Secularism the French way – The prohibition of the veil


by niqab franceNazanine Anwar

“No one may be disturbed for his opinion, even religious ones, provided that their manifestation does not trouble the public order established by the law.” By this article, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789, a fundamental symbol of the French Revolution, lays down the first foundations of secularism. Since 1789, a myriad of eclectic legislation has been adopted in France to enforce secular education in public schools. Although some religious figures have attempted to preserve the Catholic Church’s influence, a 1905 law on The Separation of the Churches and the States definitively puts an end to the linkage between Church and State. From that point forward, France has been a secular republic. It “neither recognizes, nor salaries, nor subsidizes any religion,” as stated in article 2 of the law of 1905.

It would be simplistic to assume, however, that religious belief has been thoroughly eliminated from the political sphere. As a matter of fact, the same law separating Church and State affirms that the “Republic assures the freedom of conscience. She guarantees the free exertion of cults, under the sole restrictions decreed by her in the interest of public order.” This article, as well as the aforementioned article found in the Declaration of 1789, which has in France constitutional value, illustrates the ambivalence of secularism. One the one hand, it ensures that religion does not probe the public sphere, and on the other hand, it aims to guarantee the free exercise of religion. The French Constitution underscores the binary nature of this situation in its first article proclaiming France to be “an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion. It shall respect all beliefs.” Consequently, the State must strike a balance between the free exertion of religious belief and the preservation of public order. Because secularism is a vague concept, however, one can easily get misled.

“One the one hand, it ensures that religion does not probe the public sphere, and on the other hand, it aims to guarantee the free exercise of religion. “

In 2003, Jacques Chirac created the Stasi Commission to reflect further on the notion of secularism. According to the Commission, freedom of conscience, equality of law and neutrality of political power must benefit all, notwithstanding their spiritual choices. To that end, the Republic ought to “remind the obligations imposed to the administrations, suppress discriminatory public practices, and adopt strong and clear rules in the framework of secularism.” Shortly thereafter, in 2004, the French Parliament adopted a law regarding the wearing of religious garb in public school. Since then a new wind has been blowing in the public sphere. Indeed, this law has completely changed the rules of game.


From 2004 onward, no ostentatious religious symbols, including the kippa, the veil or the turban, have been permitted to be worn in public school. Certain politicians justified the prohibition of the veil by arguing that some girls were, against their consent, forced to wear the veil, and that by prohibiting it in school, they would be protected from outside pressure. The issue at stake here is that religion itself, be it Islam, Judaism or Christianity, does not force anyone to do anything. On the contrary, it is up to each individual to make the choice about whether he or she wishes to believe or not. One cannot deny, however, that some are compelled to adopt a lifestyle they would not adhere to of their own volition. It takes therefore a different kind of book to fight against those hiding behind the cloak of religion, wishing to impose their way of life upon others.

Political specialist Patrick Weil, a member of the Stasi Commission, believes that being Républicain does not solely entail forced cohabitation. Looking through this lens distorts the meaning of a Republic, he argues, which is “indivisible,” and also comprises a social dimension. Weil explains that the Republic is a jumble of citizens sharing the same political and cultural identity. Singling a group of students out of many others would be anything but socializing and republican. As political philosopher Jean-Fabien Spitz explains, the legislation of 2004 was intended to protect those suppressed by religion, forced to conform to a form of servitude. Secularism would be here a protection against religion rather than a guarantee of freedom of conscience. Spitz explains that “the legislation prohibiting religious wearing scrutinizes the intentions of some and decides that it has the right to prohibit a behavior suspected to be not deliberately chosen […] and to protect individuals against their own mistakes.”

More than a decade after the legislation of 2004, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls heated up the debate once again. He recently declared that he wishes to ban the veil from universities in the name of secularism. In the context of rising islamophobia and heightened right-wing extremism, this adds little to the debate, especially at a time when French society is on the verge of splintering. The interdiction divides French society and implies that practicing one’s religion is, to a certain extent, illegal and sends a message to outsiders that wearing the veil is in no way compatible with the Republic. Secularism is about reconciling the differences between each individual and creating a foundation upon which every French citizen is able to meet, without intruding into another’s private life by questioning his or her choices.

Hardly a day passes in which a politician does not question Islam and its compatibility with the French republic. On a French radio broadcast, the debate may revolve around the prohibition of the headscarf. A sociologist may say how much she would like to be rid of the veil, without providing any rational explanation. From a legal perspective, the Conseil d’État, the legal advisor of the executive branch of French government and the supreme court for administrative justice, has clarified that expressing one’s affiliation with a religion is not in and of itself incompatible with the principle of secularism, guaranteed by the “freedom of expression and manifestation of religious beliefs,” as long as it does not obstruct the public order. This would entail, for example, “exerting pressure on others, provoking, propaganda, affect the freedom and dignity of others or disrupt the teaching.”

As Spitz sums up perfectly: “[I]f the exertion of a freedom represents an inconvenience for the third [party], the suppression of the latter will make our society no more liberal anymore.” Although François Hollande himself declared that the prohibition of the veil in university would not be concretized, secularism in France remains an issue not permanently settled, especially when it is meant to be lent greater credence by means of another, even vaguer concept, namely public order.

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