Last October, just over a week before the brutal murder and beheading of Parisian high-school teacher Samuel Paty, French President Emmanuel Macron gave a speech about the actions his administration has taken to root out Islamic extremism throughout France. In recent weeks, a part of that speech as been revisited in American media with a mix of surprise, amusement, and indignation: Macron’s expression of concern over “certain social science theories” being imported from America and adding further confusion and pressure to France’s current political and ideological debates.
Although French critical theory has heavily influenced American scholarship on race and gender, Macron’s pointing the finger at America should not come as a surprise; after all, the French are well-known for their hauteur. There is, however, another moment in his speech which deserves attention because, unconsciously, it identifies the real source of France’s identity crisis.
The president states: “[L]aïcité (secularism) in the French Republic means the freedom to believe or not believe, the possibility of practicing one’s religion as long as law and order is ensured. LaÏcité means the neutrality of the State; in no way does it mean the removal of religion from society and the public arena.” This noble but unrealistic ideal of the neutral State is France’s dangerous blind spot.
Firstly, belief is not optional because everyone believes something and lives according to a creed. Secondly, it is impossible for the State to be truly neutral. The nature of Law is that, shaped by culture and ideology, it assumes the moral authority to determine the common good. The proof of this is that Macron later in his speech defends the closing of various Muslim schools and organizations for indoctrinating beliefs that conflict with the “values of the Republic” and negate French “principles, gender equality and human dignity,” though he does not explicitly state how or why. Perhaps he is unable to do so clearly because he himself cannot pinpoint what the “values of the Republic” are or trace from where they came. Ever since the Enlightenment, France has been loath to admit Christianity might have anything to do with its identity, and even its ties to Classical Antiquity have weakened under the pressure of post-colonial guilt.
What Macron cannot see, or refuses to admit, is that the Republic has not been neutral about religion, and when he claims that this supposed neutrality of State does not mean “the removal of religion from society and public arena”, he is either lying or grossly ignorant of France’s history. Enlightenment thought was riddled with anti-religious spite, the French Revolution executed countless priests and nuns, and the Combes Laws of the early 1900s sought to do far more than merely separate Church and State – religious communities were forced out of France and religious instruction was banned in school.
When I attended a year of Catholic high school in Bordeaux in 2010, I was surprised by the absence of religious imagery around campus and formal religious instruction. Anything related to Catholic identity or teaching was purely extra-curricular and optional: Mass was offered in the chapel a few times a week, occasional lectures were presented on religious or cultural topics, and there was an annual trip to Lourdes for those who wanted to go. The school’s curriculum was largely dictated by the content of the national Baccalaureate Exam and there was no talk of religion in the classroom, much less any kind of celebration of French culture. Most of the student body were neither formed nor interested in the Faith, and several of them told me that patriotism was frowned upon as a sentiment for the far right. The students who went to Mass were mostly from the upper class, an elitist group who all dressed the same and were disinterested in making friends outside their circle.
Maybe this phenomenon was specific to this school and group of teenagers, but I came away from the experience feeling that Catholicism, and even national pride, was largely considered something for people who wanted to live in the past.
But a lot has happened in France since I lived there, and she is at last waking from a long stupor, roused by the realization that cultural values cannot be taken for granted and are by no means universal among all cultures. What exactly are the “values of the Republic”, where do they come from, and why should they be revered and protected? I’m not sure the French are fully ready or able to answer these questions yet, but since the Paris attacks of 2015, France has been gradually re-incorporating religious and French cultural studies in schools, and when Notre Dame burned in April 2019, thousands gathered in the streets to watch and pray publicly.
I once asked one of my French classmates what he thought about the threat of cultural and religious tensions with Muslims in France. He shrugged and said, “I don’t worry about this. If you try to take away a Frenchman’s wine and cheese he will put up a fight.” It seems we might dare to hope that President Macron is at least such a Frenchman. If France does try to rescue their cultural heritage and identity, let us hope that this wave of thought and action will become as “in vogue” throughout the West as the French philosophy that has brought us to this point.
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