How the French presidential election framed laicite and the debate on national identity around the treatment of French Muslims.
For the first time in the history of French presidential elections, two candidates whose parties have never governed France find themselves as finalists in the second round. These two candidates, Emmanuel Macron and Marine le Pen, have two very different visions of French society and its place within Europe and in the world. Both also have opposing visions of the treatment of religious minorities—particularly Muslims— and have radically opposite approaches to laicite, the form of secularism specific to France: laicite as a liberal principle born from the law of 1905 versus a laicite shaped as an ideology aimed to impose certain values on all citizens regardless of background.
Laicite is a consequence of France’s Law on Separation of Church and State of 1905, which declares that the state must be protected from Church interference and shall be fully neutral towards religious matters. In the modern era, however, laicite has come to represent a collective public identity of the French people, a cornerstone of France’s national identity and French values, though nowhere have these been specifically defined. In the absence of such a definition, various cultural and political influences have taken control of this definition to the detriment of minorities, including and especially Muslims. Today, laicite is the conduit through which the place of Islam and Muslims in France has been made a central election issue.
Le Pen’s strategy centers on the supposed incompatibility of Islam with French national identity. For her, religious signs should be banned from public spaces and any form of religious accommodation needs to be curtailed. Usually a hallmark of far-right political rhetoric, these ideas have now been mainstreamed by both left- and right-wing politicians. She considers France to be a Christian country whose traditions and values must be protected against the so-called "Islamization of society." For example, Le Pen argues that the Islamic headscarf is a threat to French identity and hence must disappear from public visibility. Obviously, French Muslims will be deeply affected by such discriminatory measures, but this will also cause collateral damage for other religious groups. Sikhs and Jews will join Muslims in not being able to express their religiosity and will be collectively asked by Le Pen to make this “sacrifice."
Emmanuel Macron defends a more purist and accommodating vision of laicite, faithful to the Law of 1905, that was originally intended to be a guarantee of freedom to believe or not to believe and an equal treatment between religions. He therefore does not envisage limiting the wearing of religious symbols throughout the public space, or even at university or at the workplace as envisioned by certain candidates of the far right as well as the traditional left and right wings. For Macron, the republic is secular and laique, not society. In line with his liberal political philosophy, religions have a role to play in society, and can take part in public debates without encroaching on political power. Not without fierce critics from both the left and right, Macron also recognizes the existence of diversity in France and denounces "the stunted identity" conveyed by some on the right, especially the National Front. While Marine Le Pen defends a model of "forced assimilation," he promotes a republican "inclusion" which takes into account diversity.
The question of identity, and in particular the feeling of identity insecurity that can be observed almost everywhere across Europe, stems mainly from the crisis of the nation state being challenged by European integration. Henceforth, it is no coincidence that a vast majority of supporters of anti-Muslim policies are also profoundly anti-European. The European model as we know it has reached its limits. Europe needs to find a remedy to their identity crisis by finding a way to implement more democratic institutions and encouraging the political engagement of citizens through the development of local democracy, or its own survival will be at stake.
Muslims are simply not the threat France that makes them out to be. France has slowly fallen from freedom of religion to freedom from religion, affecting not only Muslims but all other non-Christian religious groups who want to practice their religion freely without being oppressed by public authorities. This kind of behavior should be anathema to a liberal advanced democracy like France, which also happens to be one of the cradles of the Enlightenment. Attempts to culturally unite the French people is being achieved at the expense of the affirmation of diversity. If elected, the challenge for Macron’s administration will be to rethink its relationship with religious minorities — particularly Muslims — and ensure that laicite does not continue to morph into a divisive political ideology, or worse, a state religion.
This Sunday, French people will choose between two visions of laicite, and by extension national identity. Regardless of who wins, France has already reached a point of no return: the conflict between versions of laicite and the religious minorities that they impact will keep growing and have to be tackled someday. France needs to return to its initial vision of laicite, which is inclusive of diversity and makes all citizens equal before the law regardless of differences of belief or origin.