The War on Noël: Will French secularism survive the rise of islamophobia?
While Americans imagine the French as enlightened godless hedonists, France retains a large number of at least notional Catholics. Many nominally atheist French remain culturally Catholic, attached to traditions, even going through some sacraments like church weddings and baptisms because it’s the done thing and because it will please the grandparents. For many here, to be French is to be more-or-less Catholic. This oblivious take on religion which allows most Muslims, many Jews, and the atheist masses to join Catholics in celebrating Chrismas each year is in peril thanks to recent actions by right-wing politicians seeking to use that Catholic tradition to their advantage. This year they are turning things up a notch by instigating a “war on Christmas” aimed at making them appear as victims of an oppressive State and, indirectly, of French Muslims, and in a movement that hearkens back to the days of the Maccabis, forcing wee schoolchildren to eat pork.
France’s soft secularism is indeed being challenged by Islam, directly by the extreme believers, but more so by the Catholic majority who see secularism as a weapon against Islamism and immigrants, while refusing to accept that secularism might actually apply to Catholics, whether practicing or nominal. The latest twist will seem familiar to Americans: Local governments across France have placed (or are planning to place) nativity scenes in city halls and other public buildings, resulting in legal action, warnings from the national government, and far too much moaning about persecution.
On the whole, the Catholic majority has had little to complain about under the system of “laïcité”, the French version of secularism that was imposed by the 1905 law of separation of Church and State. This law brought the Third Republic anti-clericalists a victory in a war that had been going on since the French Revolution, and that had already seen the liberation of education from the Church in the early 1880s with the series of Jules Ferry laws. But it was a modest victory, that unlike Revolutionary anti-clericalism aimed not at destroying the Church but simply at removing religious institutions from the realm of public life. And it was far from total: Largely because it was feared they were too easily influenced by their parish priests, women were denied the vote until 1944, when their contributions to the Resistance and Liberation of France during World War II made it impossible to deny their demands for suffrage. Today Catholic schools are still funded by taxpayers, public holidays are mostly Catholic feast days, and pre-1905 churches are all owned and maintained by either local or national governments, in an easy-going modus vivendi that favored pragmatism and tradition over dogmatic atheism.
The endless recession in France, the rise of Islamist terrorism, and the regular occurrence of rioting in the heavily Muslim suburban housing projects have combined to increase racism and raise fears of a poorly integrated and wildly overestimated Muslim population. In the recent Ipsos-MORI poll on popular estimates of various groups, France was the worst performer, with an average estimate of 31% Muslim population, while the true number (a rough guess, given the French on polling on racial, ethnic, and religious matters) is just 8%. Similarly, the French believe that 28% of people in the country are immigrants, while the real number is a third of that, at 10%. Despite the fact that most immigrants are from Europe, for many in France, Islam is the convenient stand-in for the impoverished, underemployed, and sometimes violent people out there in the suburban housing projects.
There are real issues with a Muslim community that within its ranks includes some increasingly virulent members. France is producing many jihadis, and religious leaders have done little to stop this movement (with one last week defending French Muslims fighting in Syria because, the Jews).
There is slut shaming of girls who dare to wear skirts or take part in gym class, etc.. To preserve girls from this kind of pressure, a 2004 law banned religious symbols, in particular headscarves, in schools.
Going farther, in a likely overreaction to a small number of Muslim women forced to cover their face, a 2010 law banned wearing in public anything that hides ones face.
These measures at least have some justification in protecting women and girls from religious oppression. But after the success of the far-right National Front in last spring’s municipal elections, laïcité is being used to clobber children with Catho-normative pettiness.
It’s Hanukkah time, and I think back to being taught that one of the causes of the Maccabean revolt was the insistence of the Greek overlords that the Jews renounce their faith, and that they demonstrate their allegiance to by eating pork.
While no one is being martyred in France, some kids will not be getting their daily ration of protein. A growing number of mayors are refusing to allow the school lunch programs they run to offer alternative dishes to pork.
For many years, the custom in most public schools has been to offer an option of a non-pork entree for Muslim children (observant Jews are more likely to attend religious schools, which like almost all religious, mostly Catholic, schools in France are subsidized by the national government). There were never demands or requests for halal food, just a non-pork dish. This accommodation was surely no more shocking than the widespread custom of public schools serving fish on Friday, but in a growing number of towns, the best way to show you’re French is to make sure that Muslim children either eat pork or go hungry.
Now, not satisfied with this pork-or-nothing policy, local governments are making the double standard of laïcité even more clear by installing nativity scenes in public buildings. The departmental council of Vendée, a very conservative département in western France, has for several years installed a crèche in the lobby of the council hall. After several false starts, this year a secularist organization filed suit to prevent the religious installation to take place. In Béziers in southern France, the new National Front mayor decided to install a crèche in city hall, earning him (so far) a warning letter from the prefect, the local representative of the national government.
Towns across the country are playing copycat, with support of a large share of voters. Some are scrambling to round up a nativity scene so they can hop on the laïcité-victim bandwagon. Supporters of the crèches claim that a nativity scene is not religious, but rather a tradition, like the Christmas trees found throughout public buildings in the country. As it happens, when Catholics do something, it’s a national tradition, while when non-Catholics request action, it’s an unacceptable breach of laïcité. This has often worked: French courts are unpredictable, and have long favored Catholicism over other religions or non religion. For example, when the law banning religious symbols in public schools was enacted, it was made clear that children and staff could continue to wear “discreet” crosses around their neck, while the objectively non-religious headscarf worn by all was forbidden.
Laïcité has long been fudged, with traditions like the Vendée nativity scene going unnoticed. By making the separation of Church and State a weapon to punish Muslims, the far right has drawn attention to its abuse of this principle that is still seen as the heart of the ability of a diverse society to live together in (relative) peace and harmony. With this made-up war on Christmas, Islamophobes are finally forcing the French to think about how they can continue to deny the Muslims of France, and the French of North African and subsharan African origin for whom Islam is a convenient shorthand, their share of the kings’ cake.