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POLITICS: Why as a secularist I oppose French "Secularism"

I suspect French secularism is quite opaque to people who haven't lived in the country and followed its convoluted politics. I recently challenged Stephen Knight on Twittter for a comment made on his podcast (otherwise well-informed as it is) that the link between the French government's 'secular' policies and terrorism is "bullshit". To give some context, Mr Knight was interviewing the chair of the UK's National Secular Society who campaigns against the excesses of religious privilege in Britain. Quite rightly in my humble opinion. In a country where schools enforce acts of 'worship of a Christian character', nothing could be more urgent than a platform for secularism.

But France is not that country. While Mr Knight gets it dead right in the context of UK politics, pushing for disestablishment and a removal of privileges of Bishops in the House of Lords, I would like to challenge the following views or assumptions I've heard a few times on his podcast and elsewhere in UK media regarding French 'laicite'.

Error 1. France is a secular state

This is quite wrong. French poliltics, law and history pays a lot of lip service to secularism, but just because you call something 'secular' doesn't make it so.

Religious discrimination is enshrined in the application of the 'Loi 1901', a law governing any organisations meant to be charitable or otherwise, of a religious or nonreligious character. To cut a long historical account very short, any religion which was established in France before that date (i.e. Catholic christianity, a few branches of Protestantism, and Judaism) are now considered historical "patrimoine" and benefit from huge subsidies and political support. Anything after that date doesn't.

This effectively means that you can grow up as a Catholic in France and enjoy lots of government-sponsored charitable programmes, exchanges etc but if you are a Muslim, forget it. We are all equal under French law, but some are much more equal than others.

Error 2. France is an egalitarian society

Again, while the theory enshrines egalitarianism, the practice couldn't be further from the truth.  London is filled with French workers who have the misfortune of having an Arabic-sounding surname or first name and came to London to have a fair shot at a decent job. Discrimination is practised freely and widely in French workplaces, banks, administrations etc, but given another name. Often, to the detriment of what I regard as my own politics (i.e. Humanism), the name given to this discrimination is 'laicite'.

Prime Minister Manuel Valls' 2015 speech acknowledging an 'apartheid' in French society was treated with contempt by French media and political colleagues alike, for calling this out. He acknowledged that in today's France "integration is now meaningless", and decries the lack of "urban mixity", a euphemism for the well-known ghettoisation of French citizens of North African descent. He stated "if you don't address these problems, you risk creating ghettos", again an oblique reference to the 'banlieues' which are the current breeding grounds of French islamism. No need to call a spade a spade here, anyone who has lived in France knows full well what he is referring to.

Since this speech, of course the government reacted to the Charlie Hebdo shootings by cracking down on "speech inciting terror" by arresting children, young teens and mental health patients found publicly supporting islamism. I have blogged about this previously. Call this 'secularism' at your own peril.

Evidence is still rife of French North Africans being turned away from jobs where they are required to provide passport-photographs in their applications to check how brown they might be or how 'Arabic' they might look (many are Berber and have no Arabic origins, but are dismissed anyway), and employers are not obliged to keep any figures pertaining to equal employment. In fact, they are not even allowed to, which brings me to my next point.

Is this evidence anecdotal? Yes. Because no other evidence is allowed by law.

Error 3. France is ethnically diverse.

France isn't ethnically anything because France doesn't acknowledge ethnicity. In fact, it is against the law to compile any research or statistics which would either confirm or deny ethnic discrimination.

My sister is a well-known researcher for poverty and health studies, and comes across this problem all the time. The blatant ghettoisation of mainly Muslim North Africans, locked into cycles of poor health, education and discrimination of the sort mentioned above, can't even be studied. Any research application in France which uses ethnicity as a criterion is regarded as discriminatory in and of itself. International research in this area is either ignored or shot down for not having sufficient evidence. But to compile the evidence, French law would need to change.

French law is blind to ethnicity; it declares everybody to be a citizen and to call yourself French-Algerian or any other ethnicity is to break that code. We declare you all citizens; you are not an Arabic-speaking Algerian-French youth who gets turned away from the queue of applicants to rent an apartment in Toulouse because he makes the landlady's skin creep with his scary religion. You are an equal citizen, despite the daily discrimination you clearly face.

No ethnicity, no harm, no foul.

Error 4. Islam is well-accepted in France

Because of Loi 1901 and a cultural paranoia surrounding the faith, Islam has established itself as an underground wellspring of opposition to cultural grievances. Much as the Catholic right wing did in Northern Ireland for generations, Muslim groups have sprung up as places to welcome the disenfranchised in cities like Orange, where a short walk after dark in the city centre reveals scratchy calls to prayer coming from shops with the blinds halfway closed.

Rather than attempting any form of discussion or integration, the French authorities have responded with legislation and authoritarianism, particularly in cities like Orange, controlled by the Front National party. The (ever-growing) Muslim population congregates in these unregulated places of worship, often set up by self-proclaimed Imams with an axe to grind against the authorities. Second and third generation French Algerians, Moroccans, Egyptians, many of whom don't even speak Arabic, flock there for a sense of support and community. I challenge Mr Knight to take a late walk around the city centre of Orange, and then tell me that disenfranchisement doesn't play into the hands of islamism.

It wouldn't take much to engage the youngest people in these communities. Actively encouraging the study of Arabic in schools, coming up with a Muslim equivalent to the Catholic "aumoneries" to harness their interest in religion for the good. Studying religion in the supposedly secular schools and actually discussing problems rather than arresting 8 year-olds (c.f. #Ahmed8ans) for talking nonense in classrooms.

Any kind of attempt at integration would remove French youth from the grip of Islamism. But instead French authorities play right into it.

Error 5. France is a country of free speech.

France has a blasphemy law which covers only Holocaust denial. Christopher Hitchens, among many others, was a vocal critic of such laws because of their sheer idiocy and how effectively they legitimise stupid ideas.

Because of its messy history of preempting the arrival of Nazism by rounding up and killing French Jews in the second World War, France has never dealt with its Jewish Question. Rather than face the ugly historical experiences under Marechal Petain, the authorities have instead made a law forbidding the denial of the Jewish Holocaust.

Let me be very clear. The Holocaust happened, and anyone who denies it is an idiot. But that doesn't make them worthy of prison. The way to deal with them is to roll out the aerial photographs of Jewish mass graves and make the historical record speak for itself. Don't criminalise the deniers, mock them.

How is this relevant? Because French Muslims see the blatant hypocricy of a government which makes it illegal to even question the history of Judaism, but protects the most virulent critics of Islam. This woeful error on behalf of the 5e Republique means that generations of French North Africans grow up hearing that the government is in the pocket of Jewish lobbies etc. This is obviously false, but again plays right into the hands of Islamists.


Do I think Stephen Knight is right to question the link between discrimination against Muslims and terrorism? Yes, he is. We hear all too often the nonsense which Sam Harris labelled "the narrative narrative", suggesting that if we are too critical of Islam we will create terrorism. I don't suggest this for one minute; people ought to call out Islamism, and be critical of Islam itself. Criticising someone's religion doesn't turn them into a terrorist.

But I question whether the same applies to a government's policies which makes one law for some and another for others and calls it equality. I have personally tried to invoke French secular law in a school to curb the enthusiasm of the institutionally recognised Catholics who used the school building as a promotional grounds for its faith. Deaf ears. But if a Mum tries to enter the building with a piece of cloth on her hair, she is stopped and literally turned away.

I went to a supposedly 'secular' French school, and the Catholic priest was regularly promoting events in the local church. Would an Imam have been allowed to do the same thing? You can bet your kippa he wouldn't.

Once again, I support secularism in its proper practice. I also support Stephen Knight's campaigns in his podcast and elsewhere to call out the largely mistaken idea that Muslims are pushed into terrorism because they are so downtrodden in the UK. This is nonsense, as Britain is (even since Brexit) a very open society which largely welcomes diversity, Muslim or not, and doesn't institutionally discriminate against any one group of its population, but guards against such discrimination all the while.

Meanwhile, France does, and calls it 'secularism'. The recent Nice attacks were planned and orchestrated by a man who absolutely fits the bill of the many, many French North Africans in the south of France who have turned to their faith because they were boxed out of jobs, higher education, administrations and almost any other alternatives in a country which thrives on bureaucracy. Until he interviews a few people on their side of the fence, digs into the writing on this topic by those who have experienced this discrimination first and second hand, I suggest Godless Spellchecker should temper his enthusiam for French secularism.


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