a more meditative or "spiritual" setting, than the Sarkozyan circus allows.

And it must establish priorities: the fundamental problem is the relation to Islam, on which the assimilation of much of the former colonial population depends. Guaino, Mignon, and Sarkozy seem to want to confuse this issue with other matters, such as the rekindling of fervor among Christians said to have been "separated" from their roots by the militant secularism of French republicanism (which, by the way, ignores the role of religion in the emergence of the French state: see David Bell's The Cult of the Nation in France). That is their prerogative, and no doubt they expected their approach to the issue to arouse the opposition that it has. Theirs is surely a minority agenda, whereas the state's accommodation of Islam is a matter of vital interest to both a substantial minority and the nation as a whole. This is where the discussion of laïcité needs to be focused, not on the religious velleities of the president and a couple of his close advisors.

Interest Rates

French Politics contributor Éloi Laurent renews the attack that he and Jérôme Créel launched on the European Central Bank's hawkish monetary policy. He is especially critical of the ECB's threat to raise interest rates punitively if wage settlements are too "generous," a threat that leaves him incredulous since real wages in the Eurozone have lagged behind productivity increases for a decade. Labor's share in GDP has fallen over the past two decades.

Evaluation of Ministers Evaluated

From Le nouvel économiste, an interesting document on the evaluation of ministers. Among other observations: "The individual evaluation procedure overlooks a fundamental feature of government: collegiality." And from UMP senator Alain Lambert: "The French system of governance is highly chaotic, to a degree unparalleled anywhere else."