The horrific murder of history teacher Samuel Paty has reignited a longstanding debate on the application of France’s cherished secular principle of "laïcité", leading to virulent accusations that parts of the establishment have caved in to radical Islamists undermining the French Republic’s core values.
Among the long list of terrorist attacks to have struck France in recent years, Paty’s beheading by an 18-year-old Islamist radical carries a particularly sinister resonance. In the words of President Emmanuel Macron, the teacher was targeted because he “embodied the Republic”, because he “taught pupils to become citizens” and “fought for freedom and reason”.
Like the January 2015 attacks on satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket, which targeted freedom of expression and religion, Friday’s killing in the Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine struck at the core values of the French Republic. It was allegedly motivated by a class on ethics and civic values, during which Paty showed and discussed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad published by Charlie Hebdo. The class angered at least one Muslim parent who instigated a hate campaign against the teacher, with fatal consequences.
Outrage over the murder has fuelled calls for a more robust response to a murderous ideology that has once again shed blood on French soil – and a more assertive defence of the core principle of laïcité, loosely translated as state secularism. It has exacerbated existing divisions, particularly on the left of the political divide, between advocates of by-the-book secularism and others who warn that laïcité has been “disarmed”.
The latter group has joined politicians from the mainstream right to the far right – whose ideological predecessors once opposed secularism as an anti-clerical conspiracy – in slamming segments of the left for purportedly appeasing Islamists. Some prominent conservatives, including former minister Xavier Bertrand, have called for laïcité to be added to the French Republican motto, “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”.
According to Rita Hermon-Belot, a historian at the Paris-based EHESS who has written extensively about “religious pluralism” and secular rules in France, the fact that adjectives – such as hard, soft, open or closed – are being tagged onto the concept of laïcité is itself problematic. In an interview with FRANCE 24, she stressed the fact that there is no legal definition of laïcité, not even in the landmark 1905 legislation separating church and state, which is frequently described as “enshrining” the principle of French secularism.
“It is ironic that some politicians should say, ‘All the 1905 law, nothing but the 1905 law’, when describing their interpretation of laïcité, because the word doesn’t even feature in the law,” Hermon-Belot pointed out. "Instead, the 1905 law offers a legal framework in which citizens can exercise their right to believe or not to believe in the religion of their choice. It defines the role of the Republic as guarantor of these rights – so long as they do not violate public order.”
Rather than tracing the origins of French secularism to a single definition or legislation, Hermon-Belot says it is the product of a process, stretching over several decades, in which a series of liberal laws and rules gradually established the preeminence of the secular state over the Catholic Church in public life, from education to marriage and civil rights.
“Back then, legislators probably thought it was more prudent not to establish a legal definition of laïcité,” she said. “Today, however, the lack of such a definition paves the way for all sorts of interpretations, some of them clearly abusive.”
Surveys have repeatedly shown that large segments of the French public have only a vague understanding of laïcité. Still, according to an Ifop poll published days after Paty’s murder, 87 percent of respondents said they believed French secularism was under threat.
Secularism watchdog under fire
The attack in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine has rekindled a dispute between rival understandings of French secularism, which disagree on how far the French state should go in asserting religious neutrality in the public sphere. In this case, the row has focused on the purported “laxity” and “cowardice” that advocates of a stricter form of secularism have blamed for allowing Islamist radicalism to prosper.
At the heart of the storm is the Observatory of Secularism, an agency designed to help the government enforce laïcité in France. According to officials quoted by French media, the government is planning to change the composition and mission of the Observatory, “to bring it more in line with the strategy of combating Islamist separatism on French soil”.
In recent days, critics of the Observatory have accused its leaders of being more concerned with tackling the stigmatisation of Muslims than defending French secularism. Journalist Caroline Fourest called for its head Jean-Louis Bianco, a broadly respected figure, to be fired for having “disarmed the Republic by placing the Observatory of Secularism in the hands of its enemies”. So did Manuel Valls, a former prime minister, who blamed Bianco for “compromising” the Observatory.
Their vehement attacks have prompted numerous academics to rally in support of the body, denouncing a “purge” and hailing its work as a “watchdog” that safeguards “secularism as a public liberty”. They were joined by a number of lawmakers in Macron’s ruling party, including Fiona Lazaar, who praised the Observatory’s work “educating the public about a principle that is little understood”.
Lazaar added: “We shouldn’t mix everything up by accusing them of being lax. It is isn’t their job to fight delinquency and terrorism.”
Curbing religious freedoms
Dounia Bouzar, an anthropologist and member of the Observatory, who specialises in religious and political extremism, says the body abides by a “legal” interpretation of secularism, as opposed to an “ideological” one.
“The Observatory sticks to the law, which does not mean that everything and anything is allowed,” she explained in an interview with FRANCE 24. “The law already contains the tools to prosecute those who seek to limit the freedom of others.”
Should the French state adopt an “ideological” version of secularism as opposed to a strictly legal one, Bouzar added, it would soon find itself at odds with the European Court of Human Rights, which closely monitors the religious freedoms of individuals in EU member states.
In recent years, cases of French officials offering very strict interpretations of secular rules have resulted in vitriolic debates – and sometimes public embarrassment.
Last year, a Catholic nun was mistakenly told she could only stay at a retirement home in the town of Vesoul if she stopped wearing religious clothing, prompting the local mayor to apologise. That came days after a politician in nearby Dijon asked a Muslim mother on a school trip to remove her hijab, igniting a fierce debate. There was more turmoil last month when several French lawmakers walked out of the National Assembly in protest at the presence of a student union representative who wore a Muslim veil.
Nicolas Cadène, a senior member of the Observatory and the main target of the current campaign against the institution, has described such incidents as the result of a misunderstanding of rules on laïcité, which require the strict neutrality of state employees and public servants, but not of the general public. Speaking to the New York Times in the wake of the nun’s case, Cadène said debates over Islam in France had led to a “great confusion” over secularism laws and shifted public discourse towards a stricter understanding of laïcité.
According to Bouzar, such incidents are routinely exploited by Islamists to back their claims that Muslims are not free to practise their religion in France. The difficulty, she said, is to find the right balance between denouncing this imposture while also recognising the legitimate grievances of marginalised communities.
“Radical islamists seek to portray their ideology, and their ‘separist’ stance, as a defence of Islam,” she said. “Those who denounce this should not be treated as ‘Islamophobes’. But neither should the very real stigmatisation of Muslims be denied or dismissed.”
Bouzar added: “Every time we deny the discrimination and negative stereotyping that many Muslims are subjected to, we help the radical groups who feed on the discrepancy between the Republican promise of equality and the reality they experience day to day.”
‘Islamophobia’, a disputed term
The term “Islamophobia” – used to refer to hatred of Muslims – was the subject of fierce dispute long before the attack in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine. Since Friday’s gruesome murder, people who use the term have been described, at best, as appeasers of radical Islam, and, at worst, as its accomplices.
Advocates of a more assertive laïcité accuse Islamists of hiding behind the term to intimidate critics and curb freedom of expression. In recent days, their attacks have focused on the high-profile Collective Against Islamophobia (CCIF), an anti-discrimination watchdog that has previously criticised France’s ban on wearing conspicuous religious symbols in state schools.
French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin has called for the CCIF to be dissolved, stating – without offering concrete evidence – that it was “manifestly implicated” in the chain of events leading to Paty’s murder. Backing his call, Aurore Bergé, a prominent lawmaker in Macron’s ruling LREM party, has accused the organisation of “drawing a target on the back of secularists and Republicans”.
Though much of this has to do with settling political scores, Hermon-Belot, the historian of secularism, said there is evidence that the fear of being branded “islamophobic” can weigh on some public servants, particularly school teachers.
In the days following Friday’s attack, several teachers spoke candidly about their fears and concerns in interviews with the French press. Some admitted they occasionally practised “self-censorship” to avoid upsetting pupils on sensitive issues. Many complained of a lack of support from headmasters, who tend to side with troublesome parents to avoid “causing a fuss”.
Between September 2019 and March of this year, French schools recorded more than 900 “violations of secularism”, according to data published by the Education Ministry. They included cases of pupils contesting their teachers and parents refusing to send their daughters to swimming classes. The ministry, which began recording cases only three years ago, said the overall number had remained relatively stable.
“Some people manifestly have a problem with secular rules, and see them as a constraint on their religious freedom, but they are a tiny minority of the population,” said Hermon-Belot, pointing out frequent misunderstandings of laïcité among members of the public. “Contrary to what is often said, secular education is not obligatory in France, it is school that is obligatory,” she added. “There is no ban on religious signs in denominational (religious) schools, which are also financed by the French state.”
‘Islam of the Enlightenment’
Unregistered schools that deviate from the national curriculum are among the targets of a plan to fight “Islamist separatism”, which Macron unveiled earlier this month in a keynote speech delivered in the impoverished suburb of Les Mureaux, not far from Conflans-Sainte-Honorine. The French president said home-schooling would be severely restricted to avoid children being "indoctrinated".
“The problem is an ideology which claims its own laws should be superior to those of the Republic,” Macron said. He stressed that he was referring to “radical Islamism” and not Muslims in general, though he also argued that Islam was “in crisis everywhere in the world”. He went on to call for the establishment of an “Islam of the Englightenment”, becoming the latest French leader to attempt to structure Islam in France – a curiously frequent occurence in a state that is supposed not to interfere with religious matters.
Such attempts have failed before, in part because of limits to what France’s secular state can do, but also because top-down management is particularly ill-suited to the heterogeneous communities that make up France’s estimated five-million-strong Muslim population.
“France lacks a culture of pluralism,” said Hermon-Belot. “There’s a tendency to look at religious groups as monoliths, as uniform communities, when in fact there is a great plurality of faiths, customs and opinions.”
The historian cautioned against the use of heavily charged terms, such as “ghettoisation”, which is now commonly employed by politicians, including Macron, to speak of immigrant-rich but impoverished suburbs seen as vulnerable to falling under the sway of Islamists. Such terms can ostracise communities while also fuelling a sense of victimisation, she said.
Instead, she called for greater research into cases of dissent over France’s secular rules, bemoaning a reluctance to engage with communities and carry out field work.
“These are complex problems that require complex answers,” added Bouzar. “Sadly, the current climate is hardly conducive to complex thought.”