Scarred by terror, France marks muted 'day of secularism'

Alain Jocart, AFP | A street artist writes "Laïcité" (secularism) during the inauguration of "Place de La Laïcité" in Paris on December 9, 2015.

Schools across France marked the country’s first “day of laïcité” (secularism) on Wednesday, part of government efforts to promote French values in the wake of gruesome – and homegrown – terrorist attacks.


When France woke up to the threat of homegrown terrorism following the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January of this year, the spotlight was cast on French schools and their supposed failure to instill Republican values in French citizens.

The deadly rampage by Islamist gunmen was seen as a callous attack on the cherished principles of secularism and freedom of speech, carried out by Frenchmen led astray by a hateful ideology.

Days later, the failure by pupils in a handful of schools to observe a minute of silence in memory of the victims at the satirical magazine compounded the shock.

It provided further evidence of a rift between the Republic and some of its youths – particularly in troubled suburbs where immigrant families have long felt like second-class citizens.

With the country plunged into soul-searching, the Socialist government announced a string of measures designed to promote the teaching of patriotism and laïcité (roughly translated as secularism).

These included singing the national anthem, introducing ethics classes, and recruiting a “citizens’ reserve army” of voluntary workers willing to defend France’s secular values in schools.

‘We want to do things, be useful!’

By early December, 5,400 people aged between 18 and 94 had signed up for the voluntary programme. But many say they are yet to hear back from the Education Ministry.

Charlie Hebdo, a fearless satirical weekly

Last week, around one hundred “reservists” vented their frustration during a meeting at the Sorbonne University in Paris.

After a lengthy presentation by government and school representatives, one man in the audience jumped up shouting, “We’re angry! Some of us volunteered in February and there’s still nothing […]. We want to do things, be useful!”

Karine Miermont, a writer and mother of two, expressed her “shock” at the lack of initiative. “These people tell us how critical and urgent the situation is, but then nothing happens,” she told AFP news agency.

Retired journalist Anne Chaussebourg, another volunteer, lamented the authorities’ “distrust” and “total lack of ideas and enthusiasm”.

Striking a more conciliatory tone, Adrien Saumier, a 33-year-old local councillor and “reservist”, noted that “integrating random citizens into educational programmes is an entirely new phenomenon”.

“This is a major cultural change that is being demanded of the education ministry,” he said.

Responding to the criticism, ministry officials said schools needed time to adapt to the new voluntary scheme, vet candidates and devise appropriate programmes.

‘Hijacking’ secularism

The “reservists” are but one part of a host of initiatives aimed at defending the principle of laïcité, enshrined in a law passed on December 9, 1905, which guaranteed freedom of worship for all citizens and stipulated the separation of church and state.

As the legislation turned 110 years old on Wednesday, several schools across the country marked the event by planting olive trees or holding debates on faith and secularism.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo unveiled a new “Place de la Laïcité” in the French capital, while Prime Minister Manuel Valls extolled the law's virtues in a speech at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the French national library.

The Socialist prime minister said the “genius” of laïcité “resides in an apparent paradox: separating in order to unite”.

By separating the two institutions, Valls said, lawmakers ensured that “neither the state, nor the church, could impose a set of beliefs” on French citizens, who were thus free to “unite around common values”, such as freedom and equality.

With France heading to the polls on Sunday for a second round of regional elections, the prime minister seized the opportunity to lambast the far-right National Front, which trounced all other parties in the first round of voting.

He accused the anti-immigration party of “betraying and hijacking” France’s laïcité in order to “attack French Muslims” and “exclude, reject, [and] spread hatred and division”.

‘Neutral’, but divisive

Polls suggest a vast majority of the French remain profoundly attached to laïcité – and yet few subjects have proved more divisive over the years.

The 1905 law guarantees the strict neutrality of state institutions and civil servants. It also rules out public subsidies for religious institutions.

Education on 'front line' against terror

Critics say the legislation, which was passed at a time when Catholicism was still vastly dominant, is ill-suited to modern-day France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim population.

They note that French Muslims do not have the financial capacity to build adequate places of worship without public help. Many end up praying in makeshift “mosques” in streets, garages and basements, leaving them marginalised and exposed to wealthier – and often more radical – religious organisations based in foreign countries.

The November 13 attacks, in which gunmen slaughtered 130 people at Paris bars, a concert hall and the national stadium, heightened the fear of homegrown jihadists manoeuvred by foreign terrorist organisations.

Gérald Darmanin, a conservative lawmaker from northern France, wrote that a “revolution” in French mindsets was required to ensure vulnerable Muslims are not driven into the hands of fundamentalist groups.

“We have to accept to build places of worship, to give French Muslims the money required to guarantee their independence from foreign powers,” he said.


Instead, France’s secular rules are regularly brandished to crack down on Islam’s “visible” traits – such as the Muslim veil – in public spaces.

Stéphane Rio, a teacher in the immigrant-rich southern city of Marseille, said most of his pupils perceived laïcité as “evoking restrictions, bans and even humiliations”.

“They interpret the law as saying that schools do not accept religion,” he told French daily Le Monde. “They feel rejected to the periphery because of their origin and faith.”

Laurence de Cock, a history teacher in Paris, said pupils were being told “to conform to certain values rather than live and experience them”. She noted that lofty talk about harmonious melting pots made no sense to youths from run-down suburbs where there is no such diversity.

France’s Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem appeared to acknowledge this risk as she visited a school in the French capital’s 20th district on Wednesday.

“Sadly, a lot of young people now question whether laïcité might actually be an enemy, a means to deny them their religion,” she told teachers and pupils gathered to mark the “day of secularism”.

Following her speech, pupils took it in turns to read out messages, including “Muslims are not terrorists” and the classic “Make love, not war”.

Others were busy grumbling about the timing of the event, coming just days after France’s worst-ever terrorist attacks and amid heightened security. As a teachers’ union leader put it, “We have a state of emergency, the government says we’re at war, and they want us to hold debates!”


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