Friday, September 24, 2010

Laïcité

There is much confusion in France about the precise meaning of the principe de laïcité, even though it is supposed to be one of the fundamental principles on which the Republic is founded. Exactly what does it entail? What is the supposed "neutrality of public space" and who must respect it? Lately, this issue has been clouded by association with anti-Islamic sentiment, but the blog Diner's Room calls attention to a recent court case involving discrimination against a Christian municipal councilor by an (overly) zealous laïc mayor. I cite the following excellent comment verbatim:

Aussi bien, c’est se tromper profondément que de croire que la laïcité relègue la religion dans l’espace privé. L’obligation de neutralité ne pèse que sur l’État, qui n’est pas identifiable à la société, non plus qu’aux élus ; n’en déplaise à qui nourrit des pulsions totalitaires. Hors l’exercice de la puissance publique, donc, il est loisible à chacun de faire valoir ses convictions de fidèle ou de libre penseur. Et, loin de lui apporter une limite, le principe de laïcité garantit la liberté de cette expression. Concernant la religion, la laïcité n’est pas une tolérance, c’est une protection. [emphasis added]

5 comments:

FrédéricLN said...

Sure - that's a right meaning of laïcité. That's the one some political currents in France do foster (including le centre démocrate). But as a matter of fact, this is not Jean-Pierre Brard's view.

For many people, esp. in the Parisian or media milieu, "laïcité" means some superiority of agnosticism over any religion; I would say, a patronizing attitude towards religions. For example, a TV journalist will insist that Mr Z (or King Z, or Scientist Z) is "un musulman modéré", a moderate Muslim, as if it was obvious to the audience that a "stronlgly convinced Muslim" would not be a suitable TV interviewee, or king, or scientist.

If you question such attitude, you may get answers like:

1) wars and mass murders have been caused by religions (so: as a first aim of policies is to protect peace, policies should be defiant of religions) - don't mention wars or mass murders by militant atheists;

2) religions have been over-favoured by "la droite" or other powers: mosques have received financial help, teachers in (many) religious schools are paid by the State, and so on (so: no need to protect the religions, they care well enough for themselves in the political arena) - I'm not convinced that case is good, I would feel the opposite, but no evidence;

3) religions include an intention to rule the society as a whole, and thus, undermine the political rights/stands of agnosticists or atheists (so: a domination of agnosticism or atheism would be the only way to protect civil rights for all) - I'm not convinced there is any risk of that kind in France, but well…

The most surprising case for "la laïcité" was Mr Sarkozy's, with his idea of a "laïcité positive" pushing religions as some new "opium du peuple" securing the power of the powerful ones. That's the kind of laïcité I distrust must!

FrédéricLN said...

Sure - that's a right meaning of laïcité. That's the one some political currents in France do foster (including le centre démocrate). But as a matter of fact, this is not Jean-Pierre Brard's view.

For many people, esp. in the Parisian or media milieu, "laïcité" means some superiority of agnosticism over any religion; I would say, a patronizing attitude towards religions. For example, a TV journalist will insist that Mr Z (or King Z, or Scientist Z) is "un musulman modéré", a moderate Muslim, as if it was obvious to the audience that a "stronlgly convinced Muslim" would not be a suitable TV interviewee, or king, or scientist.

If you question such attitude, you may get answers like:

1) wars and mass murders have been caused by religions (so: as a first aim of policies is to protect peace, policies should be defiant of religions) - don't mention wars or mass murders by militant atheists;

2) religions have been over-favoured by "la droite" or other powers: mosques have received financial help, teachers in (many) religious schools are paid by the State, and so on (so: no need to protect the religions, they care well enough for themselves in the political arena) - I'm not convinced that case is good, I would feel the opposite, but no evidence;

3) religions include an intention to rule the society as a whole, and thus, undermine the political rights/stands of agnosticists or atheists (so: a domination of agnosticism or atheism would be the only way to protect civil rights for all) - I'm not convinced there is any risk of that kind in France, but well…

The most surprising case for "la laïcité" was Mr Sarkozy's, with his idea of a "laïcité positive" pushing religions as some new "opium du peuple" securing the power of the powerful ones. That's the kind of laïcité I distrust must!

Anonymous said...

earlier this month at church, the mayor of my commune (in the 94) gave the bishop the keys to the village; this happened in the church right after the mass was said and everyone still inside. I dont know how this configurates with laïcité. and for sure, the fact that the bishop said that the diocese was going to chip in to help renovate the old church belied some political gain to recognizing and thanking the prelate. I was cool with that, everyone in the church was cool with that. But i wondered what many French would think "if they had known" what transpired that day when the mayor, as mayor not Mr.private citizen, gave the bishop the village keys.



Chris P.

Louis said...

Kudos to Diner's room: that is brilliantly written.

To the first comment, a certain disdain against religion (whatever the religion) is paradoxically something that runs deep in the French psyche, especially in some regions.
To go on with village stories, my mother's family comes from a small town in the South-West of France. In this town, when she was young, no men would show up in church or attend burials in the cemetery. Everybody would accompany the body to the gates, then men would stand out smoking or chating, some would even go back to work, and women would bury and consecrate the dead. And it seemed to be old stuff, because my grandfather remembered his father's generation doing that. The same man who had given two cows and money to the local church for the furbishing of a quite visible cross on some hill out of town.
What I mean to say is that a noisy disdain towards "superstition" belongs to the French public life. It comes for sure from turn of the century anti-church, super-republican sentiment (especially in radical country like the South-West). But it seems to be to be rooted deeper into some kind of collective cultural background, and especially a vision of what men and women do. Religion is for women, not for sound-minded, hard-working men who should know better... That kind of stuff. Hard to explain really...

FrédéricLN said...

@ Louis : for sure, but not for all of France. There is a sharp contrast between "believing" regions and "anti-clerical" regions, and they are sometimes competing sectors of a same department. The investigation by chanoine Boulard is quoted here http://www.lexpress.fr/region/la-vendee-a-ete-une-quasi-theocratie_776641.html

The map here : http://clioweb.free.fr/dossiers/1905/fpratiq.jpg

(my father is from a "white" sector of this map, my mother from a "black" one. Both are Roman catholics, but the cultural gap is huge!)

Also see http://clioweb.free.fr/dossiers/1905/fsaints.jpg

Indeed, defiance towards religion is not a recent feature in French society. It's rooted at least in the pre-revolutionary XVIIIth Century, if not before (also see Michel Vovelle about the role of the Revolution - but I haven't read his books).