Updated: May 7, 2017 1:09:14 pm
The French have started with the second phase of presidential elections on Sunday and on the radar is the fear of a repeat of the American election results and Brexit. This time on the fear of an extreme right wing victory is in the form of Marine Le Pen and her party the National Front (FN). Upholding issues of Euroscepticism, anti-immigration and opposition to religious visibility in the public sphere, Le Pen is frequently being compared to American president Donald Trump. Her remarks on immigration and visibility of religious symbols has left large sections of the non-Christian world rather worried about their future in the French republic.
In a recent interview to Anderson Cooper, Le Pen made her stance on religion very clear. When asked if Sikhs would be allowed to keep turbans if she became president, she replied with a stern ‘no’ adding that “we don’t have a lot of Sikhs in France. We’ve got some. But we don’t really hear much from them or about them. Which is good news.”
While her statement is an attack on the visibility of any kind of religious symbolism, which she believes goes against the ideals of a French identity, her real target rather are the symbols of Islamic identity, an issue that has been subject of a burning debate that began in 1989 and has been continuing ever since. “I’m opposed to wearing headscarves in public places. That’s not France. There’s something I just don’t understand: the people who come to France, why would they want to change France, to live in France the same way they lived back home?” asked Le Pen in the interview.
Both the headscarf for Muslims and the turban for Sikhs play the same role, that of marking a religious identity. Le Pen is not alone in opposing them. The visibility of religious symbolisms have for long been a debatable topic across French political parties from the extreme left to the extreme right. In order to understand Le Pen’s policy we need to reflect upon the French policy of secularism- referred to as Laicité which is extraordinary, different from the way religious pluralism is practised across the world. Further, it is this unique form of secularism in France that has been fodder for a right wing party like the FN to feed into fears of a globalised world order and immigration that is often blamed for the problems of large sections of the French population.
So, what is Laicité and how has its expression changed over decades?
Laicité, or French secularism is far more than a state policy. It is a value system that has been passed down through generations as a necessary part of French identity. Roughly it translates as the separation of religious affairs from governmental activities. Historically speaking, the concept of Laicité dates back to the days of the French revolution during the late eighteenth century when large scale movements were held against the social and economic dictatorship of the Church in France. The revolution led to the deChristianisation of France, by removing the church’s presence in most aspects of everyday public affairs.
In 1905, the war against Catholicism in France was established in the form of the policy of Laicité by the government of the Third Republic. The law was further elaborated upon by the Fifth and current Republic and states the following: “Laïcité assures the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction to their origin, race, or religion. It respects all religious beliefs.”
Consequently, however, the visibility of religious symbols in the public sphere, particularly the education system was considered hindering the observance of equality among citizens and the conditioning of nationhood among them.
For most of twentieth century, the concept of Laicité worked very well for France as it gave a good amount of breathing space to all religions in the private lives of individuals while keeping its expression away from political life. However, by the 1980s and 90s there was a significant change in the French social scenario that went on to effectively challenge the French understanding of secularism.
By the middle of twentieth century, most of the French colonies had been rendered free. The need for cheap labour in a post World War II France meant that there was a significant amount of free migration to France, particularly from predominantly Muslim North African colonies. This newfound religious visibility in France of Muslim immigrants, easily distinguishable from their attire led to a conflict between state and individuals that questioned the very basis of French national identity. Post the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, the antagonism towards visibility of Islamic symbolisms increased manifold.
This new conflict with Laicité found itself represented in the form of a bill passed by the French legislature in 2004 that banned all kinds of religious symbols from public primary and secondary schools. The law was soon faced with widespread debate and continues to remain a bone of contention among political parties. “Laicité enjoys widespread assent in France; even so, the bans on wearing the headscarf in public schools and the Burqa in public have evoked plenty of debate. A great many French Muslims reject these bans as discriminatory, and multiculturalists have challenged the bans as affronts to individual liberty and cultural pluralism,” wrote Dr. Edward Berenson, director of French studies at New York University in an email interview with Indianexpress.com.
How has Marine Le Pen made use of the concept of Laicité to reach political aims?
Marine Le Pen took over the leadership of FN in 2011 and has ever since been credited with bringing about a remarkable sanitisation of the party’s image that had been tainted by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s attitude of racism and anti-semitism that was thoroughly looked down upon in the post World War II France. Believed to be more democratic than her father and gifted with evocative public speaking skills, Marine Le Pen in a dramatic move expelled her father from the party in 2015, with the intent of de-demonisation of the National Front.
Interestingly, however, her views on religion and race are not exactly different from those of her father’s. In a lot of ways her right wing extremism is simply old wine in new bottle, such that it fits into the existing global order and does everything possible to feed into the existing fears of those who have been worst affected from the loose border policy of France.
The biggest achievement made by her party in recent years has been to shift focus from racism and concentrate on the policy of Laicité and French nationhood. Her newfound devotion to Laicité was significantly different from her father’s attitude who considered the French revolution to result in national decay.
Her understanding of Laicité is a far departure from the original context in which it was formed. Increasingly overtime it has become a term that denotes an opposition to multiculturalism, particularly anything that threatens a Catholic kind of French identity. In 2015 Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, niece of Marine Le Pen and a rising star of the National Front gave a speech in which she emphasised upon the secularism inherent in French polity and then went on explain it by saying “If French Muslims wish to practice their faith, they need to accept the fact that they are doing so on soil that is culturally Christian. This means that they cannot have the same rank as the Christian religion.”
The Le Pen understanding of French secularism, though significantly different from the original French revolutionary concept, has been effective in grasping on to the fears of a large majority in France, so much so that Marine Le Pen is currently predicted to be the second most probable winner of the elections. As noted by Berenson, “Le Pen has skillfully used laicité as part of her campaign against (Muslim) immigrants. She says that immigrants, as well as Muslim French citizens, fail to respect basic French republican values, especially laicité, which she says is key to the understanding of what it means to be French. So, for Le Pen, those who want to display their religious affiliation and beliefs in public, place themselves outside France’s national community.”
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