Laïcité, republicanism, and the left

25 January 2018


When I logged on to Facebook last night, the first thing I found in my feed was a theater invitation from Jean-Luc Mélenchon. At the Théâtre de Ménilmontant this week, they are showing a play based on the posthumous pamphlet of the late Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Charb, entitled (in the official English translation): “Open Letter: On Blasphemy, Islamophobia, and the True Enemies of Free Expression.” The play has been touring around France over the last year, and as those who follow Charlie Hebdo closely will be aware, it has been quite controversial, cancelled for “security reasons” on several occasions. Many will instinctively guess why. Charb’s pamphlet appears, on first glance, to be everything Charlie Hebdo‘s detractors hate about the satirical paper: a critique of the very concept of islamophobia that invokes the values of laïcité and free speech.



American observers in particular might therefore be surprised to see the new de facto head of France’s radical left (however small an honor that may be given the left’s influence today) advertising Charb’s theatrical tribute. Coming up on the 1-year anniversary of Trump’s “Muslim Ban” executive order, the idea that islamophobia is not a blatantly obvious reality is a non-starter for most Americans who consider themselves to be left of center. After the events in Charlottesville this summer, Americans are now more than used to seeing “alt-right” white nationalists and racists declare themselves the champions of free speech. Finally, approaching two decades after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, many progressives have grown tired of a certain strain of anti-religiosity—namely that of “new atheists” like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, along with fellow-traveling comedians like Bill Maher—that played a role in justifying America’s invasion of Iraq. For these reasons, many of the same Americans most sympathetic to Mélenchon’s La France insoumise movement may have been among those whose first reaction to the terrorist attacks of January 2015 was to say Je ne suis pas Charlie.


The world has become increasingly interested in France’s republican traditions, and particularly that of laïcité, since the murders that took place at Charlie Hebdo, but one thing that has been often missing from these discussions is the enduring centrality of secular republicanism throughout the French left. Of course, as Patrick Weil’s video series with Bibliothèques sans frontières explains, laïcité is first and foremost a legal regime of separation of religion and state, and does not belong to any political persuasion any more than the American Constitution or First Amendment. But it is overwhelmingly the left that understands this separation—like, say, the 35-hour work week—and the anticlerical tradition more generally to be among its own historic achievements. When Charlie Hebdo called on all the candidates in the 2017 election to clarify their positions on the matter, the only one who was more firmly laïcard than Mélenchon was the far-left fringe candidate Nathalie Artaud, whose position was more or less “Hang the bankers with the entrails of the priests.”


Republican secularism is in fact the primary language of the French left’s politics of antiracism, and here’s where the arguments of Charb’s pamphlet/stage play come in. Charb writes, correctly, that in a secular country like France, no citizen ought to be considered primarily according to his or her religion or ethnicity. Nor is it acceptable to attribute a religion to an individual based on that person’s national or ethnic origin. Charb’s polemic against the term “islamophobia” boils down to the position that discrimination against France’s citizens of Arab and African origin, or against poor residents of the banlieues more generally—whether harassment in public or unfair treatment in access to jobs and housing, for example—should not be assumed to be a function of these people’s “Muslim” religion. Charb insists—also correctly, as Gilles Kepel’s work on political Islam has demonstrated—that this rhetorical equivalence between people of Arab or African origin and the Muslim religion, or between attacks on individuals and attacks on Islam, is part of the political strategy of a number of prominent islamist and jihadist organizations.


Charb’s analysis may jar with the American antiracist conscience, since Americans are used to thinking of their country as a pluralist patchwork of different ethnic and religious communities. But it is not particularly unusual within left-of-center discussions of laïcité in France. The Bibliothèques sans frontières series mentioned above makes many of the same points, and there is little in the program of La France insoumise that suggests disagreement. It has become common in France today to speak of “two lefts” following the recent feud between Charlie Hebdo and Médiapart‘s Edwy Plenel. But though many on the left in France do not appreciate the satirical weekly (and the feeling is often mutual), it is only a small fringe that rejects republican secularism. (Despite Mélenchon’s laïcard history and personal friendship with Charb, it is worth noting that at the same time there is a wing of his movement, led by Clémentine Autain and Danièle Obono, that has been critical of laïcité, at times going as far as to express support for the anti-republican ideas of the militant group Les indigènes de la république.Laïcité is simply not the major fault line dividing the French left, whatever other ailments may afflict it today.


What is unfortunately understated in Charb’s open letter is that islamophobia does of course exist, despite the fact that the category of “Islam” is too often inappropriately applied. But just as islamists intentionally misapply this label to people merely of Arab or African origin, so do the truly xenophobic elements of the far right (and of course not merely the far right). Marine Le Pen’s strategy that brought her uncomfortably close to the presidency last year was to assert that the Front National‘s anti-immigrant platform was the true representative of laïcité and the republic. If “Islam” is incompatible with France’s secular values—yet another intentional obfuscation—then surely keeping “Muslims” out of France is the republican solution. This sort of rhetoric, however, comes from the political movements that are plainly the least committed to republican traditions; both the Front National’s history and its lack of understanding of the basic principles of laïcité make this clear.


Given the importance of secular republicanism for the French left, it is strange to see many commentators since the Charlie Hebdo attacks assume that these traditions lead inherently to the positions of the far right, in effect taking the Front National at its word (this was the main suggestion that I found unfair in Adam Schatz’s otherwise well-informed take on the CharlieMédiapart affair). We’ll be running a forum on Joan Scott’s book Sex and Secularism later this spring on this blog, and I expect she’ll have quite a different view of these matters. I hope this will be an occasion for a serious critical exchange on issues that get to the heart of the differences between French and American understandings of democracy.


Photo credit: Thierry Ehrmann, Hommage et soutien de la Demeure du Chaos à Charlie Hebdo, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.


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1 Comment

  • Daniel Gordon says:

    I appreciate the thoughtfulness and balance of this post (or shall I call it an essay, it has the complexity of a good essay). Readers may be interested in “From the Headscarf to the Burqa: The Role of Social Theorists in Shaping Laws on the Veil,” in the journal Economy and Society, 2013. And available on Research Gate. Authored by myself and Peter Baehr. We focus mostly on France and on the high-level arguments for banning the burqa expressed in the National Assembly by a wide range of academics and political figures: many on the Left, and some Muslim. It is of course about “secularism” but it is no less about “reciprocity”–a term that did not figure so much in the earlier debate about the headscarf. In short, French republicanism continues to be adaptable and to be articulated at a high level where it can’t be automatically dismissed as social prejudice. As JH suggests, it is not so easy to draw the line between principled democratic theory, on the one hand, and pretentiously dressed up racism. We also need an analysis of “phobia” per se–quite apart from what it’s attached to (Islamophobia, homophobia). And quite apart from the specifically French context. While these terms do serve to draw attention to existing prejudices, they also, at times, constitute a pseudo-medical claim that another person’s views are so irrational that they must be the result of an illness. Those who disagree with us, in short, need treatment.

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