• France's news in English

Why France's national 'Secularism Day' fell flat

The Local · 9 Dec 2015, 17:18

Published: 09 Dec 2015 17:18 GMT+01:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

French schools were encouraged to celebrate a national “Day of Secularism (Laïcité)” on Wednesday, but the initiative was widely ignored amid ongoing security concerns and the fact that many lament the fact that the principle or at least the term has been hijacked by the far-right.

Laïcité—a term meaning secularism —has been a central principle of the French Republic since a 1905 law that enforced the strict separation of church and state.

Wednesday December 9th marked 110 years since that rule came into law.

The law was originally established in order to purge Catholic influence from French institutions, but laïcité means a very different thing in the more multi-cultural France of 2015.

Wednesday's national Secularism Day was announced by President François Hollande following the January attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Caché supermarket.

Hollande wanted it celebrated in French schools as part of a ten-point plan to combat radicalization by educating young people about the significance of secularism in France.  

On Wednesday schools were asked to organize debates and activities about the meaning and history of laïcité. However many teachers were unwilling to participate.

“This is coming at the worst possible time,” said Pierre Favre, President of the French National Teachers Union, to Europe1.

“We are very focused on security. The prime minister and the president say we’re at war, that we’re in a state of emergency, but they still want us to organize a day of debates?”

On Wednesday The Local spoke to secondary school pupils in Paris's 19th arrondissement, who said none of their teachers had even mentioned the Day of Laicité, much less organized special activities. 

Several pupils said they had never discussed laicité outside of back-to-school assemblies where they are told what they can and cannot wear, referring to restrictions on expressing religious identity in schools. One 14-year-old student said she wished her school would talk about the ideas behind laïcité, instead of just the rules.

“We have to live to together in a world where different religions are represented. This concept is really important to understand.”

But it appears that secularism is still a principle most French people are still deeply attached to.

A survey published today by France’s National Committee for Laïcité found that 87 percent of French people agree that secularism in schools is important, and 81 percent of people agree that secularism is “in danger” in France.

Despite the sense that secularism is important for fighting radicalism, French people’s relationship to the term has grown increasingly complicated.  In recent years, laïcité has frequently been hijacked by right-wing politicians as an excuse to stigmatize minorities and police the expression of Islam.

Marine Le Pen and other far-right leaders have used the principal of laïcité as a pretext for critisizing pork-free options in school cafeterias.

Her niece Marion Marechal-Le Pen, a hardline Catholic, has promised to scrap alternative lunch options for Muslim and Jewish students across the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region if she wins in the regional elections on Sunday.

Story continues below…

She has also stated that Muslims in France could not occupy the same rank as Christians.

Laïcité originally meant that the state recognized no religion, but has evolved to a more restrictive definition that implies that French people should not display or talk about their religion in the public sphere.  

The principal was cited as the primary reason for a 2004 law banning students from wearing religious symbols—notably the hijab—in school and then again in 2010 for the so-called burqa-ban, even though critics accused the then governments of using it as a ruse just to limit the expression of Islam.

“The far right has twisted laicité and used it to violently attack the Muslims of France. They’ve used it as a tool to exclude, reject, and sow hate and division.”  said Prime Minister Manual Valls in a speech Wednesday.

“But laïcité is against divisiveness. Laïcité is our organizing principle of tolerance, of respecting each other’s beliefs and individual dignities.” 

By Robert Williams Urquhart

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Today's headlines
French cheer police, reviving Charlie spirit
French police officers on Saturday demonstrated for the fifth night in a row to protest mounting attacks on officers. Photo: Thomas Samson / AFP

Angry French police have taken to the streets for five nights in a row -- and Parisians have started to cheer them on, reviving scenes last seen following the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2015.

Scarlett Johansson turns popcorn girl in Paris
US actress Scarlett Johansson greets customers at the Yummy Pop gourmet popcorn shop in the Marais district of Paris. Photo: Benjamin Cremel / AFP

Hollywood superstar Scarlett Johansson swapped the red carpet for a turn behind the counter at her new popcorn shop in Paris on Saturday.

US couple donates huge art collection to Paris
Marlene (centre) and Spencer (right) are donating their collection ‘for the benefit of art lovers’. Photo: Thomas Samson / AFP

A Texan couple who discovered their love for art during a trip to Paris in the 1970s are to donate the multi-million dollar collection they have amassed since to the French capital.

France to clear 'Jungle' migrant camp Monday
Migrants will be bussed from the camp to some 300 temporary accommodation centres around France. Photo: Denis Charlet/ AFP

The "Jungle" migrant camp on France's northern coast will be cleared of its residents on Monday before being demolished, authorities said Friday.

How life for expats in France has changed over the years
A market in Eymet, southwestern France. Photo: AFP

Foreigners in France explain how life has changed over the years.

London calling for Calais youths, but only a chosen few
Photo: AFP

Dozens of Calais minors are still hanging their hopes on help from the UK, but not all will be so lucky.

17 different ways to talk about sex in French
Photo: Helga Weber/Flickr

Fancy a quick run with the one-legged man?

Yikes! This is what a rat-infested French jail looks like
Photo: YouTube/France Bleu TV.

This video is not for sufferers of ratophobia (or musophobia as the condition is officially called).

France to allow Baby Jesus in Town Halls this Christmas
Photo: AFP

Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus are safe to go on display again this year, it seems.

National Front posts locations of migrants in French town
The National Front courts controversy. Photo: AFP

"Local tax payers have a right to know," says local far-right party chief.

Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Why Toulouse is THE place to be in France right now
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
Video: New homage to Paris shows the 'real side' of city
The 'most dangerous' animals you can find in France
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Swap London fogs for Paris frogs: France woos the Brits
Anger after presenter kisses woman's breasts on live TV
Is France finally set for a cold winter this year?
IN PICS: The story of the 'ghost Metro stations' of Paris
How to make France's 'most-loved' dish: Magret de Canard
Welcome to the flipside: 'I'm not living the dream in France'
Do the French really still eat frogs' legs?
French 'delicacies' foreigners really find hard to stomach
French are the 'world's most pessimistic' about the future
Why the French should not be gloomy about the future
This is the most useful French lesson you will ever have. How to get angry
Why is there a giant clitoris in a field in southern France?
French pastry wars: Pain au chocolat versus chocolatine
Countdown: The ten dishes the French love the most
Expats or immigrants in France: Is there a difference?
How the French reinvented dozens of English words
The ups and downs of being both French and English
How Brexit vote has changed life for expats in France
Twelve French insults we'd love to have in English
What's on in France: Ten of the best events in October
jobs available