The French Constitution states that, “France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic, guaranteeing that all citizens regardless of their origin, race or religion are treated as equals before the law and respecting all religious beliefs.” Many people feel that the reality is somewhat different.
French identity and culture are ferociously defended in a country whose influence has been felt –- for both good and ill – throughout the world. Historic events such as the French Revolution, the Franco-Prussian war, two World Wars, and controversial excursions in Africa and the Pacific have forged an overwhelming sense of national pride. French culture (in past centuries preeminent) now takes its place alongside others in Europe. And yet, as a result of its politics, France today is fragmented by conflicting ideologies aggravated by unemployment, immigration, and amnesia.
The ideals of the French Republic, including its notion of secularity (laïcité), are founded on a form of social contract that stems from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of the will of the people as a whole. Ideally, each citizen is engaged in a direct relationship with the state, removing the need for identity politics based on locality, religion, or race. But those ideals are facing growing challenges in a country that did not foresee the consequences of its empire-building ambitions in Algeria and Morocco, Mali and Madagascar, Indochina and the Pacific. Nor can it be said to have taken serious steps towards a genuine policy of equality for all.
Marie Antoinette may not have said “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” (Rousseau wrote the phrase in his Confessions), but the French now seem to want to have their cake and eat it. The French government is intent on turning everyone into French citizens regardless of any other kinds of allegiance – including religion. In fact, secularity began with the 1905 law on the Separation of the Churches and the State, which put an end to state funding of churches, declared religious buildings to be the property of the state, and enshrined the concept of secularity in law.
In the light of recent events, France announced new measures to promote secularity in schools and to try to prevent students from being radicalized. This inevitably divisive project will cost 250 million Euros and involve training courses for schoolteachers throughout France. Students will receive an additional civic and ethics education, and French symbols such as the national flag and anthem will be celebrated on December 9, which has been declared a “Day of Secularism”. The government announced these measures after concerns were raised that some children – notably those from migrant populations – were failing to understand the “values of the Republic”.
From September 2015, children and their parents will have to sign a “Secularity Charter” which forbids racial or sexist behaviour or disrespect for any religion or the “symbols of democracy”. Pupils who break the rules will be ordered to do community work with charities like the Red Cross or their local equivalents. All schools will be encouraged to hold regular ceremonies in which children salute the French flag and sing the revolutionary national anthem. This may sound democratic, but it is not a far cry from the kind of nationalism that leads to xenophobia.
Absent from this public debate touching on freedom and equality are the banlieusards – those who live in the less privileged suburbs of major cities, notably Paris. The word used to mean commuter, but times have changed. Since the 1970s and 1980s, les banlieues have increasingly meant suburban low-income housing projects where mostly French people of foreign descent or foreign immigrants live. Parisians now speak of une banlieue aisée (a comfortable suburb) and une banlieue défavorisée (a disadvantaged suburb) – with obvious class and racist overtones.
The absence of the banlieusards in this crucial debate illustrates the gulf between the ideal of French “civilisation” and the modern reality. Tens of thousands of third-generation immigrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa are now entering adulthood and their prospects are as grim as when riots took place in 1981 and 2005. Militant Islan has certainly exacerbated the situation, but it is a mistake to think that poverty, unemployment, and political disenchantment only affect the children of immigrants.
Creating a new framework in which everyone can find his or her place in a “secular” France – let alone tackling the country’s social ills and its inherent racism (think Dreyfus, Vichy France, and Le Pen as well as the controversies surrounding “foreign” or “immigrant” workers) – is going to be difficult. A good place to start would be to revisit the myths of liberté, egalité, and fraternité – the last perhaps best reinterpreted as giving a genuine voice to people who want to share the values of French society without coercion or feeling that they are second or third class citizens.