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Three aspects of French Secularism (2004)
Article mis en ligne le 19 septembre 2023

Secularism (in French laïcité which has not exactly the same meaning) has been dividing the Radical Left for the last 20 years at least. The fight between the “laicards” (those who are accused of being stubborn antireligious and “Islamophobic” bastards) and those who see the possibility of a progressive role of all religions has been more and more violent. On this topic, as on many others, both “camps” are wrong, at least from a point of view respecting the interests of the working class...

The roots of secularism

For most people, France embodies an exception among the other European countries and that exception is linked to the supposedly anti- religious character of the French state since the French Revolution of 1789.

Historically, in fact, the relation between the French Church and the French state started to change four centuries before 1789, with Philippe Le Bel in the 14th century. The French monarchy struggled to become independent from the Roman Catholic Church. Not because the King of France was antireligious but because he wanted to control the Church from above (1) . In exchange, the French Catholic Church got very important privileges in terms of taxes, primary role in education, etc., a situation that lasted until 1789.

Many people think that the Enlightenment and philosophers like Rousseau, Diderot, and Voltaire were atheist. They were not : they were against the power of the Catholic Church, which is very different. Was the French Revolution against religion ? No. Robespierre even created the "Cult of the Supreme Being.” French revolutionaries (with the exception of Jacques Roux and his Enragés) wanted only the Church to recognize the new political authorities and the new laws. They prosecuted only the priests (most of them, to be honest) who rebelled against the political and social changes of that period.

And the reason why an important part of the workers movement became not only anticlerical but also antireligious is linked to the political attitude of the French Catholic Church in 1789, 1830, 1848 and 1871 (the Paris Commune).

During all these revolutions, the Catholic Church took the most reactionary positions, favouring the royalty, the most conservative aristocrats, etc. The Catholic Church refused to recognize freethinking ; the "Declaration of the Rights of Man” was considered "impious.’’ For the most traditional Catholics, freethinking was an "insurrection against God.” The Catholic Church refused to understand the social dimension of the revolutionary events : for the Church, they were the expression of "wild and evil passions.” And this sectarian attitude nourished strong anticlerical feelings. Before the Dreyfus Affair (1894-1899), anticlericalism was one of the most important elements structuring the French Left. This peculiar situation explains why there was a political alliance between the working-class movement (i.e. the anarchists, the Socialist Party, the revolutionary syndicalists leading the main trade unions) and a part of the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie organized into the Parti Radical. This Party was violently anticlerical but not anti-religious ; it had strong ties with the Free Masons and designed the law adopted in 1905 about the separation of the different churches and the state, law which is portrayed, one century later, as an antireligious law.

Since 1905 a whole mythology is born in France affecting both the workers movement and the main bourgeois parties : the myth of the superiority of French secularism. And this myth has often united the leftwing and right-wing parties, in their praise of so-called Republican virtues.

The cult of the secular Republic is the basis of left and right-wing nationalism ; it’s the cement of national unity ; it is the foundation of the joint myths of Gaullist and Stalinist Resistance movements ; so this is why, in their speeches, right-wing and the left-wing parties still maintain an anti-multiculturalist posture, even if in practice they defend quite different politics.


Old and new conceptions of secularism

Three years ago (in 2002), Jacques Chirac, the president of France, was elected by more than 80% of the votes. When he talks about the "Republic," and "French values of democracy and secularism,’’ he is trying to use nationalism as a cement between the different classes – a very efficient political trick.

Nationalism was an important political element of the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, and the Second World War Resistance, an element shared by most left-wing tendencies until today. The French Communist Party during the Second World War claimed to be the "Party of Joan of Arc" — a symbol for the extreme right. The National Front organizes a special rally every year to praise this woman who "led the fight against foreign invasion" – and everybody understands who the modem "invaders" are.

Revolutionaries must oppose and denounce all this abstract propaganda about the "Republic," "the defence of secularism," "patriotism," "French (cultural) exception," etc., because it only fosters nationalism among the majority of French workers who already support the Right and Far Right parties with their votes or racist attitudes. That does not mean revolutionaries should be indifferent to basic democratic rights, but the struggle for democratic rights should be separated from the defence of the bourgeois state.

Strangely, today, a new form of nationalist secularism is appearing among French young Muslims.

All sorts of young men turn to Islam : juvenile delinquents, drug addicts, teenagers who have difficulties at school and feel rejected by French society, and obviously, probably the immense majority, adolescents who are looking for their "roots" and who respect their family religion. Whatever their individual motives may be, their strict observance of Muslim prescriptions leads them to control the behaviour, clothing and private life of their girlfriends, mothers and sisters, as well as of all the young girls and women living in working class suburbs. These young males have all sorts of political opinions ; anti-imperialist, jihadist, republican, left-wing or right-wing, etc. But most of them, inspired by Tariq Ramadan (2) , try to catch the French state ideology to its own game.

At the same time, another interesting phenomenon is happening : a minority of educated young women try to invent a new kind of secularist-republican version of Islam. They want to be respected by their parents or brothers, as well as by all the institutions and the rest of French people. These Muslim women use some hadiths of the Quran to fight against the traditional and sexist ideas of their parents.

French Muslims” "citoyennisme (3) ” is a strange form of multiculturalism. These Muslims want to be the "best citizens’’ and the "best Muslims,’’ as they say. They are proud that their parents or grandparents died for France and at the same time they denounce French colonial wars. They forget that in all the colonial wars "indigenous’’ soldiers were involved and took the side of French imperialism. They forget that the First and Second World Wars were imperialist wars. In Indochina, for example, Africans and North African soldiers fought against the Vietnamese in the ranks of the French military forces.

They praise so much the French flag that the only demonstrations where you may see a tide of French flags are the National Front’s demonstrations or the political Muslims’ demonstrations, whether they are Islamists or "citoyennistes”.

These political currents have invented a new definition of French secularism, very different from its initial meaning : secularism is presented today as the best way for different religions to live harmoniously together. Quran is considered as a source of inspiration for human rights, women’s rights, ecology, ethic business and democracy.

These new Muslim secularists are accused of being disguised Islamists, admirers of khomeinism, etc. (That may be the case for a tiny minority, but in this case they will never gain an important political space in French society.) This ideology is adapting multiculturalism to French society (the systematic use of the words "deconstruct” and "deconstruction” in their writings is quite significant).

This form of multiculturalism may have much more political future than a French kind of jihadism. And it’s important that revolutionaries denounce this multiculturalism as a confused nationalist ideology dressed in pseudo-anti-imperialist clothes. It’s essential that revolutionaries put forward their own ideas about secularism, religion, and imperialism today, instead of just recalling the virtues of 18th-century Enlightenment and 19th-century bourgeois-republican secularism.

It’s vital that we recall the importance of social classes in front of people who only talk about identity problems, as if the class struggle had ceased to exist.


French Communist Party and secularism

French Stalinists have always been in favour of bourgeois nationalism, in its most extreme forms. They were violently anti-German during the Second World War ("A chacun son Boche,” "Each Frenchman should kill a Kraut” was its slogan and they hailed Joan of Arc as their hero). In the 1970s, when the crisis started, they defended the interests of French capitalism shouting "Produisons français” (Let’s produce French).

So, unsurprisingly, they consider secularism as the "founding principle of our social pact,” i.e. of the stability of bourgeois society. As Marie- George Buffet, the Party’s general secretary declared, secularism "’flows directly from the Declaration of the Rights of Man" which, everyone knows, is itself a direct product of "French revolutionary genius.” "Cocorico !” boasts the Gallic cockerel.

But the Communist Party has a serious problem : its number of militants and, more important for this party, its number of local councilors, mayors, senators and deputies is regularly declining for the last 20 years. So the Party desperately tries to be trendy and uses a hip language. As the traditional monolithic centralism is progressively falling into pieces, rather diverse opinions can express themselves openly inside and outside. French Stalinists are in favour of an "open secularism,” they want to "ensure a true quality of the living-togetherness in our country, "a cross-fertilization,” an "ethnical mixing,” "a constructive attitude,” etc. Most of these concepts are directly imported from psychology to the politics, to build a soft kind of ethics based on the blurring of contradictory class interests. During the vote of the new law about "conspicuous religious signs” the Stalinist parliamentary group was divided : 14 deputies voted against the law, 7 were in favour. This division partly reflects the growing gap between the last deputy-mayors who run big working-class cities and are obliged to make all sorts of compromises to keep their jobs, and other fractions of the Communist Party which are less prisoners of electoral politics but nevertheless desperately look for a way forward to save their dying party : either adopting a language close to the Socialist Party in favour of an "open secularism,” either trying to root the Party in the new petty bourgeoisie with hip slogans and a multiculturalist propaganda, directed towards the so- called ethnic communities.

Yves Coleman, Ni patrie ni frontières, 2005

1 Originally, Gallicanism is a theory advocating administrative independence from papal control for the Roman Catholic Church in France.

2. Actually, this statement is not exact as there were other ideologues, as influent but less known by French mainstream media at the time (added in 2023).

3 "Citoyennisme” comes from "citoyen”, citizen. This ideology is an extreme form of republicanism, which worships the bourgeois state and its institutions.