Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The Pope's death, the Muslim veil and the principle of Laicité

Last year a very interesting debate took place in France regarding the possibility to forbid, by law, young girls to attend public school wearing Muslim veils. The debate was interesting, among other reasons, because it involved constitutional principles. In a country where the constitutionality of laws can only be checked a priori - before they become effective - constitutional rights can't really be invoked by citizens in front of ordinary courts. Therefore these rights, which are of little use to the citizens, are not well known and they don't make for convincing arguments in public debates. The debate about the veil was an exception to this rule because the relevant right was laïcité which is thought to be consubstantial with the French republic. Those that disagreed with the law had to bring forward arguments about principles as well: different conceptions of laïcité, equality, liberty etc. This particularity contributed to making this debate exceptionaly interesting.

But it was never clear to which extent the belief in a conception of laïcité coherent with such a law was not fuelled by a racist rejection of Islam. Except for notably racist individuals and political parties, it was not possible to establish it and we were forced to continue discussing principles when the real motives of the law may have been, in many cases, despicable "emotions" or the belief that the French republic has, and should preserve, a catholic identity (in other words, the negation of laïcité).

The commemorations around the Pope’s death, unexpectedly, give us the possibility to test the honesty of the argument of laïcité used in favour of this law. A strange debate started two days ago when the government gave its instructions following the Pope's death (the national flag at half mast, some public workers were aloud to miss work to go to church, the Parliament respected a minute of silence etc.). Many people, especially from the left-wing parties, believe that public institutions should not acknowledge this event and that, if officials can participate in the mourning as private citizens, they should not do so as public officials. Members of Government have two justifications: 1/ public officials are indeed mourning as private citizens, 2/ the Pope's death is acknowledged because he was the Head of a foreign State. However, Dominique de Villepin, minister of internal affairs, "invited", with insistence, the main representatives of the State in the administrative divisions of the country to attend the religious celebrations of the Pope's death. This falls outside the official justification given by the government. What is acknowledged by this type of conduct is the deeply catholic identity of the French republic, in the eyes of the current majority. It gives a whole new perspective on the motivation of the main promoters of the law against the Muslim veil. A few months ago, girls were forbidden to wear a veil in school in the name of laïcité: “to preserve every citizen’s liberty of conscience and equality” so they were told. What are they to think now that notwithstanding this principle, public officials are instructed to attend church? In my mind, it’s not a bad thing that a country has a dominant catholic heritage, it can be dealt with in order not to discriminate against individuals that don't, but it is now easy to see what perverse effects it can have when it is hidden behind principles.

1 comment:

Srdjan Cvijic said...

I think that this particular case demonstrates the profound weakness of the classical concept of secularism (laicite). Radical Jacobin secularism is too thin and sociologically unrealistic. By a priori excluding religious arguments from the public space it actually allows them to have a informal powerful influence on the state (i.e. Catholic Church in France). What should be done, is to invite all religions, to play their hands open and be active participants in the public sphere. This would suggest that both veils in schools and lowering down of the flag should be principally allowed. One is, however, not to undermine the dangers of this.