Politics

French state secularism causes mass debate

As France debates a new ban on beachwear, we look at the recent history of French secularism and Islam

By Jamie McKay

For decades debates concerning laïcité, the French interpretation of state secularism, have emerged as critics from all sides attack what they see as oversteps in the state (or churches) authority.

The French concept of secularism has a long and detailed history but the modern concept of laïcité emerges from the law on the Separation of the Churches and the State passed in 1905. This law was based on three principles; the neutrality of the state, the freedom of religious exercise and public powers related to the Church. Supporters of laïcité argue that the concept does not imply any hostility of the government towards religion but works to protect the government from any interference from religious organisations, and in turn, to protect religious organisations from becoming entangled in any political arguments or controversies. Those critics and detractors of this concept argue that it is nothing more than a poorly disguised form of anti clericalism and, contrary to the principle of freedom of religious exercise, serves to prevent believers from being able to practice their faith.

In recent years, the concept of laïcité has come under new criticism as governing politicians invoke it as debates concerning Islam in Europe intensifies.

France gained international attention in 2010 as they introduced the now infamous ‘Burqa Ban’ which bans the use of full face veils in public spaces, though the law provides exceptions if the woman is travelling in a private car or worshipping in a religious place. As Parliament discussed the bill French Muslims such as the Grand Mufti of the Paris Mosque testified that the Niqab was not compulsory within Islam and its use would be inconsistent with the French concept of secularism, though he would prefer to see issue handled “case by case”. Other Muslims in France and elsewhere were not convinced however, and protests were organised across the world as clerics and politicians from Islamic parties from Egypt to Malaysia announced fury at the ban. Amnesty International and other liberal groups criticised what they believed to be an unnecessary intervention on the right to freedom of expression. Other European commentators worried that the then government was attempting to win votes from the far-Right Front National who came close to winning the Presidency in 2002 and have seen another upsurge in support recently.

France was brought before the European Court of Human Rights in 2014 concerning the ban, though it was ultimately upheld as the Court accepted the French governments argument that it was based on “a certain idea of living together”.

In recent months similar arguments have emerged as the Mayor of Cannes banned the use of the ‘Burkini’ swimsuits citing a link to terrorism and was followed by Nice and 20 other towns. Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls voiced his support for the ban arguing that the Burkini is a symbol of a “political project […] based notably on the enslavement of women”. His comments were ridiculed by commentators in the Anglosphere and France’s highest legislative court overturned the ban in the commune of Villeneuve-Loubet.

But with a new Presidential election next year, increasing fears of Islamic extremism and establishment parties of both left and right running in fear of the resurgent Front National. Expect more controversy to surround the French concept of secularism.

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