Where Laïcité Collides with Islam

President Emmanuel Macron is trying to reconcile French secularism with multiculturalism. It hasn’t gone well

Where Laïcité Collides with Islam
Mounted Police patrol outside the Grand Mosque in Paris during Friday Prayers on October 30, 2020 in Paris, France/ Photo by Kiran Ridley/ Getty Images

Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron introduced measures aiming to fold Islamic institutions into the patronage of the state, thus curtailing foreign influence, ending what he called “Islamist separatism” and producing an “enlightened Islam” in La Republic.

“The problem is an ideology which claims its own laws should be superior to those of the Republic,” said Macron, during a visit to the impoverished, predominantly North African Paris suburb of Les Mureaux. This separatism “often promotes a counter-society where children are homeschooled, where they have their own sport and cultural associations,” he added.

In the proposed bill, to be introduced in December, the government will for the first time closely oversee Muslim religious associations, imposing strict guidelines that differentiate between the practice of religion — a concept referred to in French as culte, not to be confused with the English word cult — and the promotion of religion or religious culture, a distinction much clearer in French law than it is in Anglo-Saxon codes.

All mosques will have to register under a landmark 1905 law, which enshrined the separation of church and state and the concept of state secularism, proudly touted in France as laïcité. Being subject to this law will give local officials the authority to dissolve any organization through which Islam is preached in conjunction with cultural activities, which include things like travel, cookouts, and soccer. Additionally, the state has already designated one authority, the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman (CFCM), to exclusively train and certify imams in France, including those coming from abroad.

The proposal has sparked controversy among France’s Muslim minority and throughout the Muslim world, sparking boycotts of French products and an uproar on social media. That this proposal comes during renewed controversy over cartoons that lampoon Islam’s Prophet Muhammad and after two subsequent attacks — one involving the beheading of a schoolteacher and the other an attack on a church — claimed as “retaliation” only makes it that much more contentious.

But beyond the violence and heated rhetoric, and much less represented in the ongoing debate, is a cogent conversation about France’s history with secularism and what Macron’s proposal means for the Republic and its Muslim minority.

“The other religions have adapted because of what they are, but also, when the law of 1905 was voted, Islam wasn’t an important religion in France,” Macron said. “We must help this religion to organize so it can become a joint-player of the Republic.”

Islamic institutions, relative newcomers to France, have been operating under a less stringent, more opaque law that was passed in 1901.

The 1901 law protects the freedom of association, a key tenet of democratic ideals that the 19th century French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville introduced into French thought after his return from America. But while this law aimed to protect the formation of secular associations, like unions and political organizations, it can also be loosely interpreted to include religious organizations, which is how France’s Islamic institutions have come to operate under it.

The law, which allows state subsidies and a small amount of private donations, applies to faith-based groups as long as they do not engage in the “promotion” of religion, a term that is not vague in French law, but is arguably flouted anytime an Islamic organization does something like organize youth activities or discuss the tenets of Islam during what is billed as an Arabic language class. It is this divergence that creates conflict between France’s laïcité and the culturally organic approach to Islam by France’s diverse minority, especially when it comes to the issue of homogenizing the schooling of imams.

Mohamed Henniche, president of the Union of Muslim Associations in Saint-Denis, which manages 20 mosques in the suburbs of Paris, captures this sentiment. Part of Henniche’s work is to hire imams, who end up being mostly foreigners due to what Henniche says is a shortage of French-born imams. “Islam is a diverse religion. The practice in Pakistan differs from the one in Algeria. What if an imam’s traditions differ from what the CFCM wants?” he says.

About 300 foreign imams work in France currently, and they have had their religious training in various countries, including Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia.

Then there is the issue of compliance with the new law. Henniche’s mosques are registered under the 1901 statute because “it’s more flexible.” Forcing the existing institutions to re-register under the 1905 law would be arduous and disruptive to the community, he argues.

“To create a 1905 association, you have to go through a background check. Not everyone wants to go to the police station just to open a mosque!” he says. Re-certifying will also create “a lot of headaches” because it will require 25 people to sit on the board instead of the two required by the 1901 law.

For French people, laïcité became a real concept under the Third Republic starting in 1870. School attendance became mandatory for all children, and a secular curriculum was introduced, taught by secular teachers. This is known as the “Republican moment.”

But pushing secularism onto a religious populace did not come without blowback. It resulted in the infamous anti-Semitic campaign led by the Christian newspaper La Croix against a young Jewish army captain, Alfred Dreyfus, who was wrongfully convicted of treason.

There were also earlier crises that shook France into reinventing its relationship with religion. Perhaps laïcité first came to light in its earliest forms in the aftermath of the Saint Bartholomew massacre, carried out on the night of Aug. 24, 1572, against the country’s Protestants, in which thousands were killed. The terrible event inspired Protestant philosopher Pierre Bayle to develop his ideas about the principle of tolerance, but it would take more than 20 years for the state — represented at the time by King Henri IV — to issue the Edict of Nantes (1598), which finally accepted France’s Protestants into the kingdom.

Two centuries later, Voltaire would play an integral role in the development of this idea when, at the age of 72, he published an indignant letter berating France as “a country where barbarian crimes committed in cold blood would even scare drunk savages.” The harsh words came in response to King Louis XV’s beheading of a Catholic knight for blasphemy. The 20-year-old knight, named De la Barre, was accused of vandalizing a cross with a knife and refusing to lift his hat to a procession of priests. After the execution, the king ordered the body burned along with a copy of Voltaire’s Encyclopedia, for good measure.

Fast forward to La Revolution, when France and its clergy became polarized into two camps: those who supported separation of church and state and those who did not. It was during this tumultuous time that the state decided to ensure the protection of its priests, under the then-nascent idea of the freedom to practice religion, or culte. This is what led to the landmark 1905 law, which has been governing the operating status of Jewish and Christian institutions in France. The law has since been put to the test, amended no fewer than 30 times, often after incidents of contention or violence. One such incident unfolded in 1907, in the small village of Saint-Hilaire-la-Croix, after the mayor replaced one priest with another deemed more compliant with the Republic’s separation of church and state. But the people became upset, and priests and their parishioners ended up fighting over delivery of the sermon. The mayor shuttered the church, and the incident went all the way up to France’s Supreme Court, which ruled that the local municipality had no business in choosing its own priest, even if it deemed him more legally appropriate.

Macron’s current proposal will also need to strike the right balance between laïcité and the people it will affect. It is unfortunate that the merits of the debate have been hijacked by acts of violence and conflated with frantic rhetoric about cartoons and the right to blasphemy, instead of focusing the conversation on a concept that is the very essence of Frenchness — laïcité —with a sizable and growing minority in France.

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