Laîcité, usually translated as secularism, is in brief the principle that everyone in France has the freedom to worship as they choose – but the state itself remains strictly neutral and does not take part in any religious practices.
However that seemingly straightforward concept is the cause of an increasing number of battles and misunderstandings.
Here's a closer look at what it means.
What is the definition of secularism?
“There is no one single definition of the concept of secularism,” stated a report by France’s Conseil d’Etat, the legal advisor to the government, titled Un siècle de laïcité (One Century of secularism).
“Untranslatable in most languages, the concept of secularism refers, in the broad sense, to a loss of hold by religion on society,” they wrote.
The report was published in 2004, ahead of the 100-year-anniversary of the 1905 law that became the bedrock of French secularism by formally separating religious and State matters in France.
While that law – Law on Separation of the Churches and State – did not actually employ the term laïcité, it is the number one legal reference for the principle of secularism today in France.
A placard in Bordeaux reads “I write your name on my school book. Secularism, freedom of speech”, as people across France paid homage on November 18th to history teacher Samuel Paty, two days after he was beheaded in a terrorist attack. Photo: AFP
Where does it come from?
Secularism's roots go back to French Revolution of 1789. Enlightenment thinkers felt reason and universal values had to be protected.
The 19th century saw a battle between the “two Frances”, with secular republicans struggling to contain the power of the dominant Catholic Church.
After 1862, when education became free and secular, that battle became a culture war. Secular schoolteachers – nicknamed the “Black Hussars of the Republic” after their black coats – took on the Catholic clergy for the hearts and minds of every village in France.
Laïcité was enshrined in the French Constitution in 1946. Article 1 states “La France est une République laïque” (France is a secular republic).
Is it only French?
France’s secularism has influenced many countries including Mexico, which also used it to counter the power of the Catholic Church.
But it was most whole-heartedly taken up in Muslim-majority Turkey by it modern founder Ataturk. Turkey's current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has spent much of his 17 years in power trying to roll that back.
What exactly does it mean?
It's a complicated matter, which is not made easier by the fact that there is no clear, simple definition of the term.
But secularism is a principle that is supposed to evolve with the times, legal scholars have stressed.
The French government has a website page dedicated to the question Qu'est-ce que la laïcité ? (What is secularism?).
Their long explanation can be summed up in four core principles, collected from a 2013 legal decision by the French Constitutional Council, the body in charge of reviewing constitutionality of French laws. These are:
- state neutrality;
- respect for all beliefs and equality of all citizens before the law without distinction of religion;
- freedom to worship;
- the absence of official worship.
What does that mean in practice?
Secularism in France is a principle meant to guarantee freedom for each individual to believe whatever they want and exercise this right as they please without interference from the state.
At the same time, religion must be exercised in the private, not public, sphere.
The state must be neutral, which means that public officials cannot wear religious signs. Crosses, hijabs, kippahs and other religious clothing or symbols are therefore banned from public institutions such as schools and for public officials on duty (teachers, police officers, firefighters).
There are also no displays of religion in public institutions, so schools do not have prayer meetings, religious assemblies or religious events such as Nativity Plays at Christmas.
French rightwing opposition party Les Républicains' then Vice-President Laurent Wauquiez in front of a nativity scene as he inaugurated a Christmas exhibition back in 2017 in Lyon. Photo: AFP
Are there exceptions?
French secularism has been on the defensive since the late 1980s with the emergence of identity politics, Christian and Jewish revivalism and most of all, radical Islam, given the movement of Muslims from its former colonies since the 1950s.
In 2004 France banned “the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols or garb” in state schools. It became known as “the French headscarf ban” abroad, though it applies to symbols of all religions.
In 2010 France banned the niqab, the full-face veil, in public places – although this law was eventually framed as a security concern and actually covers all full-face coverings.
Several local authorities had attempted to ban the burkini, the full-cover swimsuit, on their beaches, but this was overturned by the courts.
A Muslim woman hands out roses in Toulouse, southern France, during a gathering to pay tribute to the victims of the deadly attack of the headquarters of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, back in 2015. Photo: AFP
What does it NOT mean?
1- Meanwhile in #France, the so-called color-blind nation: a French MP stormed out of an audition at the National Assembly because she found the presence of a Muslim woman wearing a Hijab unbearable and contrary to the values of the Republic. pic.twitter.com/EZcpOvQUMU
— Rim-Sarah Alouane (@RimSarah) September 17, 2020
“The problem we are seeing today is that we want to impose neutrality on individuals, which is the opposite of laïcité,” said Rim-Sarah Alouane, a French legal scholar and law Phd candidate who specialises in religious freedom, human rights and civil liberties in France, Europe and North America.
Alouane told The Local she prefers not to translate laïcité to secularism, for accuracy purposes.
Similarly, sports retailer Decathlon was attacked on the grounds of laïcité for offering a 'running hijab', although as a private business catering to private individuals it was perfectly entitled to offer the headgear.
“Interfering with religious matters in this way is in itself a violation of laïcité,” Alouane said then.
“Laïcité is freedom.”