Secularism: inclusion, or exclusion?

If secularism boils down to the separation of church and state, then theoretically it should allow for religious freedom since the state is not dictating what you, as a citizen, can and cannot believe, right? Your religion is your private affair.

Well, that’s the idea, anyway.

However, the secularism practiced in France, also known as laïcité, seems to stomp out religious sentiments of any kind, making non-religion a sort of national religion in and of itself.

French people obsess quite a lot over religion. While they are proud of their grand cathedrals, and appreciate their artistic and historic value, many French people are skeptical at best when it comes to religious beliefs. On my first day  in France (I studied abroad the summer after my Freshman year, in Lyon), my host family took me to a basilica near their house. One of the first things my host mom asked me was, “Tu crois en Dieu?” Do you believe in God?

I was taken aback by the question. It seems like a rather personal question to ask a practical stranger, as well as a big faux pas according to American culture.

“oui?” I answered, unsure of what she was getting at.

Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière in Lyon, France

“Nous ne croyons pas en Dieu.” We don’t believe in God.

“Ah, je vois.” Oh, I see. I replied vaguely, both because I did not know how to say much more in French at the time, and because I was, quite frankly, not sure how to carry on the conversation. Her statement was  just so blunt.

Originally (that is over 100 years ago), the idea of laïcité in France was not so anti-religion. It was setup to keep the Catholic church from gaining too much control over French citizens and their institutions, which, I will agree, seems like a pretty good check of power. After all, this freedom of belief and the idea of separatism from the church was a large motivating force behind the French Revolution, and is consequently  still a central part of France’s national identity.

While perhaps the intentions behind French secularism were pure in the moment, France clearly didn’t know what was coming. France diversified, bringing in large immigrant populations from its North African protectorates. As it turns out, keeping the Catholic church at bay would not prove to be the challenge at hand, rather the integration of a new religion, Islam, would capture the attention of the French people.

My second night in France, around the dinner table, we ate North African sausage, merguez, with our salad, bread, cheese and wine, as we discussed the government housing that had been installed on the street right behind us, just a few years earlier. In a whisper, my host mom said, “Those are the immigrants. They are, well, poor. Tu as compris? You understand?

When my family asked me what I thought of it, I explained to them the best that I could that it was like America. We, too, have government housing in the suburbs sometimes, and honestly, I didn’t think much of it. I guess this response was to my host mom’s delight as she exclaimed. “O, elle est progressive!” Oh, she’s progressive!

Very quickly into my stay in France I became aware of the many contradictions of French culture. My host family (whom I love dearly) considered themselves to be very modern, progressive and most of all, secular. They loved North African food and we ate couscous and merguez on a regular basis, yet when it came to encountering the immigrants, they were bitter that they had moved into their middle-upper class neighborhood, le point du jour (sunrise).

My host family's house with the government funded apartments in the background

My host family’s house with the government funded apartments in the background

One day as I was walking along le point du jour with a family friend of theirs, Marie.  She clenched my arm and dragged me backwards when two Muslim boys passed us, whispering in my ear, “Nous ne les aimons pas” We don’t like them. I played dumb and asked her, “Pourquoi, ils sont egalement humains, non?” Why not, they are also human, right? To which she said coldly, “Ils sont dangereux” They are dangerous.

From my American point of view, it seemed that French secularism had moved its citizens to fear religion, and to think of it as the enemy.  I do not claim to say that all religious folks in France are perfect; I know that is not true. But I do mean to say that really, they are not well protected by the government’s secular policy, and considering their minority status in the country, especially those who practice Islam, they are une cible facile, an easy target,  and a scapegoat for many social issues in France.

Just this past weekend there was a march on Paris led by French Nationalists who chanted the national anthem and held signs calling Muslims fascists and saying that they do not have a place in French culture (Washington Post).

One anti-islam protester was quoted as saying:

“France was always a welcoming country, but for the first time we have to deal with a religion which can’t and doesn’t want to integrate itself.”

This blogger from Islamaphobia Today makes fun of the protestors, saying:

“Golly jee, I wonder how you get rid of Islam in France? Oh yes, by expelling and or otherwise repressing its 6 million adherents!”

On the other end of the spectrum, Muslim activists openly combat discrimination from their fellow citizens in quite a bold way as well. During their recent celebration of Eid, Muslims handed out free pastries to people on the streets in response to a controversial comment made by French politician Jean-Francois Copé who claimed that Muslim “thugs” were stealing pain au chocolats during their Ramadan Fast. Seems rather brazen, not to mention hilarious, to me!

That’s just it though, the French are more brash about their opinion and they display it in a much more public way than Americans. We are not immune to these social conflicts. Really, the parallel that we can draw is alarming. Think of our neighbors to the south and all of the immigrants who come from there to live here. Then think of people like my 80 year old grandmother (sorry, Grandma!) who send chain emails on a daily basis full of fear and often hatred, rejecting and demeaning our immigrant population.

I think that it is part of the human condition to have fear of people who are different than ourselves. We find comfort in what is familiar and when that identity is threatened, we, as humans, respond. It’s just a matter of how we choose to do so.

It’s all the same game; it’s just that France deals with its controversial issues out in the open, rather than over the Internet, and, perhaps, it is their deeply rooted secularism that leads the culture in this direction.

I asked a French friend of mine what his thoughts on the subject were, and he was quick to respond.

“Secularism and religion are at two, opposite ends of the spectrum that can never meet”


To me, French laïcité is contradictory in this sense. Secularism should mean that you are open minded, that you don’t care which religion your neighbor practices, so long as it is not harmful and (s)he does not push it onto you. But ask a Frenchman and much like my friend he may argue that religion has no place in a secular society.