As a dual citizen of France and Canada, I never cease to be amazed by the depth of misunderstanding there is about French attitudes to religion. France’s shortcomings in its management of diversity are obvious – as are everyone else’s – but it is important to recognise some basic facts before pronouncing on them.
The first is that the principle of laïcité in France – the country’s particular brand of secularism – is more than posturing: it is a lived, sociological fact.
The extent of secularism in France, especially over the last half century, is well documented. Jérôme Fourquet, in The French Archipelago, provides 350 pages of evidence on the transformation of France – or, as he puts it, the disappearance of the religious in France. To explain the depth of that transformation, he starts with the obliteration of Catholicism.
There hasn’t just been a precipitous decline in Catholic belief and practice, but a near-vanishing of Christian references. In 1945, Catholicism had officially been a minority sport for half a century, but it still played a role in the social space. The years since the war have seen that role disappear, and Catholic observance reduced to a (very small) minority. As a result that minority has occasionally become more strident, more “identitarian”, but also quite irrelevant.
Its irrelevance is confirmed by Olivier Roy in Is Europe Christian?, in which he examines the political space occupied by French Catholics. As Roy puts it, no political party in France can afford to put Catholicism at the heart of its political programme – or in fact go anywhere near it, because it speaks to only roughly 5% of the electorate. And switches everyone else radically off.
And this is the key point: France is a nation of equal-opportunity heretics. The allergy to granting faith any kind of public role is displayed across the board: most French people will break out in hives at the sight of a procession of priests in the public space, as much as at any other kind of religious display.
Any debate about the rights or wrongs of France’s brand of secularism needs to be conducted within the terms of this generalised anti-clericalism.
Of course, there is a difference between poking fun at a majority culture that is largely confident in itself and its own contradictions, and poking fun at a culturally and economically marginalised minority. There is Islamophobia in France, much as in any non-Muslim majority country, but reducing the principle of laïcité to intolerance or racism – or alleging that it is no more than a vast cover-up – is missing how deep and how wide French suspicion of all faiths runs.
So while this across-the-board anti-clericalism may exacerbate social tensions, it is politically defensible and institutionally rooted.
Anyone holding their breath for an about-turn on this is in for a long wait. Most French people would go to the wall for it, including against any Christian church. And those who are looking for France to compromise here misunderstand the nature of what citizenship means in France: any compromise with any faith will be seen as a breach of the social contract. That is the second basic fact.
However, for the contract to hold, it needs to be renewed with French citizens of all beliefs and of all cultures. And for that to work secularism cannot be deployed simply as an incantation of republican values or used as a test of belonging.
Laïcité needs to be explained. For many (especially young) Muslims it simply isn’t clear how or why this particular ideal can be liberating rather than diminishing: that it offers a neutral space in which to exercise one’s fundamental human rights, including the right to walk away from one’s original tradition or belief.
Taking the trouble to spell this out (it hasn’t been done since the 1905 law separating church and state) is a necessary step. And it is a remarkably difficult one. The renewed emphasis that the French government is hopefully now going to place on the teaching of laïcité – rather than simply beating people over the head with it – gives me hope.
But this takes us to the third basic fact and the recent actions of Emmanuel Macron, which mark a departure from those of his predecessors. Over the past few weeks, Macron has been taken to task for calling for a reformed Islam, and a French Islam. I think his recent actions show two things.
The first is a resoluteness in engaging with Muslim media and Muslim organisations abroad. He has made it clear, for example, that he supports the inclusion of Hezbollah in talks on the future of Lebanon.
Domestic engagement with French Muslim organisations may alienate some, given that these groups do not represent all French Muslims. But the fact that they are so actively being brought into the tent suggests a pivotal moment.
Macron is upping the security ante, too, adapting the counter-terrorism strategy France first put in place in the aftermath of 9/11 and developed after the attacks of 2015. And of course this is part of his attempt to square up to Marine Le Pen and her supporters.
But the president may also quietly be setting the stage for a new departure; closer to a strategy of multiculturalism, even if that concept is so fundamentally misunderstood in France that it could never dare speak its name.
I have always argued that multiculturalism, as practised in Canada or Singapore rather than Germany or the UK, is a stroke of realpolitik genius. Far from the kumbaya philosophy to which it is often reduced, multiculturalism is first and foremost an incredibly effective if slightly cynical political strategy. It is designed to create a framework for the participation of minorities – complete with all the right financial and political incentives – in exchange for an agreement that each of them becomes just one defined cultural strand among many.
Faith and religion become culture, as do language and ethnicity. Institutions make room for their representation, but as criss-crossing cultural identities rather than currents of belief or faith. Multiculturalism in effect dilutes public faith into culture. This may not sit well with everyone, but it does recognise and cement people’s status in a polity. In the French context, where faith is a private matter but religion can be a matter of cultural affiliation, moving toward such inclusion is more necessary than ever.
More to the point, it is probably the only compromise on the horizon. In advanced democracies with generous welfare states, where the state rather than the market is the gatekeeper to full citizenship rights, a multicultural set of institutions is the only way to balance rights and duties. What Macron is attempting to do – the carrot of engagement and the stick of security – may not immediately quell the sort of violence we have seen in the past few weeks, but it may create the kind of framework in which French Muslims will finally feel an integral part of the republic.
Perhaps Macron has understood that a subtle dose of stealth multiculturalism is the best way to achieve thoroughly republican aims.
Catherine Fieschi is director of the new Global Policy Institute at Queen Mary University London and author of Populocracy.