The French government has created an office of laicité in an effort to better control how state secularism - one of the fundamental values of the French Republic - is taught and transmitted.
The Interministerial Committee replaces the Observatoire de la Laicité, which was criticised for not cracking down hard enough on radical Islam.
"There have been many theoretical debates and controversies for many years. Now it is time to act,” Marlène Schiappa, France’s junior minister in charge of citizenship, told French public radio on Thursday.
She is one of about a dozen ministers in the new Committee that will be tasked with coordinating laicité - state secularism, and track the implementation of the so-called separatism law, aimed at cracking down on Islamic extremism, and which is expected to be approved by parliament on 22 July.
The Committee will operate under the auspices of the Interior Ministry and supersede the Observatoire, an independent public watchdog put in place in 2013 by then-President Francois Hollande.
It has come under criticism over the years, and most recently from Schiappa, for being too accommodating to Muslims, and too lax in addressing radical Islam.
Led by a former Socialist MP, Jean-Louis Bianco, the Observatoire's mission was to train public employees and advise the government on laicité.
“What was criticised was its independence … its political line. Some found it too open,” said Hakim El Karaoui, a researcher with the Institut Montaigne think tank who has advised President Emmanuel Macron on Islam.
Different shades of laicité
The concept of laicité comes from the 1905 law separating church and state, which says that the state is neutral with regard to religion, but also lets people believe what they want.
The word, and concept, of laicité does not appear in the law, so it has been interpreted in different ways.
“For some - which is the case with the Observatorire – laicité is a legal concept of state neutrality and freedom of conscience,” said El Karaoui.
“For others it’s a political history: the conflict between first the Kings of France, then presidents, and religious authorities. At first it was with the Pope, and today it is with Islam," El Karaoui explained.
"And then for some, laicité is atheism. They believe that religion is a dangerous and old-fashioned idea.”
The Observatoire became a target during the debate over the law against separatism, and in the wake of the murder of teacher Samuel Paty, who had shown caricatures of the prophet Mohammed in his class.
Schiappa criticised the Observatoire’s rapporteur, Nicolas Cadène, for publicly denouncing Islamophobia at the time, and for working with the CCIF Collective against Islamophobia, which was accused of being involved in hate speech and disbanded by the government after Paty’s murder.
During the debates over the anti-separatism law, Schiappa announced the dissolution of the Observatoire and its replacement with a new body.
“There are not 50 shades of laicité, and this new office will back only one, which is laicité in action,” she told the Journal de Dimanche newspaper.
One of the Interministerial Committee's first undertakings will be to approve a new ‘Day of laicité’ on 9 December, the date of the 1905 law separating church and state.
The Committee will also take over laicité training for public employees, with the goal of providing such training to all five million of them by 2025, with a particular focus on teachers, in the wake of Paty’s murder.
A recent study by the Jean Jaures think tank and the Ifop polling institute looked at teachers’ approach towards religion and laicité, and found that most have a “minimalist” interpretation.
“Their rejection of an ‘anti-religious’ concept of laicité can be seen in the small number of teachers who now see it as a tool to fight against the influence of religion in society,” wrote François Kraus, who led the study for Ifop.
Younger teachers, in particular, are more comfortable than older teachers with expressions of religion in society, even if they are still very much in favour of a 2004 law banning religions signs in schools.
“Young teachers express an ‘open’ – some would say ‘inclusive’ – vision of laicité that appears close to Anglophone multicultural social models,” wrote Kraus.
This, he says, will have an impact on how future generations approach the concept in France.
The Observatoire had already started training programmes for public sector workers. El Karaoui says it makes sense to continue.
“It's about teaching public employees what laicité is, what they are allowed and not allowed to do, how to behave with the public. And how to identify the risk of threats to laicité, and aggressions in the name of religion,” he added.
The new Committee will be tasked with placing a laicité ‘specialist' in each public administration by the end of 2021 to provide information and mediate on issues relating to religion.
"We must support public workers, we should not leave them alone with difficult questions, which is why we need these specialists,” said public service minister Amélie de Montchalin on the right-wing Cnews channel on Wednesday.
The Committee will also oversee new powers given to prefects, the government’s representatives on the ground, to take legal action against local governments if they seem to contradict laicité, for example by allowing women-only sessions in public pools.