In the wake of the horrible tragedy of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, we have been waiting with baited breath to see which way the French government was going to try to deal with religious extremism. Would they opt for a free-floating multiculturalism and slide ever closer to the American model where religious leaders hold a dangerous sway over politics? Or would they reassert the specificity of what it means to be French, and protect their citizens with a newly invigorated republicanism? As a French teacher in the USA, I frequently encounter students who, in the arrogance of their ignorance, feel entitled to express indignation about the laws banning head scarves and other public signs of religious belief in the public sphere in France, and decry the “inflexibility” of the French. “They should be more like us,” students say. Each time I hear this, I wince, because it means that we have not done our job well enough. Those who believe the French lack “flexibility” have never learned what the French Republic really stands for. They ignore how long and hard people had to work and struggle and fight, from 1789 to 1905, until France achieved a definitive break between the Catholic Church (or any church) and the State. They are oblivious to what it means to live in a State where the public sphere is a protected place, where believers and non-believers are equally free from coercion. So it is with joy that I read the article in the New York Times today entitled, “Paris Announces Plan to Promote Secular Values,” which I invite you to read here.
For those who may not understand why secular values are so crucial to the French, you need to keep studying. As with many facets of French culture, the origins lie in the past, in this case, the struggles of the French Revolution.
Vive la laïcité!