Burqas? Veils? Secularism and “tolerance gap” between France and the US


Denis Lacorne (CERI-Sciences Po), currently a visiting scholar at Stanford, explores the differences between French and American approaches to secularism.
Interview by Corrie Goldman, The Humanities at Stanford.

- French laws prohibit the donning of religious symbols such as burqas and yarmulkes on state-run grounds, such as public schools. This seems like a truly secular treatment of the separation of church and state, yet it would be hard to imagine a similar law in the United States. To what do you attribute the difference in interpretation?

There is no such thing as universal, limitless tolerance. John Locke did not tolerate the Catholic church or atheists; the U.S. Supreme Court in the famous Reynolds decision did not tolerate polygamy as practiced by the Mormons; federal courts still prohibit single religious monuments in the public space – a nativity scene, a display of the Ten Commandments, a large Latin cross.
In France, the emphasis is more on the religious practices of new immigrants who are perceived as dangerous, manipulated by radical or fundamentalist leaders, threats to the Republic and its ideal of liberty. This has led to the prohibition of the Islamic veil, hijab, in public schools and the full veil, burqa, in the public space.
But behind the political and social battles that oppose religious leaders and secular elites, there are also major conflicts of principles: Is freedom of religion fully compatible with the principle of equality between men and women? Is the search for a common conception of the good society compatible with sectarian religious beliefs?

- Are authentic or strongly held religious convictions compatible with secular reason? Could one find a new multicultural consensus, a new civility that would please both believers and non-believers? Can tolerance be without boundaries as imagined by Pierre Bayle in the 17th century?

Both the American and French constitutions account for the separation of church and state. However, each nation applies that ideology differently.
If by secularism – in France, we say laïcité – is meant the neutrality of the state, the rejection of an established church, respect for freedom of conscience and all existing religions, then there is no real difference between the two societies. But what one could call the boundaries of tolerance are not the same.
For instance, we do not prohibit religious symbols in the public space, but we do regulate certain religious practices. French laws and courts do prohibit the wearing of Islamic veils in public schools and the full facial veil in the public space. These laws, which are not always enforced, are controversial and raise the question of an "aggressive" or "assertive" form of secularism which differs from other assertive forms of secularism in the United States.

- Conservative American politicians equate "Christian values" to "American values." Is there a similar movement in French political discourse, and if so, how do they differ?

There are obvious similarities between the two societies. Conservative Catholics in France do equate Christian values with "French values," and above all they stress the importance of traditional family values. Hence their strong opposition to the new bill that legalizes "marriage for all" – le mariage pour tous – irrespective of sexual preferences. In January of this year, nearly 600,000 conservative Catholics demonstrated in the street against the government's bill.
On the other hand, there is in France a less religious or even secular rightwing party – the Front National – whose current leader is Marine Le Pen. For this variant of the French extreme right, religion is not what matters, but laïcité and the defense of the French national identity. The Front National defends a strong laïcité as a tool to fight immigration, and particularly immigration from North African countries. This new phenomenon, a right-wing defense of secularism, is a major source of embarrassment for the French left, which saw itself as the best defender of the French tradition of laïcité.

- How has Barack Obama's presidency changed French dialogue about race relations or altered French attitudes about Americans?

The most popular French politician is Barack Obama. Nearly 80 percent of the French would vote for him if they were given the opportunity! The traditional, white, Catholic or secular elites are not really representative of the new French reality: an immigrant society, in which traditional religions are fast disappearing; an ethnically and religiously pluralistic society, which finds more affinities with a black U.S. president than with native, white French presidents. But French society is not as race conscious as its American counterpart. Barack Obama sees himself as an "African American," and this is the category he chose in the 2010 Census form that was submitted to him. For the French, who prohibit the use of racial categories in the census, Obama is simply un métis, a mestizo, a multiracial individual, like many young Frenchmen. He is, in other words, "one of us."

- News pundits like to compare and contrast French and American attitudes toward religious toleration. Is there an important perspective that is commonly overlooked by the media?

The French and European media tend to focus on American exceptionalism; i.e., what makes America truly different from European societies. A superficial impression is that "everything is religious" in the United States, as if the principle of the separation of church and state did not exist. When Obama pledges allegiance to the Constitution – a secular event – he puts his left hand on the Bible, like most of his predecessors. To be accurate, he placed his hand on two Bibles: Lincoln's Bible and Martin Luther King's Bible. And this is what makes the headlines in Europe, not the fact that the United States is a Republic and that the federal Constitution is, literally, without God – a "Godless Constitution," as argued by historian Isaac Kramnick.

Stanford Report, February 21, 2013

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