By Name supplied
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 281

Unveiling the Myth of French Secularism

This article is over 20 years, 4 months old
Last month the French president, Jacques Chirac, gave his go-ahead for a law banning all conspicuous religious and political signs at school and in public services.
Issue 281

This decision is the climax of an affair which has polarised French society for the last 15 years – the question of the Islamic veil. Even if Chirac tries to hide it by introducing a reference to political signs, it is clear for many that Islam is the real target of this attack. Since the beginning of Bush’s ‘war on terror’ the whole Muslim community – religious and secular – is facing institutionalised racism.

The ‘veil affair’ has been mostly related to young children expelled from school because they refused to give up their veil. But in the last couple of months it has also occurred in many different parts of French society: a Muslim woman was barred from being a juror because she was wearing the veil; a social service worker was suspended for nine months because she was wearing the veil; a mother was barred from accompanying her children as a helper on a school trip because she was wearing the veil.

Many other examples of spreading discrimination can be found. But what is more disturbing around this issue is the support for a law coming from the left, both the mainstream and revolutionary socialists.

The main argument against religious signs at school is ‘secularism’. But those who raise this forget to mention that in Alsace and part of Lorraine (two French regions), there are still weekly mandatory religious courses – mostly Christian, of course. They forget to mention that there are still some 1,500 chaplaincies in secondary schools, all of them state-funded and most of them voluntarily run by teachers.

Secondly, there is the role of school in state-run education. Jules Ferry, the founder of the secular school, made it clear in 1881: ‘In religious schools, young children are receiving an education organised against modern institutions. If this situation continues, we can be sure that other schools will be organised, open to workers’ and farmers’ sons, where diametrically opposed principles will be taught, maybe even inspired by a socialist or communist ideal borrowed from more recent events, for example this violent and sinister period between 18 March and 24 May 1871 [referring to the Paris Commune].’

Thirdly, there is the way French society welcomes immigrants to its soil. Based on the ‘republican model’ which states that everybody living in France is a citizen of the French republic, regardless of their origin, this is not a bad theoretical and ethical statement. But everybody who has spent time in France knows that the reality is different. Racism and institutional discrimination is a common situation experienced by all the various waves of immigrants since the French Revolution. But Muslims have been particularly badly treated.

We can also ask why this question is raised to such a level just now. One can wonder whether there is a connection with the huge mobilisations last spring against Chirac’s attack on pensions, especially if one remembers that teachers were central in building and sustaining these protests for months. It may not be a surprise for many that, after a strong struggle that united teachers, an issue which is likely to divide them has been put on the agenda.

The question of oppression is a very important and complex issue that socialists have to address. And we must have a non-ambiguous, non-conditional position of defending all oppressed groups.

Prejudices dividing the French and Arabs, Christians and Muslims, are some of the most important obstacles on the road toward the emancipation of the working class. To require that the struggle of the oppressed against the oppressor (in this case Muslims against institutionalised racism in France) has to be without any ambiguities and contradictions is to forget the role of oppression in the domination of the ruling class.

Racism against Muslims weakens the whole working class, it divides those who have a common interest. Solidarity with Muslims will strengthen unity among workers, whatever their race, culture and religion. This will have a bigger impact to fight against racism but also will reinforce the confidence of the working class for other struggles.

Nicolas Van Labeke

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance