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RELIGION

France sets up ‘office of laïcité’ to defend its secular ideals

The complex and frequently-misunderstood concept of laïcité - secularism - is set to be reinforced with the creation of a new office designed to oversee the application of one of the fundamental principles of the French republic.

France sets up 'office of laïcité' to defend its secular ideals
Photo: AFP

Prime minister Jean Castex announced on Thursday the creation of a new inter-ministerial committee on secularism which will eventually evolve into the bureau de la laïcité

Its role will be to provide extra training to state employees on exactly what laïcité is and what it does and does not allow, and to rule on disputes over the application of the principle of state secularism.

The creation of the office comes as a new bill aimed at ‘strengthening republican principles’ and cracking down on extremism makes its way through parliament.

READ ALSO What is actually contained in France’s new law against Islamic extremism

A key principle of the French state since its adoption in 1905, laïcité is poorly understood outside France, but the ideas of secularism are also often misunderstood – sometimes deliberately for political reasons – inside the country as well.

The basic principle of the law is that everyone in France is free to follow whatever religion they choose, but that the French state itself remains strictly neutral and religion plays no part in the business of the state.

This rules out, for example, Christmas nativity scenes in town halls or prayers in schools. It also means that agents of the state – anyone on the public payroll – cannot display any signs of their religion such as wearing the Muslim headscarf while at work, while religious symbols cannot be displayed in state buildings including schools.

It does not, however, extend to private businesses – so shops can and do put up Christmas decorations – or public spaces – so that wearing a Muslim scarf on the street or in a shop is perfectly legal.

Nevertheless, the lack of a simple, concise definition means that many people remain confused about the principle.

This is not helped by some deliberate distortions of the principle for political reasons, where it is particularly used to attack Muslim women.

READ ALSO What does laïcité really mean in France?

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POLITICS

French minster orders closure of Cannes mosque over anti-Semitic remarks

France's interior minister said on Wednesday he had ordered the closure of a mosque on the French Riviera because of anti-Semitic remarks made there.

The French riviera town of Cannes
The French riviera town of Cannes. Photo: Joel Saget/AFP

Gerald Darmanin said the mosque in the seaside city of Cannes was also guilty of supporting CCIF and BarakaCity, two associations that the government dissolved at the end of last year for spreading “Islamist” propaganda.

Darmanin told broadcaster CNews that he had consulted with the mayor of Cannes, David Lisnard, before shutting down the mosque.

The move comes two weeks after authorities closed a mosque in the north of the country because of what they said was the radical nature of its imam’s preaching.

The mosque in Beauvais, a town of 50,000 people some 100 kilometres north of Paris, was shut for six months because the sermons there incited hatred and violence and “defend jihad”, authorities said.

Last October, a mosque in Allonnes, 200 kilometres west of Paris, was closed also for six months for sermons defending armed jihad and “terrorism”, according to regional authorities.

The French government announced last year that it would step up checks of places of worship and associations suspected of spreading radical Islamic propaganda.

The crackdown came after the October 2020 murder of teacher Samuel Paty, who was targeted following an online campaign against him for having shown controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo during a civics class.

In the interview on Wednesday, the interior minister said that 70 mosques in France were considered to be “radicalised”.

According to the ministry, there are a total of 2,623 mosques and Muslim prayer halls in the country.

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