Time has come for France to revamp its obsolete model

France’s drive to separate state and religion is inherent to the country’s construct. However, the rigid and extreme interpretation of this principle while France was going though successive waves of migration impeded a smooth integration of most newcomers and their offspring.
Wednesday 04/11/2020
A nun handshakes with a Muslim repesentative in the Sainte-Therese church during a mass in tribute to murdered priest Jacques Hamel on July 30, 2016 in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, France. (AFP)
A nun handshakes with a Muslim repesentative in the Sainte-Therese church during a mass in tribute to murdered priest Jacques Hamel on July 30, 2016 in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, France. (AFP)

As France is going through a crisis, some analysts do not consider it the right time to assess the reasons for the country’s failure to deal with the integration of immigrants and diversity. However, a proper reflection today will allow France to better manage the crisis and get out of the current predicament with a better system.

The law on “separation of church and state” was voted in in 1905, but France’s path to a secular system started during the Age of Enlightenment and solidified during the years that followed the French Revolution in the 19th century. Back then, the concept was mostly about severing ties between the church and state. In the 20th century, as immigration to France boomed, French policy and opinion makers assumed – naively enough – that the secular system would guarantee a smooth integration of enough non-Christian immigrants. What France is going through today proves the opposite.

The key to understanding the failure of the secularists’ “Fata Morgana” is the fact that Islam is not like any other religion. Islam is a social code and a religion. Even the most moderate interpretation of Islam finds it difficult to alter this precept. Dealing with Islam as France dealt with the church one century ago is a colossal mistake.

Instead of adapting to the new reality — demographic change to the advantage of non-Christians — France has continued with the same rigid and extreme interpretation of the famous “laicity.” French social and political figures ignored the fact that the bulk of the newcomers were forcefully brought to France during the industrialisation period and later after the first world war, or actually came voluntarily to France in pursuit of prosperity (job opportunities), certainly not because they were attracted by France’s values of liberty and equality. Therefore, they entered the job market but did not integrate into society.

As the ratio of immigrants from French colonies or former colonies was significant, it is no surprise that they came with underlying grievances against the model itself. Although they were able to hold jobs, they nevertheless found themselves at odds with the society. This resulted in ghettoised communities, religious schools, youth clubs, associative groups and (until recently) control-free mosques.

While non-Christian immigrants were implicitly given the space to “manage their own affairs,” state institutions continued dealing with Christianity based on the 1905 law, creating a double standard. As such, we have seen the same municipalities that use public funds to offer Iftar meals at the end of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan prohibit nativity scenes from being set up during Christmas season because they “infringe on the principles of laicity.” This has created a sense of entitlement among some non-Christian communities. The perception today that the French government is after these same communities is fuelling the frustration of Muslims in France. They don’t understand why the way secularism was applied to society has suddenly changed. Why is it that what was allowed twenty years ago has suddenly become incompatible with France’s secular vocation?

In parallel with secularism “à la carte,” the French system ignored its own flaws in terms of integration, instead engaging in a series of reactive measures (bans and otherwise) that deepened the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims. It is therefore not surprising to see this chain of events lead to a high level of communal tension and open the door for terrorism-inclined individuals or groups to thrive. The natural backlash has been the radicalisation of non-Muslims against Islam and the exertion of pressure on politicians to take further restrictive measures.

The entrance of a halal butchery in Lille, northern France. (AFP)
The entrance of a halal butchery in Lille, northern France. (AFP)

What France is going through today requires it to take a step back and think about both short-term mitigation and more long-term structural remedies. First and foremost, it is essential to avoid falling in the trap of generalisations. As Islam is going through a significant existential crisis at the global level, many Muslims living in Europe, North America or other similar countries are amenable to considering a social compromise, whereby they would accept adjusting to the reality of living in non-Muslim majority societies. A generic judgement of all Muslims would certainly alienate those on the side of accommodation and push them to radicalisation.

One should not forget that, at the end of the day, most of the victims (casualties of violence, refugees, displaced populations…) of terrorist groups in the Middle East are Muslims (Sunnis, more specifically). So, differentiating between radical elements and movements, on the one hand, and peaceful innocent Muslims, on the other, is essential.

It is also essential to break the vicious circle of actions and reactions. So far, France has failed to come up with a holistic strategy that can address the gloomy legacy of the last seven decades, mend the social contract between French Muslims and the state, design a selective immigration programme that pre-assesses candidates’ abilities to integrate into a Western society, strike a balance between protecting freedom of expression and preserving communal peace and, last but not least, adjust the paradigm of secularism.

This last element is fundamental. France’s laicity should stop legitimising a witch-hunt against the church and adjust to the fact that more than 60% of its population identifies with a religion. Among them, around 90% identify as Christians. Therefore, the “raison d’etre” of secularism in this case should not be to demonise religion but to make sure that it remains within the realm of private life or, more accurately, protect the public space from any and all religious characterisations.

There is no defence or justification whatsoever for the horrible acts committed against innocents in France and elsewhere. These cannot by any stretch of the imagination reflect on all Muslims, but they do highlight the need to look at the issue of Muslim immigrants from the prism of the mutation that this religion is going through worldwide. France’s values are inherently connected to human dignity and should be preserved. But France should get rid of the obsolete model of “laicity” and come up with a new innovative notion that recognises the country’s Christian roots while providing enough space for atheists, agnostics and people of all other religions to privately practice their beliefs without blaspheming others or violating the existing constitution and laws. This is not an easy task but it remains an imperative endeavour.