When I first I arrived in Washington in June 2019, I discovered that many people had a lingering misunderstanding about the relationship between the state and religions in France — what we call laïcité (which cannot really be accurately translated just by the word “secularism”).
But recent events, including the horrible murders of Samuel Paty, a teacher in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, and of three Catholic worshipers — Vincent Loquès, Simone Barreto Silva and Nadine Devillers — at a church in Nice, have generated reactions in social media and in the U.S. press that have been met with resentment in my country for being totally unfair and sometimes based on false information.
First, let me note that my country enjoys extraordinary religious and spiritual diversity. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, but also the world’s third-largest Jewish population, after Israel and the United States. It was among the first countries, for instance, to create a Muslim army chaplaincy. The French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) has condemned the recent attacks on our country in the strongest possible terms and testified about the situation of French Muslims, who are completely free to practice their religion, like all other French citizens, since this freedom is protected under our laws (laïcité). This being said, we refuse to allow certain foreign countries to exert undue influence through the exercise of any religion. Hence our latest efforts to begin training our own imams and to establish oversight of foreign financing of mosques.
With respect to freedom of speech, which is enshrined in our Constitution, we believe it includes the freedom to publish critical comments and caricatures. The only limit to free speech is incitement to hatred, such as Holocaust denial, which is a criminal offense in France. We look forward to working further with other democratic countries and with tech platforms to combat terrorist content online, especially since New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron launched the Christchurch Call to Action last year in Paris. Our law is giving tools to our justice system to act against people who post videos on the Internet calling for retaliatory actions against teachers and other civil servants, including now the security forces (A number of police and gendarmerie officers have died in terrorist attacks in recent years).
Measures recently proposed by our government and submitted as draft legislation to our Parliament pursue two other major intertwined goals.
We are combating the terrorist threat represented by the networks that attack France and other countries (see the most recent attack in Austria). My country may be targeted to a greater extent because we are at the forefront of this war, in the Middle East and the Sahel, but the threat is universal, and its hundreds of victims in France in past years remind us of the toll paid in so many other parts of the world (the greatest number of victims of such attacks being Muslim themselves). These networks act both on the Internet, where they spread propaganda, and through direct attacks such as the one in Paris on Nov. 13, 2015.
We are combating radicalization in our country — never a religion or a community. We are aware of the shortcomings of our own policies in areas including education and housing, and the need to improve them. But it is unacceptable for certain groups to conceal activities aimed at radicalizing their members. Schools lie at the heart of this challenge. It is unacceptable to see some young children, particularly girls, prevented from attending our schools and raised separately from the rest of society.
It is also unacceptable to see in 21st-century France some practices, such as forced marriages, that are contradictory to basic women’s rights. A new bill, which does not contain any mention of any religion, will oppose that. Applicable to all, it will also implement a core, universal principle of our republic: the right of every child to go to school and the duty of families not to prevent their children from exercising this right.
It is really important for us to explain here in the United States that these measures, at their core, are trying to efficiently oppose those who actually want to divide us, those who promote hatred between communities and those who, in the end, wish to destroy such fundamental values as the equality between men and women.
We share these values of freedom and equality with the United States. We are struggling in both countries to get it right. But while it is the United States’ oldest ally, France has quite a different history. We must obtain accurate information, check the facts and talk to each other before commenting on each other’s practices. And then, indeed, let us disagree, let us debate, let us discuss those practices — but on the basis of facts and on the commitment to build and perfect our democracy and freedom.
Philippe Etienne is the ambassador of France to the United States.