Complications of Laîcité

Living in France has been a growth experience, not only in terms of absorbing bit by bit the nuances of French and local community culture but also in terms of coming to grips with the different practical applications of the concept of inclusiveness. This has most recently drawn me to realize the growing complexity of the French approach to secularism, also known as “laîcité”.

The Expat Perspective

We are clearly expats living in a foreign land. That is a decision we have made, with some trepidations – at least on my part personally.  Yes, this is the land of “liberté, égalité and fraternité, with its strong historical links to our own (American, that is) Declaration of Independence. And it is also a land featuring a strong separation of church and state. (See previous commentaries and musings on “laîcité”. ) But what does this all mean for cultural identity in a land where all culture is supposed to be homogeniously “French”?

Here I would like to reflect a bit on the local cultural scene – or, more to the point, the local political scene. As a political animal, I have been drawn to learning about local politics, going to council meetings, attending ceremonial events to shake hands with the local mayors here and there, joining a local association, and asking for insights on forthcoming local elections. But I am not a participant, I am not a citizen, and I am not a voter. And yet, I have my views about things.

Living and working with people of diverse backgrounds has been a major purpose in my life. I have enjoyed working in the multi-national and multi-cultural setting of an international organization and then promoting multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder collaborations in an NGO setting. Now that I am neither an international civil servant nor the leader of an internationally oriented NGO, I have been looking for ways to apply this purpose where I find myself today. This is not easy.

True, I am writing this in English while operating less than perfectly in the local language; and this is certainly one way to become more multi-cultural. So I will hereby pledge to make an effort to translate this – and other commentaries – into French. (Understandably, this is still premised on writing in English first.) Teaching English as a foreign language has also become an interest of mine, and I am pleased to have finished a certification course on the Internet for that purpose. So I will be expanding my offerings on that score beyond the class in “American English” that I am already teaching (very informally) in Peymeinade.

Looking beyond these transitional steps, I have been writing commentaries on both immigration and the French approach to non-discrimination known as “laïcité”. Recent developments on both fronts are rather disconcerting. On the one hand, there is an odd unevenness to the “absorptive” migration that I favor. I have experienced some signs of selective absorption, to be sure, but I also see that they are essentially coexisting with far more signs of alarming gaps. I attended a magnificent exhibit of African art in Paris, for example, with an awesome array of continuing Afro-French collaboration. It struck me as being far more inclusive than anything one might see among other former colonial relationships.

The local perspective and hyphenated identities

In contrast, there are the continuing divisions between the center of Paris and the banlieus – or, in southern France, the more urban style ghettoes. The local councils in this region may have a few members with clearly Afro-French origin, fully absorbed into the council’s membership. And one does see plenty of Afro-French vendors in the open air markets (but not the more established shops). I am reminded, though, that there are no “hyphenated” French. So I mis-speak. Except for what I see.  And I am wondering where are all the other newer members of this supposedly uni-cultural but really multi-cultural community?

It is clearly a dilemma of absorption for the many people of African origin who suffer discrimination and exceedingly high unemployment rates. But the situation seems to be even more complicated when it comes to the technically non-hyphenated individuals who are, nonetheless, clearly living in a non-French-monocultural world. Specifically, it would appear that no one with Middle Eastern origins is a fully absorbed member of the local councils that I have observed. Furthermore, whatever opposition there might be to the majorities in these councils is coming mostly from the right. Asking about this among other expat observers with whom I have spoken has simply produced the observation that the predominantly Muslim or Arab communities are simply not involved in local politics.  And asking the participants in the open-house events for local associations that are held every year in September if there any locally focussed cross-cultural dialogues has produced a similar response. There are many humanitarian organizations working on external outreach initiatives, but there are no associations operating in the arena of promoting dialogue or collaboration between diverse cultures within the local community. I’m sure there are some, but they aren’t very visible in the mainstream of civic-mindedness.

So what does this mean for “laiïcité”? When the French concept of secularism à la laïcité was originally enacted back in 1904 – and in various cycles of action to refine this concept over the subsequent hundred years of so – it was and continued to be mostly a progressive movement coming from the “left” side of the political spectrum. It seems that this was even the case with the latest legislation in 2004 and 2011, when laws were passed to prohibit the wearing of religious symbols (including the hijab by Moslem women) by anyone working in the public school system or other public services and also of hiding the face in public generally. These more recent enactments were considered an “enlightened” gestures – seeking to overturn the history, specifically, of the forced repression of women that the hijab and other more extreme versions of covering women in public was seen to symbolize.

Changing Perspectives

But things have changed. One could see it in lots of places, not just in France. Cultural and religious values in the Islamic world or among Muslims in the Western world are evolving, as symbolized by the apparently growing prevalence of women wearing the hijab as a personal choice rather than a paternal familial dictate. I still have some personal difficulty with this, but I have seen its apparent evolution – in Istanbul and in Djakarta and London and in Washington, DC. And yes, right here in France. Not all Muslim women, to be sure. I even have a sister-in-law-in-law who chooses otherwise. But the phenomenon is different now, and what one sees here in France is a more apparently widespread acceptance of the hijab as a personal choice. And a resulting shift from the left to right among the more strident advocates of a hijab-free notion of laïcité.

The shift, though, has some alarming features to it. The anti-immigrant rhetoric of the right is where the challenge is expected to come for Macron if and when he seeks re-election in 2022. This means that President Macron and his cabinet have been throwing out anti-immigrant proposals themselves in an apparent maneuver to undercut the appeal of the right. And this spills over into proposals to broaden the laws on laïcité as well. Some would even ban it more generally, but one that came from Macron’s cabinet is a proposal to prohibit headscarves for parents working as volunteers on school field trips. (This was the most recent focus of an outburst from a right-wing elected official in a regional assembly.) Well, this might go nowhere, as many of Macron’s often outlandish proposals tend to be trial balloons and not serious proposals.

A LEARNING PROCESS

In the meantime, here we are in a local community that has a clearly distinct and isolated Muslim community. And a political environment, both at the national level and the local level that makes it difficult to promote an inclusiveness that accepts hyphenated identities.  The undercurrent of anxiety about Islamic terrorism aggravates the public discourse, too. So what to do? Inter-faith dialogues are part of the answer, operating at least at the national level, but one could do so much more.

The immediate challenge for me is at least to gather more information. And that is what I intend to do at this stage. And to continue operating as an interested observer. I did sit in on a couple of council meetings this year, which were very different from the local council meetings I attended years ago in Greensboro, North Carolina. (Greensboro’s council was much smaller and with highly independent members who were not beholden to the mayor, whereas the local ones here are larger and more mayor-driven.) And I have been following the strange (for me) positioning of candidates for the forthcoming municipal elections in France. Not only are they all happening at once (March 2020), and all for similar five-year terms; they are also an immediate challenge for the newly formed Macron party, La République en Marche (LREM), that did not even exist when the last local elections were held in 2015. Lots of political vacuums to fill on that score. I am at least enjoying this ongoing growth experience, even if I am, for now, merely an ex-pat observer.

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