President Emmanuel Macron chose the nave of the Collège des Bernardins, a Gothic masterpiece, as the location for his April 9 speech addressing the Catholics of France. Referring to a range of French Catholic writers – Simone Weil, Georges Bernanos, Emmanuel Mounier – he deplored the fact that the link between the church and the state had “collapsed,” and he invited Catholics to participate fully in French political life:
This dialogue is indispensable, and if I had to sum up my point of view I would say that a church professing a lack of interest in temporal questions would not be pursuing all aspects of its vocation, and a president of the Republic professing a lack of interest in the church and in Catholics would not be fulfilling his duty.
For the last week, some have criticized Macron’s high-toned speech while others have praised it. But beyond this normal political discussion, the speech serves as a demonstration that, even in a secular state, religions – and especially the religion that for centuries has contributed to making France what it is – continue to play a large role in the public square.
It is even tempting to say the Macron’s speech is a response to all the unjustified indictments of laïcité, the French form of secularism, in the English-speaking world. In just a few words, Macron answered the detractors of laïcité, and there are many, who maintain that it excludes religions from the public square. Only someone who had never stepped onto the parvis of Notre-Dame de Paris could utter such an egregious misrepresentation. From Catholic groups to a wide variety of Islamic congregations to the strong presence of the Jewish community, religions are no less free in France than elsewhere. Au contraire!
These opponents make it seem that laïcité applies beyond the state and schools, which it does not. It is because of their specific purpose that these institutions are required to be secular. Given that society as a whole is not secular, excluding religions from the state and schools is the best way to guarantee freedom of conscience for everybody. Do you want to think about police officers wearing kippot trying to keep order in France’s banlieues, with their heavy Arab populations? Or a teacher wearing a hijab explaining the Yom Kippur war to a Jewish student? Would a woman want to request an abortion from a doctor who wears a visible sign of his religious convictions?
In addition to being a recipe for civil strife, this supposed freedom that would allow a civil servant to brandish her veil or his turban like a flag would place religious freedom above all other freedoms. This can be seen in Quebec, where visible expressions of civil servants’ religious convictions are permitted, but visible expressions of their political convictions are not. The message to the population is clear: religion takes precedence over all other political or philosophical convictions. Ethics and Religious Culture courses in the schools enshrine this special status for religion by reducing freedom of conscience to religious freedom alone.
The most powerful defence of this special status for religion has come from the communitarian philosopher Charles Taylor who, in his own way, dreams of “reenchanting” the world. That is why he supported Islamic courts in Ontario. On the basis of this same vision of a world centred on ethnic or religious communities, he has criticized Quebec nationalists every time they have tried to build a nation instead of staying within the bounds of their “community.”
This also explains the fragility of the version of laïcité set forth ten years ago by the Bouchard-Taylor Commission. It comes as no surprise that, a few years later, Taylor repudiated the few truly secular measures that were in the commission’s report. With hindsight it’s clear how the trick was pulled off – so much so that we might wonder whether Taylor’s alter ego, Gérard Bouchard, was ultimately there to give the exercise some sovereigntist legitimacy. Was he, as people suggested at the time, le canadien français de service, the “useful French Canadian”?
In his speech at the Collège des Bernardins, Macron said that his role was to guarantee that everyone has “the absolute freedom to believe or not to believe,” and that, in return, he was justified in demanding that religions have absolute, uncomproming respect for “all the laws of the Republic.”
Unsurprisingly, since secularism is unknown in all Muslim-majority countries, Islam poses new problems in the West. A recent study carried out among 7,000 young people in the French banlieues found that 35 per cent of young Muslims considered Islam the “only true” religion, while only 10 per cent of Christians held a similar view of Christianity.1 A study in Belgium showed that 29 per cent of Muslims think that religious law should take precedence over the law of the land.
To put it in Catholic terms, we can say that, just as Jesus agreed to share in the suffering of humanity, in agreeing to laïcité religions abandon all privilege in the marketplace of ideas, even at the price of having to face blasphemy: no special status, no privilege relative to other religions or to atheists and agnostics. Contrary to what people say, laïcité is the expression of a new freedom – even for believers.
1 Olivier Galland and Anne Muxel, La tentation radicale : enquête auprès des lycéens (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2018).