by Jacob Laufgraben
France is in the midst of a streak of violent attacks that authorities are attributing to Islamist terrorism. Over the course of October 2020, the European nation saw two beheadings: one of a teacher who showed his students a caricature of the prophet Muhammad, and one of a woman in a church. There have also been multiple stabbings, including one outside the French consulate in Saudi Arabia.
French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to remain strong in the face of religious fanaticism. In wake of these attacks, he echoed his remarks from early October, warning of what he perceived as a radical Muslim “counter-society.” He further stated, “What we need to fight is Islamist separatism. The problem is an ideology which claims its own laws should be superior to those of the Republic.”
Macron’s approach to this crisis is indicative of his personal convictions, as well as the social and demographic situation in France. But it also reflects France’s dedication to the secular ideal, and highlights the differences between French secularism and our interpretation of the same ideal here in the United States.
This history of secularism in France is one of the reasons why Emmanuel Macron has spoken so passionately about the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. He fears the creeping of personal faith into the public sphere, and the undermining of democratic values.
The president has often been described as an adherent to Gaullism, a distinctly French ideology named after French president and general Charles deGaulle. Like Macron, this ideology is not strictly liberal or conservative, but it propagates a strong centralized government and a form of French exceptionalism. It is no wonder then that Macron would so staunchly defend France’s secular tradition.
But Macron is also concerned with the French electorate. In 2017, he won election to the presidency, defeating the ultra-nationalist Marine Le Pen, who railed against the European Union and Muslim migration to France. By taking a hard line to these terror attacks, he is defending himself from attacks from the right that he is “soft” on Islamic fundamentalism.
The differing interpretations of secularism in the United States and France stem from the American and French revolutions, both of which pursued enlightenment ideals and popular governance. These revolutions helped spread the ideas of liberalism and nationalism that have contributed so much to the way governments interact with their people. But the differing social, political, and economic contexts of the Thirteen Colonies and France contributed to considerably different revolutions.
The Thirteen Colonies were ruled by the British crown, but they also had elected state legislatures, some religious liberty, and were governed English common law. In contrast, France was a feudal state, where an absolute monarch, landed noble class, and clerical caste wielded complete control over the mostly peasant population.
America had a strong foundation for democracy even before 1776. France had no such base prior to their revolution, and as a result the reforms carried out by revolutionaries had to be much more radical. This included curtailing the power of priests and the Catholic Church in France.
The particular brand of French secularism, which is greatly influenced by the revolution, is known as laïcité. It propagates a policy of freeing public institutions from the influence of religion, as well as excluding religion from the public sphere. This differs from the First Amendment in the United States, which simply mandates that Congress make no law regarding an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The discouragement of religion in the public sphere that is seen in foundational French legal doctrine is not apparent in the United States.
Macron’s plan to combat fundamentalism includes encouraging the teaching of Arabic in France and creating an Institute of Islamology to foster more progressive ideas in Islam and limit the power of foreign clerics on French Muslims. These examples of the government exerting varying levels of control over religious institutions has some precedent in French history. During the revolution, the Catholic Church and clergy were subordinated to the state to such a degree that Catholic bishops and priests became elected offices.
French officials also fear other forms of deviation from republican values in social life. Macron’s allies cite the refusal of some French Muslim men to shake women’s hands, swimming pools that impose alternate time slots for men and women, and girls of as young as four being told to wear full-face veils.
France’s motto is “liberty, equality, fraternity.” According to many in France, liberty and equality for all people are being denied to French Muslim girls and women through strict adherence to religious orthodoxy. Fraternity relates to the idea of social cohesion, which French citizens believe is being disturbed by an inability of some Muslims to separate their religious beliefs from their public life.
France’s laïcité was initially enshrined in law to curtail the power of the Catholic Church, but now it is being used to limit the threat that Islamic fundamentalism poses to France. The steps that Macron takes will have an unquantifiable impact on how Europe’s oldest democracy interacts with its Muslim population, which is the largest in Eruope. Not only this, but what happens in France may show us compatibility of religious orthodoxy with an increasingly secular and heterodox world.
France and the United States have chosen different paths to pursue the same secular ideal, and these paths have brought the two countries to where they are today. But to pass judgement on which form of secularism is superior may be premature. The French and American republics are different countries, with different needs, and different histories. So the fact that they came to separate conclusions on the matter of state and religion should not tell us one is right and one wrong, only that the material and human conditions of history can impact ideology.