Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. And Secularism.
France tried to use a day of secularism to boost nationalism. But not everyone was on board.
There’s nothing like a national day of secularism to show where a country stands on Islamist extremism.
On Wednesday, less than a month after an attack by Islamic State operatives killed 130 in Paris, France tried to bolster its students’ nationalist values by encouraging them to participate in the country’s first-ever day of laïcité, a French concept comparable to secularism.
The holiday, which was announced after last January’s terrorist attacks on the Paris headquarters of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, intended to offer young people opportunity to debate and discuss France’s nationalist values.
But some teachers were not happy Socialist President François Hollande — who is struggling to keep up with France’s increasingly popular far-right National Front party — kept to his promise for the day of laïcité even after last month’s attack.
“This is coming at the worst possible time,” Pierre Favre, president of the French National Teachers Union, told Europe1 radio. “We are very focused on security. The prime minister and the president say we’re at war, that we’re in a state of emergency, but they still want us to organize a day of debates?”
France’s strict commitment to public secularism, intended to separate public institutions from the Catholic Church, dates back to the late 1800s. Wednesday marks the 110th anniversary of a 1905 law enshrining the practice into French society.
But in recent years, secularism has also justified bans on Muslim headscarves and face coverings in schools and other public spaces, sparking controversy over whether the government has the right to tell religious students how to dress.
Wednesday’s celebration of secularism coincides with the shutting down of a number of mosques in France, a move that was justified by Hollande’s recent extension of emergency provisions to combat extremism. Last week, Moulay el-Hassan el-Alaoui Talibi, a leading French imam, said he expects more than 100 mosques to be closed in the near future.
In the suburbs of Paris, home to North African immigrant communities, many students view laïcité as a way of preventing them from freely practicing their religion, instead of a chance to separate themselves from spirituality in certain settings.
Those feelings have been exacerbated by the National Front.
Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, niece of party leader Marine Le Pen, has even vowed to ban kosher and halal lunch options for students in schools in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur in southeast France, if she wins in regional elections this week.
These suggestions come despite speculation the terrorists who carried out last month’s deadly attacks — a number of whom were French and Belgian Muslims — were radicalized in part because they felt marginalized by secularism and other policies that affect minorities.
On Wednesday, French Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem made note of those sentiments in a visit to a Parisian school.
“Sadly, a lot of young people now question whether laïcité might actually be an enemy, a means to deny them their religion,” she told a group of teachers and students.
Photo credit: MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images