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.


Anonymous said...

“[T]he 'differentialist' turn in American social and political thought and the institutionalization of multiculturalist policies and practices have provided support for groupist ways of thinking, talking, and framing claims. In the American context, such groupism is an obvious target for constructivist criticism. It is easy enough, for example, to highlight the enormous cultural, social, and economic heterogeneity of each of the “groups” taken to constitute the canonical “ethnoracial pentagon”— African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and whites. It is only a short step further to argue that … these are not groups at all but categories, backed by political entrepreneurs and entrenched in governmental and other organizational routines of social counting and accounting.” – Rogers Brubaker

Engage the scholarship if you’re serious about criticizing of republicanism. At the moment all you offer is empty posturing.

Unknown said...

My point is that France could well use the leavening of "political entrepreneurs" whose self-interest would simultaneously promote "voice" for groups currently left voiceless or subject to paternalistic treatment by elites hiding behind the mask of universalism (see the comments to the post "Choses Wues"). That is not to say that I do not support universalistic claims. I am not a "differentialist" in Brubaker's sense and would more accurately be described as universalist but pluralist. But as I have detailed in several posts over recent days, I find a good deal of what you call "empty posturing" in some republican ideology.

A propos, if you're going to accuse me of "empty posturing," you might do me the courtesy of identifying yourself so that I have some idea who I'm engaging with. Anonymous ad hominem attacks don't exactly rise to the collegial ideal you invoke in your appeal to "engage the scholarship."

Anonymous said...


avant toute chose, je profite de ce commentaire pour vous dire à quel point votre blog est intéressant pour des français; votre regard "étranger" associé à votre réelle connaissance des affaires politiques françaises, (combinaison rare), permet des analyses très différentes de ce que l'on peut lire en France et apporte beaucoup au débat.

Sur cet article même, je crois pourtant que vous "passez à côté" du sujet.
Sur l'agitation politique du "Sarkozyan circus", il s'agit moins, à mon sens, d'une manœuvre politique envers des minorités que de la "réponse politicienne" à de nombreux indicateurs sociaux; Ce ne sont pas uniquement les populations issues de l'immigration qui remettent dans le débat public le rapport de la société à la religion, les "français de souche" sont tout autant concernés. La radicalisation religieuse et communautaire que l'on observe en France depuis quelques années (et peut-être ailleurs...) est plus générale.
Sur le problème fondamental du rapport entre l'Etat et l'Islam, dont lequel dépendrait l'assimilation des populations issues des anciennes colonies, là aussi je crois que vous faîtes erreur, (erreur liée à la première erreur de focale dont je vous parlait plus haut): En France, les populations immigrées de la première génération, bien que musulmanes, et parfois pratiquantes, n'ont pas porté ce débat. Absolument tous les travaux qui ont été effectué sur le sujet ont montré qu'une islamisation radicale et "identitaire" est survenue à la deuxième voire la troisième génération. Des facteurs exogènes ont pu être identifiés, tels des mouvances wahhabites et salafistes pilotées et financées de l'Arabie saoudite. Mais là aussi tous les travaux se sont accordés pour dire que ces facteurs n'avaient pu être déterminants que parce qu'il y avait eu échec de l'intégration économique, et sociale dans le sens large et non pas religieux.
D'une certaine manière, quand Sarkozy lance le débat sur le religieux en France (quel que soit la façon dont il le fait), il se contente de surfer sur un sujet qui n'est que l'arbre qui permet de détourner le regard de la forêt. Car si on est honnête, on peut tout à fait être religieux très pratiquant en France quelque soit la confession. La loi de 1905 ne pose strictement aucun problème. Et Sarkozy, Guaino et leurs collègues, tous hommes intelligents, doivent bien le savoir.
Nous sommes donc devant un cas classique de détournement du regard de l'opinion publique d'un vrai problème (l'intégration économique des populations issues de l'immigration et des problèmes économiques au sens large) sur un non problème qui passionne facilement les foules. Du populisme radical en quelque sorte.
Après, qu'il y ait un problème de radicalisation plus générale et que l'actualité internationale fasse surgir des peurs liée spécifiquement à l'Islam est paradoxalement un sujet totalement différent. Problème qui ne sera pas réglé par des rapports nouveaux régissant l'Etat français et les mouvements religieux. Il n'y a pour s'en convaincre qu'à observer les différentes législations du monde en la matière et leurs effets.

Bien cordialement.

Unknown said...

À Anonyme 2,
Merci de votre commentaire très intéressant. Ma réaction première est que nous sommes d'accord sur de nombreux points. Si je venais à replacer mes remarques dans un contexte plus large, je mettrais l'accent, comme vous, sur l'intégration économique. Pour le reste, je vais réfléchir sur les points de désaccord réels ou virtuels que vous évoquez, même si je ne suis pas sûr que ce que vous dîtes soit en contradiction avec la thèse que je soutiens. Si vous lisez les posts de ces derniers jours, vous verrez que je réagis surtout à une certaine exacerbation de ce que j'appelle, de façon peut-être un peu injuste, l'idéologie républicaine (j'aurais dû dire ultra-républicaine peut-être). Que ce soit un détournement des vrais problèmes, je vous en conviens. Peut-être n'aurais-je pas dû me laisser entraîner sur ce terrain, mais j'y suis, j'y reste. Voilà pour une première réponse à votre contribution très pertinente. J'y reviendrai peut-être dans les jours qui viennent. Merci encore.

Anonymous said...

Nonsense! If you were genuinely concerned about pluralism in France you wouldn’t have written exclusively about ethnicity and religion, you wouldn’t have advocated racial/ethnic statistics, and you wouldn’t have assumed that the entrepreneurs in question represented the voice of the voiceless. At least Joan Scott admits to being a differntialist.

The problem is that you do in fact privilege a differentialist basis for making political claims. You don’t talk about unions or neighborhood associations even though – and this is often neglected in English-language literature – France has a rich tradition of civic participation (remember that you’re now translating Rosanvallon– not Furet – get the with times). You sell short a political system that has proven quite capable of accommodating all kinds of people by focusing only on those types of claims that are incompatible not just with republicanism but liberalism as well. (See Brian M. Barry, Culture and equality: an egalitarian critique of multiculturalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.)

And I have to disagree with comment #3. Saudi Arabia’s influence on French political culture pales in comparison with that of the US. If we are witnessing a broad rise in identity politics (not just among Muslims) it’s because politicians have increasingly come to accept the claims of various illegitimate “entrepreneurs.” If the obstacles to assimilation are indeed social/economic then republicanism should be more than capable of dealing with the problem.

P.S. Christine hasn’t had much luck in impressing her viewpoint on this blog and I can’t imagine I will be any more successful – so I don’t see why I should adopt a moniker.

Unknown said...

Anonymous 1,
Your accusations are not only impolitely phrased but wildly off the mark. I do not recognize myself in the views you attribute to me. If I happen to be discussing ethnicity and religion at the moment, it's because the question of secularism has been in the news. That doesn't mean I consider the claims of unions or neighborhood associations to be unworthy of attention. Nevertheless, I don't think that in order to "engage" one has to allow viewpoints with which one disagrees to be "impressed" on one's arguments.

Anonymous said...

Consider that for [people from the former colonies] an historical debate etc...

... o0 ?

Sorry I can't offer a more elaborate argument, but : their inability to grasp the importance of, etcetcetc, it's just nonsense. They're not mysterious and unscrutable, neither, just people.

The difference with the back-then minorities is more racism, and less social mobility, and no representation.

All modern polities have had to contend with the conflict between faith and reason.

That even includes some foreign french colonies, I have heard.

... Must have misunderstood the point.

Unknown said...

Sorry, yabonn, I'm not sure I understand your point.

Anonymous said...

I'll try again, then. You write :

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 [...] is not part of their cultural baggage.

You seem (again I'm not sure I understand) to refer as people from the foreign colonies in France as people unable to get/accept the 1905 law, because of some cultural heritage.

My point is that I don't think there is a population in France, muslim or not, that looks like these "them". The "cultural heritage" comes from countries where the frontier between state politics and religion (and debates about them) is indeed very much there. The radicalization, when it happens, occur mostly among the 2nd generation, not the first, as you'd expect if it was caused by cultural heritage.

I'm sorry but I see this explanation as a rush to a cultural determinism - which isn't even there.

Anonymous said...

Je ne crois pas qu'il s'agisse là d'une tentative de faire diversion sur les problèmes de l'intégration économique, comme le pense le commentateur 2, mais une analyse de ce problème d'intégration en termes religieux: dans le raisonnement sarkozien, la cause du problème d'intégration est non pas économique, c'est l'islam; et l'islam met en danger l'identité française. Pour préserver l'identité française, il faut donc encourager un "contre-pouvoir" (la communauté chrétienne) de façon à équilibrer le rapport de force. D'où le "blabla" religieux, destiné à remettre la religion, et notamment le sentiment d'appartenance religieuse, au coeur de la République.
Sarkozy veut donc répondre à l'implantation de l'islam en France en transformant la relation citoyen/Etat en relation croyant/Etat (vous allez encore me taxer de simplisme, mais puisque vous m'avez donné le rôle de l'ultra-républicaine de service, je joue le jeu...).
Une de vos phrases m'a surprise:
"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".
"Expérience historique" en tant que telle n'a aucun sens. Vous supposez en outre implicitement qu'une telle "expérience historique" serait transmise (puisque nous parlons là de 2ème, voire 3ème génération). Je ne vois pas, concernant par exemple les catholiques français, une différence de point de vue sur la laïcité selon qu'ils soient "de souche" ou d'origine italienne.

Unknown said...

I'm not saying that they don't "get" the Law of 1905. I'm saying that this law and its long series of historical antecedents is irrelevant to their historical experience. For (some of) them, recent discussions of the laïcité, which is often said to be a defining feature of "French identity," are perceived as an assault. Certain customs are singled out as offenses against laïcité and therefore against French identity. Certain gestures are greeted as having a clear social meaning, taken as offensive to French identity, even though the individuals making the gestures subjectively attach a wide range of different meanings to them. Consequently, laws become provocations as a result of mutual incomprehension.

Unknown said...

Merci de votre commentaire. Je ne suis pas sûr que Sarkozy envisage une quelconque communauté catholique comme contre-pouvoir à l'Islam. Ce n'est pas la place d'analyser ses diverses propositions et celles de ses collaborateurs sur le rôle de la religion dans la civilisation ou sur la laïcité positive. Mais il me semble qu'on pourrait raisonnablement faire l'hypothèse--que je ne partage pas, quant à moi, mais que je comprends--qu'il y a une crise de l'individualisme, coïncident en quelque sorte avec la démocratie dans sa version néo-libérale, et que la religion pourrait d'une certaine manière remplir le vide qui serait le résultat d'une certaine absence de telos social, de finalité collective. Marcel Gauchet ne dirait pas le contraire, si je ne me trompe; pour lui le problème n'est certainement pas à chercher du côté de l'Islam; en fait il a, selon lui, des racines profondes dans l'histoire propre de l'Occident. Ce n'est pas mon point de vue, mais je pourrais à la rigueur attribuer un tel raisonnement à, par exemple, Emmanuelle Mignon, qui a sans doute lu Gauchet. Je n'interprète donc pas les propos des Sarkozystes comme forcément communautaristes, comme vous semblez vouloir suggérer.

Par "expérience historique" d'un groupe je veux dire simplement le vécu de ce groupe et sa transmission à travers les générations, soit par des mécanismes de mémoire plus ou moins spontanée, soit par les diverses formes de réflexion sur le passé que sont l'histoire, la littérature, l'art, etc. Je ne vois pas pourquoi ce serait une notion dépourvue de sens, mais peu importe. Ce n'est pas là l'essentiel.

Unknown said...

To Anonymous: Given your interest in this subject and vehemence, you really should identify yourself. It's a lack of intellectual courage and simple courtesy not to do so. Art Goldhammer is providing you (and all of us) with a remarkable forum. You are providing him with disrespect.

Unknown said...

My comment just above should have begun:

Ron Tiersky says

Unknown said...

Thanks for the support, Ron, but if Anonymous wishes to remain anonymous, so be it. It's not the anonymity I object to, it's the insinuating tone and the imputation of views I don't hold. I don't suppress comments on this site unless they are spam or indecent. But I if the insinuations and sarcasms become tiresome, I reserve the right to ignore them.

Anonymous said...

Il y a sans doute effectivement également la volonté de répondre à la crise de l'individualisme. Mais je pense que Sarkozy fait une analyse du monde en termes de "choc des civilisations", et qu'il agit en conséquence dans le cadre français: il conçoit en réponse une société française fondée sur un "équilibre raisonné" des appartenances religieuses.
La notion "d'expérience historique" est dans ce cadre loin d'être anodine, car d'une part elle présuppose l'existence de ces "groupes" au sein desquels se transmettrait une expérience historique. D'autre part, le présupposé d'une telle expérience est exactement celui qui conduit Sarkozy (rendons à César... aucun sarkozyste ne s'est exprimé publiquement sur le sujet) à penser que les musulmans de France sont "inintégrables" à la laïcité républicaine telle qu'elle existe aujourd'hui.
Tout cela est à l'heure actuelle uniquement de l'ordre des suppositions, voire évidemment d'un procès d'intention de ma part, puisque Sarkozy se tient pour l'instant à des discours relativement vagues et à des actes symboliques. L'avenir nous dira qui avait raison!

Unknown said...

Bravo, Christine, puisque vous faîtes votre auto-critique, je peux me passer de commentaire et attendre avec vous l'avenir.

Fr. said...

The link to The Politics of the Veil should be -- the actual one is wrong. There's a free introduction to read at this link too.

I agree heartily with the person who said your viewpoint was invaluable, and this blog is definitely challenging.

In this post however, I think that you are writing with a background assumption that excludes contingency. It sounds all too strategic to me, while the politics of the veil, for instance, have been constructed mainly by accidental logics (1989 and 2004 were caused by epiphenomena).

Unknown said...

I agree that there has been a great deal of contingency in the evolution of debate on this issue. Indeed, I invoked contingency in my own defense against the charge that I see the problem of integration solely as religious or cultural, to the exclusion of economic factors. I am discussing the religious because it is a topical matter, contingently so. I do not in any way believe that there is a foreordained conflict stemming from a "clash of civilization" or any such thing. That said, it also has to be acknowledged that the president and his aides have been pushing insistently on themes related to religion and its place in the public square. That is, I think, a deliberate decision. Whether you want to call it strategic, tactical, opportunistic, a matter of deep conviction, a revelation of their world view, or whatever is a matter of appreciation, not an incontrovertible fact. I am not as confident as some commenters are that I can divine Sarkozy's motives, and in any case I suspect they are rather complicated.

Anonymous said...

The problem with the talk about changing the 1905 law is that the one who says that a change is necessary never clearly states what changes he wants.
What does the 1905 law says? That a cult must be paid for by the faithful. It states the way a cult must be organized to be regarded as such (and to get tax exemptions). It is the same as the 1901 law for non-profit associations, and the waldeck-rousseau law for labor unions.
Correct me if i'm wrong, but in the US, new churches are built thanks to private funds. In France, it's the same: you have to find the necessary funds by yourself. The problem here is that people in France are generally very reluctant to give money to their cult, and i think muslims are from this point of view well assimilated: they are doing the same as catholics.

What could be the alternative? The only possibility i see is to adopt the german system. A tax levy, with the taxpayer somehow registering himself to a religion, or paying nothing if he declares he has no religion. Here lies a real minefield as counting following religious/ethnic groups is highly radioactive in France. It's also a very complicated system to set up, in my opinion better keep the free for all system of the 1905 law.

The problems muslims face are not directly linked to the 1905 law. First there may be the opposition of the mayor who prevent them to get a building permit if he is against islam. But in most cases, in big cities, the city will try to find a piece of land and basically provide it for free. Cities may also provide empty buildings (if there are any) if the faithful have no funds to build their own venue. Second, there are the other opponents who will challenge the building permit in court... Third, they have to find funds: by far the most difficult task.

So politicians speak mostly about symbols here. We should not expect answers other than about symbols, too. When Sarkozy speaks about his christian morale, he's sending a message to a part of his electorate. Not the traditionalist catholics, as it should be impossible for him, twice divorced, 3 times married. But more to voters attracted by his speech on law & order, on the importance of work, etc.