Patrick Weil, whom we recently featured on this blog, has a fascinating interview in a recent issue of Marianne on laïcité and the way it has been approached by Emmanuel Macron and the current government (for those without a subscription to the magazine, you can find the interview here in a Facebook post by Patrick). His take is a very refreshing one in a context in which there is much misunderstanding of laïcité both inside and outside of France, misunderstanding that Macron and his allies have often done much to perpetuate.
Patrick begins with a no-holds-barred critique of Gilles Clavreul’s recently published report on laïcité commissioned by the French ministry of the interior. The main takeaway of Clavreul’s report is that although throughout French institutions the principles of laïcité are generally respected, there is a growing hostility to them in French society. This hostility is most often expressed as an identarian expression of religious faith or belonging—”in a grand majority of cases,” this identarianism is connected to “a rigorist or radical Islam,” but the report specifies that it is also apparent in Catholic, Evangelical, and Orthodox Jewish circles.
In France, no less than in countless other countries throughout the world, this rise of religious identarianism is a reality that cannot be ignored. For Patrick, however, the problem with Clavreul’s report concerns its treatment of the dimension of individual conscience:
Monsieur Clavreul is a defeatist. He claims that laïcité is powerless to defend freedom of conscience from the pressures against it. This is false. The Law of 1905 stipulates that anyone who forces another person to practice a faith, or who attempts to prevent the exercise of a faith, can be punished with a prison sentence. Monsieur Clavreul does not know this provision of the Law of 1905, nor do the ministers he has served under.
In other words, the report—which as Patrick observes fails to mention the relevant articles 31 and 32 of the Law of 1905—leaves out the central role of laïcité as a juridical regime as protecting individual conscience both from religious actors and the pressures they seek to exert, and for the free practice of religion as one sees fit.
The problem with this kind of formulation used in the report, as I take Patrick to be saying, is that presents laïcité as a regime of repression and scolding rather than protection and empowerment of all people:
The child needs to be conscient of her or his right to internal freedom. The child also needs to understand that this freedom has as its complement the internal freedom of everyone. From there, she or he can begin to understand the principle of the neutrality of the State as that guarantees this freedom. Laïcité is often taught as a constraint, a system of prohibitions. It is in fact an individual freedom and should be taught as such.
Patrick is referring here specifically to his pedagogical project with his NGO Bibliothèques sans frontières, which works to teach the basic principles of laïcité to high school students, including those enrolled in working-class quartiers with large populations of immigrants and their descendants. These are, in other words, the kinds of areas where, as Clavreul would have it, laïcité is respected dans les textes but not dans les têtes. Students in these areas often learn to mistrust laïcité as they have come to understand it: as a particular constraint placed on them based on their religious or national background. Clavreul’s report essentially confirms this suspicions, framing the issue of laïcité as one of combating ideas grounded in certain local cultures rather than as one of protecting individuals from religious-ideological pressures: whether from fundamentalists who seek to impose certain religious practices or from bigots who seek to stigmatize those that practice their religion with respect for others.
If Clavreul’s report is “defeatist,” as Patrick claims, I believe this defeatism fits into a broader picture of Macron and his government’s general evasiveness on this issue. If the tendencies in Gérard Collomb’s Ministry of the Interior (or Jean-Michel Blanquer’s Ministry of National Education) is to gesture towards the so-called laïcard position—without always demonstrating a solid grasp of the relevant legal foundations—Macron himself has hinted at a near-opposite position, in one recent speech before French clergy warning the nation against the “radicalization” of laïcité. The president’s supposedly more lenient position on the matter, Patrick points out in his Marianne interview, is no more well informed than some of his subordinates’:
When Emmanuel Macron claims that the Law of 1905 did not apply to Islam … this is false. There were already Muslims in metropolitan France in 1905. And the law was intended to apply especially to Algeria [where millions of Muslims lived under French control]. The government later suspended the execution of the law [in Algeria] until independence, but what is interesting is that the legislature made no exception for Islam. It adopted a law of universal scope.
As with many things Macron, my impression is that in the attempt to please all parties on the “divisive” issue of laïcité, the end result pleases nobody. Rather than commit to ensuring that the protection of individual conscience is both guaranteed to all citizens and recognized as the essence of laïcité, Macron and his allies attack the laïcards in one setting while attacking the banlieues in another.
Post scriptum: Clavreul’s response to Patrick’s criticism on Facebook is screenshotted below.
Photo credit: Archives Nationales, Loi de séparation des églises et de l’État, via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.