Secularism in France

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French President Emmanuel Macron’s remarks about Islam have pitted France against several countries in the Islamic world.


Why are many Islamic countries angry with France?

  • France has a long and complex relationship with Islam, and its 5 million Muslim citizens (just under 9 per cent of its population).
  • On October 16, when an 18-year-old Chechen refugee in France beheaded schoolteacher Samuel Paty, 47, days after he had shown caricatures of Prophet Mohammed to his students, President Macron said: “We will continue… We will defend the freedom that you taught so well and we will bring secularism.” He said France would “not give up cartoons, drawings, even if others back down”.
  • Days before Paty’s killing, Macron had made a controversial speech. He declared that “Islam is a religion that is in crisis today all over the world”, “plagued by radical temptations and by a yearning for a reinvented jihad which is the destruction of the other”.
  • “The problem is an ideology which claims its own laws should be superior to those of the Republic,” Macron had said.
  • He spoke of an “Islamist separatism” within the country, and the need to counter it through the rules and values of the Republic, to build a French version of Islam, an “Islam of Enlightenment” that would integrate French Muslim citizens better with the French way of life.


French definition of ‘secularism’ 

  • Macron’s remarks brought to the fore the difficulties that France has faced in reconciling its strictly interpreted secularism with the increasing assertion of religious identity by its Muslim citizens, and how France itself has changed in the way it view Islam.
  • French secularism, or laicite, sees no place for religion in the public sphere. In this way, it is the opposite of how India has practised its secularism. Over the years, laicite has been in confrontation with the religious practices of many immigrant groups in France, including the Sikhs. But the biggest confrontations have been to do with its Muslim citizens, who form the largest group of Muslims in Europe, ahead of four million Turkish Muslims in Germany.
  • Most French Muslims of today were born in France, descendants of first-generation immigrants from former French colonies in north Africa. The French constitution demands that those seeking citizenship must commit themselves to integration. But this has proved elusive.


What does France intend to do now?

  • President Macron has announced a controversial “anti-separatism” bill to crack down on Islamic radicalism that is to be introduced in Parliament in December. 
  • It envisages a range of measures, including school education reforms to ensure Muslim children do not drop out, stricter controls on mosques and preachers, and has caused concern among Muslims in France.
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