Sign reads “French and Muslim, where is the problem?” Photo: Reuters/Benoit Tessier

Several recent events brought French issues regarding religion back into the forefront. Debates and events regarding the French relationship with religion seem to have accumulated easily in the last few years. One of the latest, the International Football Federation has allowed women soccer players to wear veils during games, creating a huge scandal in France. Over the last few days, four Muslims were suspended from their jobs because they respected Ramadan while working at a vacation camp with children. Their boss claimed that he needed his employees to be fully operational physically in order to not jeopardize the safety of the children.

Indeed, it seems that since the laws forbidding women to wear the veil in official buildings, and then in public spaces, debates about religion never left the French politics. Additionally, one cannot deny that the concerns voiced by the United States State Department on July 30 hit the French where it hurts: the laws repeatedly focused on the Muslim community. It is a real paradox for a country claiming to be the most tolerant and neutral regarding religions.

The proponents of these laws, and those who supported them, asserted that it was a matter of equality between men and women and they might be right. However, when those statements are followed by arguments of the “Christian roots of the French culture” and with fallacious connections drawn among immigrants, Muslims and religious extremists, one can feel that there is something wrong in the so-called kingdom of human rights and tolerance.

The situation gets even more complicated when one considers that religion is a real taboo in the French society. Every time gay marriage and adoption for homosexual couples are mentioned, the debate never focuses on religious issues. Using religion as an argument in France against a certain political policy tends to delegitimize the speaker, rather than support him. This is why opponents to gay marriage and adoption talk instead about “family” as a “pillar of the French society” as the UMP, as well as other political parties, did during the last presidential campaign.

The most aggressive opponents to such reforms prefer using allegedly scientific arguments or attacks on moral integrity. Even the conservative party, Parti Démocrate Chrétien (PDC), or Christian Democrat Party, carefully avoided the mention of religious commands. The reason is simple: religious concerns are excluded from the French political space. The main political parties consider excluding religious signs from the public space is nothing but a simple consequence of this value.

More than a century after the 1905 laws, which established a clear separation between the Church and the State in France, it seems that France has more problems with religions than many of its western partners. It is because “laïcité”, the French word which designates the neutrality of the public and political areas regarding religions, is not just a form of secularism. It is the very product of the French history. The French Republic built itself in pure opposition to a Catholic Church that remained faithful to the Monarchy.

The real foundations of the French Republic were built during the 3rd Republic, when republicans constantly fought against coalitions of monarchists and Catholic officials. Those troubled decades slowly established a relationship between the progression of democracy and the weakening of the religious powers. It established an implicit opposition between democracy and freedom on the one hand, and religions on the other hand in French political culture.

However, this soft hostility to the Catholic Church mainly lead to a deep secularization of France and nothing more. The latent animosity toward religions was awakened a few years ago during the debate regarding the burqa.

Laïcité, which was supposed to give space for a political space independent from religion, has now become a weapon used to defend conservative values and often conceal xenophobic prejudices.

The genuine idea of laïcité is one of the latest products of the Enlightment, and was meant to tackle archaisms and cultural prejudices.

It helped to build the French Republic, and supported its claim to be “one and indivisible,” and view its citizens beyond their religious differences. However, nowadays, this very ideal is corrupted by those who use it to assert that the French model of society cannot be mingled with other cultures, other ways of living, as if there were only one way of being French. Behind those claims lies a true fear of any kind of foreigner, of any kind of difference, always seen as an alien in the social body.

One can simply see it in the paradoxical speeches, when laïcité comes along with calls to respect the “Christian roots of the French society.” The republican ideals are turned upside down and laïcité has become a hypocritical tool against Muslims.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to reduce the problem to only islamophobia. Some of the most tolerant people among the French citizens are more or less blinded by decades of aggressive secularism and react violently to any religious concern, as if talking about religions were a crime against the Republic. For them, Muslims cannot be considered as Muslims, the same way Christians cannot be considered as Christians. The only thing they see is French citizens who do not have any faith since faith, under their perspective, is an enemy of democracy.

This reaction is understandable, as it is motivated by the fear of any kind of religious extremism. The latter have proved to be a danger for young and old democracies alike. However, those protectors of democracy must see the facts as they are: religions are a part of our society. If religious perspectives can be legitimately excluded from the public political space, one cannot deny that they are present in the civil society and that they play a crucial part in it.

Maybe the only efficient way to fight all kinds of extremism, which often pervades the poorest parts of French cities, would be to work hand in hand with the moderate religious officials, and among them the moderate imams. The laws regarding the veil and religious signs in public spaces have had two main results: stigmatization and an increase of intolerance. The punitive actions of the Police against women wearing the veil are inefficient and counterproductive.

A few years ago, there was an aborted debate in France about “positive laïcité”, an idea which meant giving up aggressive secularism to accept religious officials as partners of the State in its action inside civil society. The concept might have been fruitful and deserves a real debate.

French society needs to create a public space in which religious would not be a danger. It does not mean accepting everything without discrimination. True tolerance is not universal acceptance. Being truly tolerant means being able to have genuine and rational debates, where questioning values, even the most traditional, is possible.

It is time France learns how to defend universal values, like equality between men and women, that go beyond cultural prejudices and are more than an excuse to justify merely hypocritical xenophobia.

For more news on religion and politics in France and its involvement in politics, check out this article by  Tom Heneghan of Reuters on gay marriage.