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March 3, 2015
With Responses From
Mar 3, 2015
22 Min read time
France's own political traditions can accommodate visible Islam and heal social divisions.
Photo: Vincent Jarousseau
In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, all in France agree that the country is deeply divided and must improve its vivre ensemble, its ways of living together. But there is sharp disagreement on how to do so. Social divisions are sources of resentment, alienation, and in some cases violence. Healing them will be essential to combating radicalization.
These divisions are strikingly geographical: residents of the poor outer cities surrounding Paris, Lyon, and Lille face unemployment rates several times the national average and see themselves as permanently cut off from the mainstream. For Prime Minister Manuel Valls, this is France’s “apartheid.”
Many of the excluded are Muslims. An Arabic-sounding last name pushes you to the back of the line for good jobs just as does the wrong postal code. Muslims make up about 8 percent of France’s population but in some prisons 60–80 percent of inmates. While in prison, a few of these Muslims are radicalized and pulled toward violence. France has to attack radicalization, but it also has to make clear that Muslim citizens have the same rights as do all others. They may think that they don’t, given the state of segregation, high level of discrimination, and laws banning public display of Islamic symbols.
Some officials call for a stronger top-down enforcement of assimilation and secularism. One former minister called for “republican messianism.” These leaders advocate greater vigilance against Islamic headscarves in public places, expelling halal food from school cafeterias, and restricting immigration. Their solution amounts to keeping diversity outside France or, if it must be present, invisible. These measures would harden social and religious boundaries and accelerate France’s rightward drift. Such steps are politically convenient because they appeal to the far right position against immigration, to the center right in its attempt to outmaneuver the far right, and to the left, which seeks greater secularism.
But France’s long-term political project can encompass a different view, which strives for inclusivity by making good on the promise of the equality of citizens, celebrating their right to freely and publicly associate in all their religious and ethnic diversity, and accepting immigration as integral to modern France. Inclusivity is the only realistic and moral path toward healing France’s divisions, but it faces high political hurdles: it is easily denounced as multiculturalist weakness in the face of terrorism. Some will argue that the French republic was built on a strong Jacobin state, with little room for visible diversity or value pluralism.
However, while Jacobinism is one tendency of the republic, it is not the whole story. Pluralism, too, has deep roots in the French political tradition.
The French Political Project
For centuries, the French have continually adjusted the relation of state to nation amidst efforts by the Church to regain control. The Jacobin response to that challenge was radical: use Rousseau’s idea of the general will as a blueprint for building a centralized state apparatus, which could take in the thoughts and desires of citizens and feed them back to those citizens by way of the institutions and processes of schooling, judging, and administering. Jacobin logic led to abolishing all “intermediate corporations,” such as guilds and independent churches. This ban enjoyed only partial success: keeping up the standards of Parisian bread, a sine qua non of political order, required active guilds. But the Jacobin idea continues to shape policy, inspiring a political instinct to solve problems through central control.
The cultural counterpart to that idea was a nation of citizens who would be capable of participating in Rousseau’s state-citizen feedback loop. Citizens needed schooling, but, above all, they needed to know the French language and to feel French. The state built railroads to enable people (and newspapers) to discover their country; it conscripted soldiers, helping French men to discover their compatriots; and, in particular, it constructed a national curriculum to ingrain uniform ways of acting, feeling, and speaking in all citizens—and in all colonial subjects. Regional languages were banned in schools; “linguistic minorities” did not exist. Cultural homogeneity supported political centralism.
Muslims make up 8 percent of France's population but more than half of its prisoners.
But the Jacobin answer was never the only one. Historian Pierre Rosanvallon points to a founding contradiction between the centralizing Jacobin state and a French civil society that had always valued the principle of free association. Rousseau himself maintained that tension in his writings. The republican project thus turned out to be more complex and capacious than initially envisioned, as the state gradually extended the right to form associations to guilds, labor unions, and in 1901, to any association formed by French citizens. (Foreigners only won this right in 1981.) Catholicism’s peace with the republic came in part by the gradual public acceptance of its schools and cultural associations. Other religions, too, have thrived this way. Another form of free association, the Masonic order, has penetrated into all walks of life, particularly the government and the judiciary, a fact both celebrated and denounced on the covers of the country’s major weeklies. There are also myriad neighborhood associations. So thoroughly have civil society organizations been embraced that there is often a ministerial portfolio for associative life.
But what about religious orders themselves—not the allied cultural groups they form? Since 1789 the republican project, with its competing Jacobin and associative tendencies, has generated not a consistent policy of secularism but diverse and shifting institutional forms for the governance of religion. The rise and fall of anti-clericalism, and the waxing and waning of Church power, have produced a series of sharp turns and compromises.
The republic began by continuing a long royal tradition, known as the Gallican Church, whereby the king ruled the temporal affairs of the Church and the pope set doctrine. In the nineteenth century a republican variation on this theme gave the state control over four organized religious bodies representing Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Jews. These state-administered bodies paid the ministers’ salaries and repaired religious buildings; other faiths, for example evangelicals, did not have these rights and in places faced persecution. This corporatist model lives on in the republican mind, and in 2003 it led the state to create an equivalent body for Muslims, the French Council for the Muslim Religion, which, given the decentralized nature of Islamic authority, does little.
But these institutional arrangements were brusquely overturned at the beginning of the twentieth century. Anti-clericalism was ascendant and church schools were, for a time, shut down. Against ardently secular forces, the 1905 Law on the Separation of Religions and the State was a moderate effort at compromise, designed to get the state out of the religion business. But it also gave to the state most Church property and envisioned a complete privatization of religion whereby citizens could form associations, which would then pay ministers and maintain religious buildings. The law caused a ruckus, the Church refused its terms, and it was never applied as written—something few know in France, so sacred is it in the temple of secularism. New laws passed in 1907 and 1908 committed the state and municipalities to maintenance of religious buildings already standing. The result is a large government subsidy paid to Catholic churches, with little or no aid to mosques, synagogues, or evangelical churches, which were built mainly after 1905—a lopsidedness not lost on non-Catholics.
The Church also won a compromise on religious schooling. When applied to schools, Rousseau’s plan meant that all young French women and men would sit in similar buildings and hear the same lessons at the same time, year after year. Their brothers and sisters in the colonies would do the same—hence the infamous intoning of “our ancestors the Gauls” in French-controlled Africa. But the Church held out for its “free schools,” and at each challenge to these it has flooded the streets with protestors. Under the compromise that holds today, Church schools teach the national curriculum, limit religious teaching to one hour per week, and admit pupils regardless of religion. The state supplies teachers free of charge, and municipalities may provide their own subsidies. About one-third of French parents will at some point send a child to a Catholic school, where they receive roughly the same education as students in secular schools, but in a religious atmosphere. Similar arrangements apply to the far smaller numbers of Jewish and Islamic schools that enter into this compact with the state. Thus uniform education has been largely preserved by granting financial support and a small degree of autonomy to those associations—almost always religious—that wish to create their own, private alternatives. Compromise produced a workable result.
While France maintains fairly strict oversight of curricula, even in religious schools, the state also sees itself as obliged to guarantee citizens’ capacity to practice their religions. It meets this obligation through the Ministry of the Interior’s Central Bureau of Religions, and that obligation extends to Muslims. For decades ministers and local officials have worked with Muslim leaders to find ways to provide halal food, and in particular to guarantee a supply of fresh-killed meat on a major feast day. Locally Muslims have formed religious associations to win mayoral support for acquiring land on which to build mosques. Every school has a parents’ association, and in places with large Muslim populations, the associations sometimes succeed in getting halal or vegetarian options into the school cafeteria—precisely the sort of inclusive initiative denounced by those who favor doubling-down on laïcité, or secularity.
Three aspects of the French political project should now be clear. First, it has never been only centralizing; it has also supported ground-up associative efforts to meet legitimate goals. Second, the republic has been deeply involved in religious affairs, even as it defends its actions against those who, citing the 1905 law, argue that the state should stay away. Third, if the major goals of the French political project can be defined, its specific institutions and rules still change to better respond to new circumstances. There is no reason why they cannot do so again.
Immigration and Islam
Since the Revolution, the French citizenship factory has processed incessant waves of immigrants. In the nineteenth century, they came mainly from other European countries. Then there were men and eventually women from former colonies—especially Algerians arriving to rebuild after World War II, while their compatriots were back home fighting France for independence. Immigration is an integral part of modern French history, although it is not always recognized as such.
One in three French people has at least one grandparent born elsewhere. Sarkozy’s father was of the Hungarian lesser nobility, former Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë was born in Tunisia, and his successor, Anne Hidalgo, was born in Spain—as was Valls, the prime minister. When French people speak of immigrants, though, it is not Sarkozy or Hidalgo they have in mind but the visibly different, non-Catholic Muslims who are still, even their grandchildren, labeled as such. Sarkozy is not described as a descendant of immigrants; the grandson of an Algerian factory worker who arrived in the 1960s most certainly is.
What is it about the Algerians, or the Muslims, that ensures they are singled out? Muslims would seem to present little threat to the republic’s major goals. Most came to work in French factories, as had Italians or Belgians before them. Their children learned French and attended French public schools—unlike Catholics and Jews, who increasingly had their own schools. Their scattered mosques hardly posed a challenge to the secular republic’s dominant position. If Muslims and Islam did not threaten the key republican projects of building a direct state-citizen link, a nation of French speakers created at each generation through the national school curriculum, and a secular political space independent of the Church, how is it that in today’s national imagination, Muslims are perceived as the major obstacles to unity?
The short answer is boundaries: physical and legal divisions that keep “immigrants” and visible Islam out of public life.
What some current commentators denounce as Islamic communalism (communautarisme)—Muslims living and interacting only among themselves—is a result not of refusal to assimilate so much as the patterns of immigrant settlement. Muslim arrivals made their homes where the factories were—in peripheral areas of large cities. But just as the workers’ families were joining them in large numbers, factories shut their doors in the face of recession and longer-term deindustrialization. And there, in the banlieues, the workers’ children grew up, were tracked in school toward lower-class occupations, and found it increasingly difficult to secure jobs. They experienced daily racism in their encounters with police and during their few sorties out of the projects. Today these young men and women don’t know if they are accepted in the national community. They certainly don’t feel they are Charlie, and they overwhelmingly boycotted the events celebrating national unity under that banner. Between geographical separation, massive unemployment, job discrimination, and poor police treatment, the experience of French Muslims is awfully similar to that of African Americans in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere in the United States, and it has little to do with religion. When these poor zones erupted in 2005 and again in 2007, those issues, not Islam, were at stake. The 1995 film La Haine, inspired by still earlier protests and instances of police brutality, offered a warning.
Banished from the physical centers of French life, many Muslims nonetheless seek acknowledgement in the wider culture. For a variety of reasons—a new generation coming of age, the rising attention to worldwide political Islam, and the need for a new enemy post-Soviet Union—beginning the late 1980s, Muslims in France, Britain, and elsewhere were increasingly defined by their religion. They reacted by demanding religious rights. The political response to this new perception and these new demands was to radically redefine French secularism in terms of spatial boundaries rather than state neutrality. The result has been a persistent and often senseless drawing of lines between the permitted and the forbidden, public and private. The social effect is to discourage efforts by visibly Muslim people to participate in public life.
In schools, secularism had always meant that teachers and administrators were not to display their religious affiliations—or their opposition to religion. But in 2004 the state forbade schoolgirls, as well as their teachers, from wearing religious signs. Lawmakers were targeting Islamic headscarves, but saying so would have violated France’s principle of state neutrality and European guarantees of religious freedom. Politicians told outsiders that the ban aimed at freeing girls from coercion—not that they offered any evidence of girls being forced into piety. But in the halls of Parliament and in the French media, politicians were more candid, arguing that the ban would send a message to Islamists that they, with their burqa-clad women, were not welcome in France.
Six years later the government extended the ban to all face coverings, anywhere in public. The constitutionality of that law was so much in doubt that the Constitutional Council had to invent a flimsy doctrine uphold it: covering the face, the Council decided, prevents the kind of real communication that grounds French civil life. The headscarf laws have started a cascade of minor, annoying rules that limit visible Muslim presence in public. For instance mothers in scarves have been forbidden from accompanying school groups on outings or entering a city hall to witness a wedding.
The suppression of visible difference among citizens could only be achieved through new legislation precisely because, until the arrival of Muslims who didn’t look like the French mainstream, visible difference in French society was tolerated. The French secularist dispositif—including the 1905 law on the separation of churches and state—never limited what pupils could wear in school or what anyone could wear in public. Even today, nuns may wear religious garb on the street; ultra-Orthodox Jewish men wear the beards, hats, and coats that signal their affiliation; and the Dalai Lama is not forced to put on a business suit when he arrives in Roissy airport.
The driving forces behind the new laws are fear of a novel kind of visible diversity and a desire to wall off France from the threatening outsider it represents: the Islamist and his oppressed wife. Crackpot theories stoke these fears. One, the “great replacement,” predicts that Muslims’ birth rates will lead to a majority-Muslim France in the not-too-distant future. Although it is consistently debunked by demographers, the theory is touted in speeches of the right-wing National Front and in current bestsellers. Television commentator Éric Zemmour, fired last year for suggesting that five million Muslims should be deported, employs it in his recent hit The French Suicide. Literary star Michel Houellebecq’s new novel Submission describes a France that elects a Muslim president.
Republican boundary making was useful when the state was trying to secure a truly secular space, free from Church meddling, where citizens of any or no religious affiliation could participate as civic equals. This civic space was the great gift of the Revolution. It led to the creation of the public school system in the 1880s and provided the cultural grounds for resisting virulent anti-Semitism.
The challenge now is to bring new voices into that well-secured space and on terms more generous than so far countenanced. Nothing in the republican project prevents further inclusion. The obstacles are, rather, psycho-cultural, revealed by the shock some feel when they encounter a visibly diverse social landscape: scarves on schoolgirls, mosques in cities, corner stores selling halal products.
The French state can do better than continually police the symbolic boundaries of the publicly tolerable, and it does do better when it draws on its strong tradition of religious freedom and associative life. “I defend this mixing,” said the new mayor of Béthune, in Pas-de-Calais, as he followed his predecessor in offering political support to the construction of a new, privately funded mosque. He is Catholic and his wife Muslim, an issue not raised in the campaign. The mosque project has its opponents, who would like the land to be used in other ways, but these debates signal healthy, ordinary politics.
On January 11, a few days after the killings at the Charlie Hebdo office and at the kosher grocery store, a massive unity rally was held in the Place de la République. The slogan, echoed throughout the world, was Je suis Charlie—“I am Charlie”—in solidarity with the slain journalists. It was a moving sight, with millions in attendance.
But millions of others stayed home. Interviews in the poor areas around Paris revealed little interest in joining the gathering: assembling under the banner of “I am Charlie” was impossible for those who found the cartoons offensive. Most interviewed saw the assembly as a way to mask the real divisions in the society and the misery in the projects. If, as Prime Minister Valls proclaimed, France is riven by apartheid, and if many suffering from those divisions felt outrage and insult at the cartoons of Muhammad, then was “I am Charlie” the wisest slogan to bring France together? Should standing with Charlie have become a test of French cultural citizenship?
Other slogans appeared during the days after the shootings. Each signaled a particular sense of belonging and unity. “I am Ahmed” commemorated the Muslim police officer who died trying to stop the attack. Some slogans were variations on “I am a Muslim, a Jew, and French,” affirming unity against the assassins and the people’s capacity to identify across lines of difference—not blurring identities but celebrating their multiplicity. Unlike “I am Charlie,” these slogans excluded no one. They extolled a civic unity that accepts diversity and demands peaceful negotiation of difference, but they were drowned out by “I am Charlie.”
For many rallying around “I am Charlie,” the magazine stood for a proud custom of skewering the rich and powerful through satirical cartoons. Indeed, such works have a long history in France. In the 1830s celebrated artist Honoré Daumier satirized the rotund Louis Philippe as “the pear” in the journal La Caricature. Other artists depicted priests copulating with nuns—a theme not out of place in Charlie Hebdo, where the most offensive cartoons take on the Church.
Given the power of the Church and the king, these cartoons were and are celebrated as expressions of a lively democratic tradition. But at least as powerful were cartoons that targeted Jews as all-powerful bankers and urged their downfall. Such cartoons were already plentiful in late nineteenth century France but surged during the Dreyfus affair, in the years around 1900. Through the drawings on its covers, Édouard Drumont’s La Libre Parole (1892–1924) drummed home the theme of Jewish financial control of France. These cartoons are as much part of the French tradition as those satirizing the king and today would be considered socially unacceptable. Moral and social standards change when the consequences of speech are deemed too dangerous to allow. That openness to change is yet another element of the French tradition.
Legally, as well, Drumont’s cartoons would be banned in France today, on the grounds that they target a group of people and that they promote anti-Semitism. Applying similar criteria, a French court fined Charlie Hebdo when the magazine ridiculed the Harki—Algerians who fought on the French side in the Algerian War. The court held that the journal had targeted and injured that community.
While courts do not allow the targeting of a community, they do recognize a right to satirize and parody and a “right to be insolent.” In 2007, when Charlie Hebdo reproduced the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, a French court found that, although provocative, the reprinting was protected as “freedom of expression and communication of thoughts and opinions.” Even if the cartoons offended or wounded Muslims, the journalists had no “deliberate intention of directly and gratuitously offending the Muslim community.” The Muhammad cartoons did not aim at a group of people but at beliefs, and that sort of ridicule is protected, the court said.
If France is to maintain that legal distinction, courts must be careful to apply it fairly. Generally they do. Although some complain that anti-Semitism is prosecuted while ridicule of Islam is tolerated, the two offenses are different. These complaints usually refer to anti-Semitic statements from the likes of the comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, who has been found guilty on a number of occasions for defamation of individuals, offending groups, and incitement to violence. But offense to beliefs is not a crime in France. A key case on this point was heard in 2005, when a French court ordered a marketing company to remove posters depicting a version of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper featuring a shirtless man and several women (well covered-up by French advertising standards) in the place of the disciples. The court said the poster offended Catholic sensibilities. The decision was upheld on appeal, but the Court of Cassation overturned it, saying that blasphemy is not a crime in France. Nonetheless, according to the logic of French jurisprudence, a court could find that a cartoon, article, or performance incited people to hatred of Muslims, Catholics, or Jews, and the offending item could be forbidden to appear, even if it was directed at beliefs rather than people.
Stronger efforts should be made to clarify the legal distinctions, but that alone is not enough. Social divisions must be healed. Regardless of what is legal, there is a moral and political difference between skewering the powerful and denigrating the powerless. A politics of inclusion should lead us to take into account the political purpose of provocation, whether or not it is legally protected. On such an accounting, standing with Charlie would not be a test of French cultural citizenship. Within two weeks of the killing, some called for cracking down on schoolchildren who refused to go along with the moment of silence for those killed. This is the wrong answer. The French political project is large enough to allow grievances from those who do not celebrate the tradition of no-holds-barred satire against any and all.
For at least a decade, the French have recognized the radicalization of Muslims in prison as a major danger. The men responsible for the recent murders entered prison as petty criminals and were radicalized while inside: given comfort, a group, and a purpose. They might have been receptive to the teachings of a learned Muslim chaplain, but they only met radical recruiters. Despite strong calls for ending prison radicalization, France has been slow to provide imprisoned Muslims with chaplains who could counter radical, often ill-informed messages with moderate ones. About 160 are currently at work, compared to 700 Christian chaplains. (Britain has chaplains at roughly four times the French rate.)
This failure may reflect the absence of chaplaincy from Islamic tradition. But education is at the center of the religion, as is da‘wa, the practice of outreach to others. It would not be unusual for a Muslim religious figure to educate and reach out to prisoners who feel helpless. But doing so requires training in other skills, such as handling violence. Although France is supposed to train and provide chaplains for all who are in the military, hospitals, and prison—institutions where people, once inside, must stay—the national concern with policing the boundaries of secularity has made many officials allergic to such efforts. Proposals to train imams in secular matters of French law and history were rejected by French universities, who feared stepping over these boundaries. Chaplains are only remunerated for their expenses; they are not salaried, further discouraging the creation of a viable Muslim chaplaincy. A concerted national effort is required. Neither training religious workers in secular subjects and practical skills nor paying them adequately violates the secular spirit of state neutrality, much less any law on the books.
A second effort should run in parallel: encouraging Islamic education. American counterterrorism expert Marc Sageman argues that jihadi recruits are susceptible because they have not had training in Islam and that “more religious education for these young men might have been beneficial.” The state cannot do this alone; education must come from France’s Muslim civil society. But the state can encourage instruction in moderate Islamic thought and practice. Working within the French political project, thousands of Muslims have formed educational associations. Ministers and municipalities can be more supportive of these associations. Efforts to teach the “social reality of religion” in public schools, and to train teachers in the subject, begun hesitantly, should be given greater place—and why not involve Islamic scholars?
An inclusive political project would welcome these Muslims as bulwarks against hatred and violence. It would welcome them with their headscarves and their halal food and their disgust at Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons. It would convince itself that the republic has the strength to withstand a little diversity.
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March 03, 2015
22 Min read time
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