The Complexity of French Secularism Examined
This past week, during her visit to Lebanon, the French presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, made headlines when she refused to dawn the proper dress in order to meet with a local Islamic cleric. Many conservatives and libertarians applauded her for defiance towards, and rejection of, one of the most notorious symbols of a repressive religious ideology, the headscarf (the least concealing of a variety of head and body coverings for women in the Islamic world). The justifications for this are found in such passages in the Quran as 33:59, that states:
“O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (veils) all over their bodies. That will be better, that they should be known so as not to be annoyed. And Allah is Ever Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.”
Many modern Islamic scholars will attempt to explain away this as an error of translation or that there is no specific mention of the face or head. Yet, this does not bode well when you read in the Hadith, Sahih Bukhari (60:282),
“Aisha used to say: When (the Verse 24:31 of the Quran): ‘They should draw their veils over their necks and bosoms,’ was revealed, (the ladies) cut their waist sheets at the edges and covered their faces with the cut pieces.”
The face is found upon the head, and these women began to cover themselves there, and it must have pleased the Prophet for he did not correct them. Yet, I digress, I’m sure defenders of Islam will say I continue to misinterpret the texts due to my bias against the religion (disclaimer: as an atheist and anti-theist I am against all religions, not just Islam). Even if they are correct, the very fact that their holy texts contain passages that can easily lead to interpretations causing such marginalization of women is another problem in itself that no amount of historical revisionism can whisk away.
Okay, now I’m really off topic. Let’s get back to the main point.
Marine Le Pen refused the headscarf, and many cheered her defiance of religious fundamentalism and applauded a true act of legitimate feminism. Amidst the fanfare, some raised objections. These people branded her a hypocrite because of her strict support for French secularism, known as laïcité, and the use of legislation to further legally ingrain it in French society. Those who subscribe to laïcité often oppose almost any form of religious expression in the public square. Laïcité has been the driving force behind a law forbidding religious symbols and dress (including Islamic headscarves) to be worn by children in public schools. It has also been rumored to be a driving force behind the law that banned “face concealing headwear” in all public spaces in France, even though it was officially promoted for security reasons. Le Pen supports both of these laws, and even wishes to expand laws regarding religious dress in order to further legally enshrine laïcité.
So, in short, she sees being forced to wear a headscarf as an affront to liberty, yet also sees no affront to liberty in forcing women to not wear one.
To those outside of France, this seems like utter hypocrisy, and understandably so, but only because we (speaking to my fellow Americans) come from a society with a much different history pertaining to religion’s relationship with the law. So, please, before judging her as an enemy of freedom, take the time to discover the history behind the secularisms of France and America.
French laïcité in not like American secularism, also known as the Jeffersonian ‘wall of separation’ enshrined in the Constitution’s First Amendment, stating:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
American secularism is a very live-and-let-live secularism. Basically, it only limits the government, making sure it doesn’t suppress a religion or give one special preferential treatment. This has left citizens free to practice and demonstrate their religion in almost any way. Yet, French laïcité is much more strict and regulatory in nature.
The differences stem from dissimilar histories.
America was first settled by those who were fleeing religious persecution, and by the time it was organizing as a new nation under the Constitution, dozens of sects of Christianity had made themselves at home along the Eastern Seaboard. Therefore, the lingering thoughts of their forefathers’ religious persecution and the need to facilitate peace among multiple sects naturally led the framers of the Constitution to create such a liberal, free-range secularism.
In France, the history since the Revolution of 1789 had been marked by struggle against an often legally entrenched and powerful Catholic Church that acted jointly with the monarchy to suppress the French people. Its power would fall with the rise of each Republic but would return once more with the return of monarchy. For example, after the rise of Napoleon via the Concordant of 1801, he made Catholicism the official state religion once more. This was a policy continued through the Bourbon Restoration and July Monarchy until 1848, with the rise of the 2nd Republic. Yet, upon the 2nd Republic’s fall in 1852, Catholicism was once again resurrected as the state religion. This remained throughout the whole 2nd French Empire, and then for 35 years into the 3rd French Republic until the 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and State disestablished Catholicism as the state religion and ended the church’s privileges in society once and for all.
That was a 116-year battle between the French people and legally privileged organized religion.
So, the French people, out of fear of the return of Catholicism to its former power, have since 1905 passed many laws, and continue to support many more, that place harsh restrictions on all religions in the public sphere to make sure none may rise to have political power or legal privilege ever again.
As a society, they have decided to place relatively mild restrictions on liberty with regards to religious expression so as to guard one of their society’s greater liberties: freedom from state religion. This is a utilitarian approach to liberty, but an approach to liberty nonetheless. Accepting a cost, in this case, a little loss of freedom in one area to get the benefit of securing a larger freedom; the freedom from an established religion by further safeguarding their return to revolutionary struggle between church and state that plagued their nation for over a century.
So, do not cast off Le Pen as a hypocritical foe to liberty. She is simply promoting liberty as she understands it; albeit a precarious brand of it. But for France, a nation with a long and complicated relationship to such an idolized ideal, that may ever be the only way.
After all, France is the nation who prides herself as being depicted as the bare breasted Marianne. Can we really ever realistically expect her to accept her fellow women to be wrapped in veils?
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