The Economist explains
EACH TIME an act of jihadist terrorism is committed on French soil, the country is thrown anew into a global debate about laïcité, and whether it is the answer to or the source of the problem. The first article of the French constitution explicitly states that the republic shall be “indivisible, laïque, democratic and social.” Difficult to translate, the word laïque refers to the French creed of laïcité, a form of secularism that is central to the country’s history and identity, but much misunderstood elsewhere. It is neither a form of state atheism, nor the outlawing of religion. Rather laïcité enshrines in law the right to believe, or not to believe, while at the same time keeping religion out of public affairs. No French president, for instance, could ever be sworn in on a holy book. No French state school could hold a nativity play. No French marriage is legal if celebrated only in a place of worship.
Historically, French laïcité was the product of a struggle with the Catholic church. At the end of the 19th century, the republic’s battle to wrest classrooms, the army and politics from the hands of the clergy was sometimes violent. Convents and religious schools were shut down by force; thousands of priests fled the country. “We have torn human conscience from the clutches of faith,” declared René Viviani, a Socialist minister, in the National Assembly. This campaign resulted in a law in 1905 to entrench laïcité across France (with the exception of Alsace-Moselle, which enjoys a derogation under the Napoleonic Concordat of 1801). The point was to protect private religious belief, but also to keep public affairs free from the influence of any religion.
For the past 30 years, ever since three pupils were suspended in 1989 for wearing the headscarf to school in Creil, just north of Paris, the controversy over laïcité has shifted from Catholicism to the accommodation between the French state and Islam. Successive laws have (in 2004) banned from state schools and public institutions “conspicuous” religious symbols, including the Muslim headscarf (and crucifix) and then (in 2010) full face-coverings, including the niqab, from all public places. For liberal multiculturalists, such measures are a blatant infringement of the right to religious expression. Inside France, too, certain groups accuse successive governments of “weaponising” laïcité in a way that legitimises Islamophobia. They also point to a separate law on freedom of expression, dating to 1881, which protects blasphemy and therefore legalises caricatures of the Prophet (and of Jesus, too). Emotions are heightened each time there is an official crackdown on militant Islamism, as often happens after terrorist attacks. The country is no stranger to anti-France boycotts and protests as a result.
For French secularists, however, who are to be found on both the political left and the right, this legal arsenal is a reaffirmation of the country’s distinct model. It may be legal to insult a religion in France, but the law also forbids insulting or inciting hatred of any individual on the basis of that religion. Over the years, French governments have increasingly detected behind “soft” signs of conservative Islam an ideological effort to spread Islamism and test the resilience of the French model. President Emmanuel Macron is introducing a law against “Islamist separatism” which will, for instance, ban home schooling on the ground that it can mask radicalised teaching. The outside world may look on in bemusement, but France is more likely than ever to continue to defend and reinforce laïcité.