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.

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.


David in Setouchi said...

I'm not really sure this cake incident reflects anything else but the stupidity of the teacher.

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with David (this is likely to become confusing, as I'm also David): while the teacher's reaction was no doubt overzealous, the reaction was certainly a culturally informed one. I've tried for over 30 years to understand the application of the French attitude toward laicité. Judah Grunstein's simple explanation goes a long way to making the concept accessible to Americans. I may use this example in my French civilization class next semester.
Thank you,

David in Setouchi said...

I personally think that the teacher was scared of creating a controversy or something like that, because she doesn't know what she can and can't do regarding the (rather) new law dealing with laïcité in schools, hence what I call "stupidity" (I was a bit harsh, I admit).

And I think that Judah kinda misses the point on the thing too.

Yes, the teacher was overzealous and that stops here.

What confuses Judah is the status of Christmas in France.
While Christmas is a Christian holiday in the US, it is a secular holiday in France. Everybody celebrates it (except for a few fundamentalists Jewish and Muslims), it's not considered as religious here.
Same thing goes for any other state holiday that has a Christian origin.

I feel that most Americans fail to understand that Christianity for most French people is a tradition and not a religion. Once you understand this, laïcité becomes much easier to understand.

In a few lines, laïcité is a complete and real separation of Church and State (not a fake one like in the US) where religion is confined to the private sphere (also remember that the separation between public and private is clear cut in France). In other words it's not about allowing every religion to express themselves and oppressing non religious people, but about religious people keeping their faith to themselves and not showing it off constantly in other people's faces.

Was that kid's mother doing something Muslim by preparing those cookies? No.
Is celebrating Christmas in a French school, a Christian thing? No, it's not because Christmas is not a religious holiday in France (and believe me that pisses off French Christians quite a lot, they wish French people cared about Jesus and not about Santa and Foie Gras on that night).

David B. (to avoid name confusion)

Unknown said...

David B., Forgive me, but I think you exemplify the French insensitivity on this issue. To celebrate what began as a religious holiday as a "secular tradition" and as "normal" while excluding other expressions of "traditional culture" as alien to the tradition of the majority is to treat minority cultures unequally while insisting on equality as one of the pillars of the Republic. Believe me when I say that Christmas is a secular holiday in the United States as well, but that doesn't mean that singing Christmas carols in the schools or handing out candy canes carries no religious charge that demands compensation in the form of recognition of minority religions and cultures. Until the French recognize this, they will continue to arouse unnecessary conflict.

David in Setouchi said...

I still think that you're viewing the thing with an American "prism."

Christmas is considered as a "normal" and "secular" holiday because it has been around in France for about 17 Centuries (or even more if one considers that Christmas is a modern version of Winter solstice celebrations that have been existing in Europe since the dawn of ages), and even if it was a religious holiday for most of that time, it's been regarded as secular way before France started to become multicultural.
Religious holidays from minorities on the other hand appeared in France after separation of church and state was instaured, so it makes sense that there's no room for them in the public sphere.
If people are not happy with that, it's their problem, not France's.

Equality is a matter of having the same legal rights, no more, no less. Acknowledging every single different minority specificity is the way Americans do it, but it's never been what France has been about. I even think it's a very hypocritical way to handle these things as you can never acknowledge every minority and a line has to be drawn somewhere.
On that matter the US example is pretty telling, sure the main minorities are acknowledged and represented. What about the other ones? What about non-religious people?

And you can't tell that Christmas is a secular holiday in the US. I don't know one single non Christian American that celebrates it, it's not politically correct anymore to with a "Merry Christmas", it has to be a "Happy Holidays", etc.

I don't deny that France has many issues dealing and adapting with multiculturalism, but this particular topic seems to be an issue only to Americans, I never heard a French from a minority having the same problems with this thing.
For some reasons (mostly because this is the way it is in their country and they assume wrongly it's the same everywhere), Americans almost always seem to confuse traditions of Christian origins that are ingrained in the French culture and history but that have no religious meaning anymore with Christianity.

Believe me, I'm all for France becoming more multicultural and acknowledging better the minorities, but as far as acknowledging religions more, whichever they are, that is a complete different matter.
Yes, I believe that all religions should be treated the same way, that is vaguely tolerated as long as they're confined to the private sphere.

And all in all, I really think that all the problems and tensions linked to minorities that exist in France are really a socio-economic problem, not a cultural one.

Unknown said...

David B.,
I'm Jewish. My extended family is gathering on Christmas day for a "non-Christmas dinner." Are we celebrating Christmas? My wife is Jewish, but in her family during her childhood there was always a Christmas tree in the house (perhaps rebaptized as a "Chanukah bush"). They were not celebrating a pagan solstice ritual. Was this "recognizing religion" in an unacceptable way or adapting to a form of cultural syncretism that is to my mind a great source of tolerance and understanding.

Anonymous said...

Well, this has gotten quite interesting. David, I know many - many - Jewish people, agnostics, atheists, and lapsed [fill in the blank] in the US who celebrate Christmas. There is for many, however, somewhere, the feeling [and here comes the PC stuff] that they should perhaps be reflecting on the "real meaning" of the holiday - and then that feeling gets tucked neatly away behind the extra piece of pumpkin pie and that extra glass of champagne (French or "other").
I'm afraid I'm with Art on this one, but I do thank you, David, for some additional understand of the French attitude, which must lie somewhere between your experience and my own from many years of living there.

David P.

David in Setouchi said...

Art: Glad to hear that Christmas can be secular in some US families, but my personal experience has been quite different:
-American Christian people I know can't comprehend why I'd celebrate Christmas while I'm not a Christian (and they have a hard time comprehending why the French love Christmas so much while they so don't care about religion)
-American Jewish people I know never have celebrated Christmas in their lives.
-Same goes with any other representant of other religions (Hindus, Muslims) or no religion that I knew.

There may be regional differences here, I don't know. If I'm not wrong, you're from New England which always seemed to me more European, educated and secular than the rest of the US (I wouldn't go as far as thinking that the three go together, but still).

David P: The "real meaning of Christmas". You mean: getting together with your family and offering presents to your loved ones? ;-)

Unknown said...

David B.,
You're missing the point of my anecdotal evidence. What I am saying is that all sorts of "mixed" practices exist in any multicultural society. Why must the state feel compelled to preserve a "neutral" public space that excludes the very compromises that individuals have freely adopted for themselves? So long as these compromises are not imposed on anyone by authority, the mere exposure to their existence does no harm. Can Handel's Messiah be performed by a taxpayer-supported chorus in a publicly-owned hall? Is this "culture," "tradition," or "religion?" Is it different from having a Christmas crèche on town-hall property? My instinctive answer is yes, but I'm not sure what the view of the US courts is (they ban the latter but perhaps not the former).

David in Setouchi said...

"Why must the state feel compelled to preserve a "neutral" public space that excludes the very compromises that individuals have freely adopted for themselves?"

Because if in the US, the country was created by religious people, in France, religion has traditionally been the enemy of the Republic. This is why.

And while you associate religion with tolerance, most French people associate it with exactly the contrary, and I really doubt that most of these compromises are always freely adopted (religion and freedom being two concepts that are kinda opposed)

Philippe said...

The irony is that Noël in France is much more of a religious celebration that it is in the U.S. - foires aux santons, veillées de noël, messes de minuit.

The intolerant nature of French laicite is apparent in this article by Elizabeth Lévy in which she guards against overt displays of jewishness:,1555

"En France, ce sans-gêne est tout simplement contraire à la loi non écrite de la République qui prescrit un certain tact, une forme de pudeur, à l’égard de ses concitoyens issus d’autres cultures comme on dit pudiquement."

"Tact", "pudeur": in short, hypocrisy. The words "loi non écrite" are also interesting (and in contradiction with l'état de droit).

In summary, nativity scenes are ok but jews are politely asked to please stay home.

Anonymous said...

"If people are not happy with that, it's their problem, not France's."

Surely this is the main practical question? "People" who live in France and have a problem *are* France's problem.

If one accepts that Christmas is secular, or 'cultural,' in France, the question becomes, is it good policy to ban non-normative holiday treats? Cultural arrogance can do the work of religious intolerance--and seems to have done so in France.

David in Setouchi said...

Eric, if I live in the US (or any other country) and I'm not happy with a policy, is it my problem or the country's? Why should it be different with Americans having problems with French laïcité exactly?

Concerning the treat, you must have missed the part where I say that the teacher is an idiot.

Anonymous said...

I may use this example in my French civilization class next semester.

You may want to find exemplified there the evils of laicité, but as the teacher's reaction is silly/unusual, etc, the example is more of a common u.s. inability to think about laicité.

So is Judah's piece, linking what he thinks he sees (a lack of "cohesive and inclusive cultural identity") to the banlieues riots. But the is a cohesive and inclusive cultural identity - it's that laic thing we are talking about. And the riot's cry wasn't "I want to be reflected in the nation’s cultural identity" but "the promise of equality was not held".

That would even be a question for some u.s. adventurous minds : if laicité is that straitjacket, surely minorities will clamor for more part in the cultural identity. Apart of a few religious wackos, who?

Fr. said...

Come on, this is pure nonsense.

- Rebuttal of the evidence

As I also will be teaching a class on laïcité in Scotland in a few months, I am pretty sure I could use this post and its comments to exemplify careless extrapolation from anecdotal evidence. I can testify from my personal, my sister's and my parents' experience (both of them have been teachers at secondary level for over 25 years) that such an incident is absolutely not a routine application of laïcité in a school environment. I have eaten pastries from five continents in high school and I do not know a single teacher (I know a fair amount of them through my parents) who would forbid sharing pastries made on a religious occasion.

Americans seem to forget that Algeria used to be a French district (two, actually), and that several cultural habits from Maghreb are perfectly tolerated in French contexts. There is no such thing as "cultural Islam", in France or anywhere else; the expression itself falls in the most basic essentialist trap that any sociology student learns to wave off in first year. There is such a thing, however, as an Arab culture imported through Algerians and Moroccans mostly to French suburbs and in the South-East.

- What is laïcité about? Let the (real) evidence tell

Laïcité was not born in opposition to Islam, and one should be very careful to produce empirically sound arguments when defining the interaction between both concepts. In France, laïcité and Islam have conflicted only over two issues. The first one is minor and consists in school meals, when a few extreme-right mayors tried to suppress the possibility for Muslim pupils to eat pork-free meals in the recent years. The topic systematically triggered public outrage and media upheaval, and disappeared quickly.

The second issue has run for longer and touches upon clothing. In 1989 and later on in 2004, if I recall well, a few girls refused to drop the hijab when going to high school. The Conseil d'État ruled against the scarf in 1989, and a law was passed in 2004 to reinstate its jurisprudence into law after a national debate. In both cases, the number of girls refusing to drop the hijab was very small; there is no proof that it reached more than a hundred, for instance. When a case occurs, high schools ask the parents to come in, and 95% of cases are solved this way. Only 70 cases led to expelling the girls after their parents refused to have her take the scarf off.

The pastry evidence does not fit in this picture. It is epiphenomenal, just like the school meal stuff would be, had it not been enforced in the context mentioned above. In fact, by sheer numbers, all instances of laïcité "clashing" with "Islam" is epiphenomenal, as the total number of cases is ridiculously small (defection/exit strategies confirm this: to my knowledge, there is only one private Muslim high school in France, Lycée Avérroès [sp]). One might then explore a number of hypotheses on how French immigrants with Arab or Muslim traits feel about laïcité as it is currently practised.

- Quit the nonsense!

This is all a bit décousu, sorry Arthur; this is simply to say that laïcité is being interpreted in the wrong terms here. David is right on that point, the post and thread are following a strange line of interpretation that treats both Islam and laïcité in a clueless way that reminds me of Bernard Henri-Lévy's writings (not a compliment, believe me). I do not know if this can be considered an American reading of reality, I just call it uninformed, undocumented, overconfident in one's own reasoning, whatever the bias it might carry; and thus totally pointless by that token.

I prefer to teach laïcité through its origins (getting Catholicism out of schools), through its sustainment (raising the mythical figure of the Republican teacher, the instituteur), and through its contemporary challenges (Islam, briefly mentioned above). I would advise, as presumptuous as this might sound, anyone with an interest in laïcité to follow the same path in order not to reproduce the negligent interpretations that this thread has contributed in spreading.

(Apologies for unrefined English written at night. No pastries were harmed during the writing phase.)

MYOS said...

The discussion was really interesting but the ACTUAL reason has nothing to do with religion: it is now absolutely forbidden to bring food from home to class. Of course some teachers accept it and others don't, but accepting food - cookies or anything cooked at home and not in EducationNationale approved, legally supervised, facilities- is now illegal for teachers. Food coming from the store and being traced/opened in class may be accepted although it's considered a liability.

The real test will come when another kid comes with any food coming from home. Then we'll know whether it was secular intolerance, racism, administrative rules, etc...

As for the teacher, she was stupid to explain things this way.
Then again, I know of a school where children were forbidden from celebrating Christmas (trees, visit of Santa Claus, singing songs even "jingle bells" as part of English class), all in the name of laïcité and a weird understanding of religious equality.
The kids were very, very disappointed.

As for David's point: Christmas is seen as a Christian holiday if the family has a creche but the overall consensus among nominal Christians I know is that it's got nothing to do with Jesus except it's"the children's holiday", in the same way Thursday used to be "children's day", forgetting that originally it was related to religious practice (and not soccer and violin lessons.)

(Note: going to church once a month makes you a devoted Christian in France. I think I saw that about 50% consider themselves Catholics by tradition but do not believe in God!)

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