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France: Secularity, Required for Democracy and Human Rights

The French concept of the secular seems so distinctive that even the English-language Wikipedia's entry on the issue uses the French term, laïcité, worded in French, to describe it.

Sticking to the U.S. and French blogospheres, is it possible to somehow bridge the gap of comprehension laïcité has generated between both sides of the Atlantic Ocean?

Arthur Goldhammer, drawing a parallel between the burqa and the catholic nuns’ cloth, warns against being a “zealot of laïcité” :

(…) Not everyone in the ambient society accepts these tenets of faith, but the symbol embodying them is nevertheless not banned from the streets. It is banned from the schools. Traditionally, laïcité meant exactly this kind of drawing of boundaries.

Some French bloggers, concerned by the attacks, not only religious but also political, that they feel are threatening laïcité in France, endeavored to explain the notion, and to make clear that it is a requirement for democracy and human rights.

In a may, 2009 post hosted by lemonde.fr website, Bartolomeo of librepropos [Fr] had this definition :

laïcité: La Laïcité combat tous les cléricalismes c’est à dire toute intrusion du fait religieux, de la croyance dans les institutions publiques de la République.

Laïcité fights against all clericalisms, that is to say, every intrusion of any religious phenomenon, or belief, into the public institutions of the Republic.

The historical background

The concept of laïcité first appeared with the French Revolution, and was institutionalized with the “1905 law” [of Separation of the Church and the State]. The clash with the Catholic Church finally died down, each side finding at long last its interest in the new relationship.

Dans ce concept de laïcité ouverte des années 1990, ce droit à la différence se transforma petit à petit en “une différence de droits” . L’islam absent de ce débat apparaît alors à travers l’affaire du foulard de Creil en 1989. [...]

In the midst of this concept of open secularity of the 90s, the right to be different gradually turned into “different rights”. Islam, still absent from the debate, then steps in with the Creil headscarf case in 1989 [...].

A foundation of the Republic

[La laïcité est inscrite à l'article 1 de la Constitution] “La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale. Elle assure l’égalité devant la loi de tous les citoyens sans distinction d’origine, de race ou de religion. Elle respecte toutes les croyances. [...]“

[Laïcité is written down in the first article of the Constitution]; “France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It guarantees equality in the eyes of the law to every citizen without any distinction for origin, race or religion. It respects all beliefs. [...]

But it originates with the Enlightenment and the Aug. 26, 1789 Declaration of the Right of Man and of the Citizen.

Content of laïcité, in 4 points

Vivre ensemble: [...] A chacun de vivre librement ses options spirituelles ou convictions philosophiques. – A tous de disposer d’un espace commun, public, assurant liberté et égalité. – mais aussi créer un monde commun aux hommes, tout en leur permettant de garder librement leurs différences.

selon 3 principes: Liberté de Conscience – Égalité des Options Spirituelles Universalité de la Loi Commune.

[par le moyen juridique de] la séparation des Églises et de l’État par la loi de 1905 [en distinguant] une Sphère Privée et une Sphère Publique

L'Ecole Laïque [en est l'outil basique pédagogique].

Living together : It's up to everyone to live freely according to his/her spiritual choices or philosophical beliefs – up to all to own a common, public space, guaranteeing freedom and equality – but also to create a common world for mankind, while allowing them to freely keep their differences.according to 3 principles : Freedom of conscience – Equality of spiritual options – Universality of the common law.

[by legal means of] the Separation of the State and the Church with the 1905 law, [which distinguishes] a private sphere and a public sphere

Secular School [is its basic educational tool]

Franco-Ivorian Delugio, on his blog “Une vingtaine”! et quelques, explains the difference between American secularity and French laïcité :

Dans sa structure moderne, la racine immédiate de la démocratie peut se trouver dans le protestantisme américain, s’organisant pour un « vivre ensemble » au-delà de la pluralité des Églises — pour une gestion partagée de la cité commune.
Cela ne se fera pas sans heurts : ça commencera par la guerre d’indépendance pour aboutir au XXe siècle — mais dès le départ, pour les indépendantistes, la dimension de la séparation des Églises et de l’État est un acquis non négociable.
Lorsque la France révolutionnaire reprendra ce modèle américain, elle se heurtera à une Église, l’Église catholique, prétendant, contrairement aux Églises protestantes américaines, à l’unicité.
C’est ce choc qui caractérise la « laïcité à la française » : laïcité de type américain dans un contexte de combat contre une Église revendiquant le pouvoir d’une façon ou d’une autre.

In its modern structure, the immediate root of democracy can be found in American Protestantism, organizing itself for a “life together” beyond the plurality of Churches – for a shared running of the common city.
It was not to be accomplished without clashes : to begin with, the Independence War until the 20th century – but from the start, the importance of the separation of the Churches and the State has been a non-negociable asset.
When revolutionary France took up again the American model, it clashed with a Church, the Catholic Church, claiming, unlike the American Protestant Churches, uniqueness.
This clash is the characteristic feature of “laïcité à la française”: an American type of secularity in a context of battling against a Church that demands power in some or other way.

He then assesses the chances and obstacles, for Islam, on this same road to laïcité, which he views as desirable and historically necessary, and he thinks that France has a specific part to play in the process :

La France est en position, de par son histoire, de mener ce combat qu’elle a déjà mené en métropole face au catholicisme.

Mais le combat sera rendu plus difficile encore par ce que dans son empire colonial, la France a fait exactement l’inverse de ce qu’elle a proclamé et de ce qu’elle a fait en métropole : elle a, à l'instar des autres puissances coloniales, consacré dans l’empire colonial des lois particulières, y compris la charia, comme vis-à-vis de la République.

France, with its historical background, is in a position to lead this fight it already led at home against Catholicism.But the fight will be made even more difficult, insofar as France did inside its colonial empire exactly the opposite of what it had proclaimed and done at home : like the other colonial powers, it established in its colonial empire specific regulations, including sharia, as partners of the Republic.

And what if, beyond all these big principles the French love to ride as their hobby-horse, they drew inspiration, as suggested by MRT, from their Belgian neighbors’ pragmatism, addressing the burqa issue with a mere law on security :

En Belgique et au Luxembourg, c’est tout simple : pas de ségrégation religieuse, mais une simple loi sur la sécurité afin que les personnes mal intentionnées ne déjouent pas les caméras de surveillance.
Voici le texte de loi voté en 2005:
“Sans autorisation de l’autorité compétente, il est interdit sur le domaine public de se dissimuler le visage par des grimages, le port d’un masque ou tout autre moyen, à l’exception du “temps du carnaval”.

In Belgium and Luxembourg, it's very simple : no religious segregation, but a mere law on security in order that ill-intentioned people won't thwart video surveillance.
The bill, passed in 2005, says:
“Without permission of the concerned authority, it is forbidden on public grounds to hide one's face with paint, by wearing a mask, or by any other means, except during ‘carnival time’ “.

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