Inscribed on all public buildings in France is the motto of the French Revolution: Liberté. Egalité. Fraternité. A group called the “Republican Resistance” (Résistance Républicaine) would like to add a fourth value: laïcité. Their logo consists of a giant letter R, with liberté, égalité, and fraternité shooting up from the base, and the word laïcité prominently featured at the center. Loosely translated as “secularism,” the principle of laïcité dates to the French Revolution, and to a 1905 law mandating a strict separation of church and state. 
The resistors see laïcité as a principle under siege. In December they organized a demonstration that drew a crowd of perhaps a thousand supporters. They marched through the streets of Paris, hoisting banners with the slogan “Hands off the law of 1905!” One would expect that the demonstrators were avowed atheists, seeking to root out recalcitrant remnants of religion. Yet as the protesters marched, they chanted, “France equals Christmas, France is Easter,” and waved signs that said “Don’t Touch Our Christian Holidays!”
Why are these self-styled champions of laïcité parading in favor of the state’s official observation of Christmas and Easter? The protesters’ immediate target is Dounia Bouzar, an anthropologist of religion who was appointed in September as a special counsel on laïcité to the prime minister. In an interview with the magazine Challenges, Bouzar suggested that France should consider replacing two of its national Christian holidays with one Jewish (Yom Kippur) and one Muslim (Eid al-Fitr). Her comments immediately inspired petitions and protests. In a poll on the Challenges website, to which almost sixty-seven thousand people responded, 12 percent were in favor of replacing the two Christian holidays, while 88 percent opposed. Bouzar later retracted her statement, saying that she had offered a “thought, rather than a proposal.”
To militant groups such as the Résistance Républicaine, Bouzar’s comments point to a more insidious influence threatening France’s heritage: what they consider the “Islamization” of France. (They ignore the fact that Bouzar also mentioned adding a Jewish holiday.) What they envision as the culmination of laïcité is not the eventual construction of a neutral public sphere that embraces diverse religious expression. Rather, these groups employ the term as a form of aggressive anti-Islamic politics. They take pride in their contempt: the Résistance Républicaine website proclaims, “Islamophobia is not a crime…. It’s legitimate defiance,” and, “I’m an Islamophobe and I’m proud.” At the December demonstration, marchers switched seamlessly from chanting “Hands off Christmas” to “Islamists, fascists, killers.”
It might be easy to dismiss this hyperbolic rhetoric as limited to fringe groups. A routine demonstration against unemployment and inequality earlier in December attracted four thousand (about four times as many people as the Résistance Républicaine rally drew). An antigay marriage protest in May brought out nearly a hundred fifty thousand.
But defining laïcité in a way that preserves France’s Christian identity is far from a marginal idea. It is also taught to new immigrants at a “day of civic formation,” a full-day class on French law, history, culture, and “Republican values.” Attendance is mandatory for all who wish to obtain a long-stay visa. Truancy can result in the rejection of future visa applications.
After I applied for my visa, I attended my appointment for civic formation in a crowded basement room last November with about thirty other people. The majority were Sri Lankans, but many other countries were represented, including Algeria, Nigeria, and Russia. I was the sole American; I found myself seated next to a jovial Australian (is there any other kind?).
The teacher called herself the formatrice, which translates as “trainer.” An imposing figure, she had a booming voice, which she used to reprimand, and then turn away, somebody who was fifteen minutes late. She began the eight-hour session by speaking about republican values. Her pedagogical style was didactic rather than dialogic: when she extolled the virtues of French democracy, someone asked whether democracy actually works in France, but she shut down the discussion by responding, “I am the formatrice here.” 
After glossing over liberté, égalité, and fraternité, she turned to discuss what she called a fourth republican value, laïcité. French law, she explained, forbids overt signs of religious expression in public schools, such as face-covering veils, as well as large Christian crosses and kippahs. On the other hand, she noted, the law does permit small Christian crosses, Stars of David, or Fatima’s hand charms. The apparent contradiction did not appear to faze her.
The confusing relationship between Christianity and the purportedly secular nature of the French state deepened further when she began to lecture on French history. She told us that the French nation began with Clovis, the first king to unite all the Frankish tribes and convert to Christianity. We cannot deny, she continued, that France has a Christian heritage. All newcomers to the country must respect it. 
The invocation of Clovis echoes a speech that the former French President Nicolas Sarkozy gave in Rome in 2007, when he referenced Clovis and extolled the “essentially Christian” roots of French culture. Sarkozy proposed the idea of “positive laïcité”—a “healthy laïcité” that “does not consider religion a danger.” (See Steven Englund, “How Catholic Is France?” November 3, 2008.) Sarkozy argued that, instead of shoving religion into the closet, French citizens should display their religious faith with pride. “In this paradoxical world,” Sarkozy said, “France needs convinced Catholics who aren’t afraid to affirm who they are and what they believe in.” He advocated more religious dialogue between Christians and Muslims in the public sphere.
Yet Sarkozy put limits on how much “positive laïcité” Muslims could enjoy. In 2009, he argued that the burqa “will not be welcome on French soil,” because it is “not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience.” In 2010, the French parliament passed a law banning face-covering masks or veils from public spaces; Sarkozy had been one of the most vocal proponents of the law.
Sarkozy’s attempt to redefine laïcité sparked widespread controversy and discussion over the meaning of the term. Left-wing critics saw Sarkozy’s support for public displays of religious faith as a threat to the secular public sphere. One columnist wrote, “Sarkozy twists words in order to give laïcité a bad name.” Criticism also came from those on the extreme right, who saw Sarkozy’s desire to hold discussions with French Muslims as a form of “Islamophilia.” Sarkozy’s supporters applauded him for openly recognizing France’s Christian roots. As you might imagine, all sides claimed that they were the true defenders of laïcité.
AT THE "DAY OF CIVIC FORMATION," my formatrice did not acknowledge the different political interests that undergird the definition of laïcité. But she also did not disguise her political inclinations. She expressed admiration for Sarkozy throughout the day: Sarkozy was a strong leader, she commented at one point. (She made a snide comment about the current president, François Hollande, whom she described as weak and ineffective.) For her, Sarkozy had upheld the rule of law and order, and France, she intoned repeatedly, is a country of laws. As newcomers to the land, we had to recognize and respect France’s law-abiding nature: we could not import our own customs and laws to the country.
The emphasis on observing French law stems from the genesis of the “day of civic formation.” In 2005, a series of urban riots rocked France. A police chase led to the deaths of two teenagers who lived in the predominantly North African immigrant community of Clichy-sous-Bois, one of the least integrated and poorest suburbs of Paris. Rioting spread quickly, engulfing other urban areas across the country. A state of emergency was declared. The day of civic formation was instituted and made obligatory in 2007 with the goal of relieving tensions between the French state and the North African, predominantly Muslim, community. Besides offering lessons in French civic responsibility, the French government also offers hundreds of hours of free French lessons for new immigrants, as well as help in finding employment.
While the day of civic formation is not openly anti-Muslim like Résistance Républicaine, it does encourage Muslim immigrants to remove overt symbols of their faith and respect France’s identity as a Christian nation. Needless to say, the state has far more impact in promulgating these ideas: it has a captive audience that it can threaten with expulsion. Yet both the Résistance Républicaine demonstrators and my formatrice conveniently ignored the complicated and violent history of the relationship between religion and republicanism. Many of France’s eighteenth-century revolutionaries wanted to sever permanently the link between a secular French state and its Catholic past. In the early years of the revolution, church property was confiscated, statues and religious iconography destroyed, and laws passed requiring clergy to declare loyalty to the state.
One of the complaints of Résistance Républicaine is that vandalism against the church buildings has been on the rise, for which they blame Muslims. Yet they might do well to remember that historically the vandals were their fellow republicans. And they should be careful what they wish for: their demand for an aggressive application of the principle of laïcité could backfire. In a multiethnic, multireligious society, the removal of Christian holidays would be a logical extension of the law of 1905, rather than its betrayal.
Through their militant Islamophobia, groups like the Résistance Républicaine reproduce a troubling strain of intolerance that characterizes the conflict between church and state in France. Too often, the term laïcité has been used—by secularists and religious believers alike—as a way to suppress religious diversity and silence religious expression. Such exclusionary definitions of laïcité will serve only to heighten tensions with an already discontented French Muslim population and other religious minorities.
The day of civic formation, meanwhile, is a feeble response to the socioeconomic crisis that has accompanied the tidal wave of immigration to France. New immigrants make up about 35 percent of the population of Greater Paris. Even the formatrice herself could not ignore this fact: on a day that was intended to welcome us to France, the French state treated us all to lunch at a Chinese restaurant.

Albert Wu teaches history at the American University in Paris.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the February 21, 2014 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.