God, Paris and Islam: How Salafism Challenges France’s Church-State Relationship

No security measure can conclusively safeguard France so long as Salafism, in all its ideological stripes, is left unchecked.

The horrible November 13 massacre in Paris perpetrated almost entirely by European passport holders has rallied European states to bolster security across the European Union, including tighter controls over migratory flows and cross border travel. The problem, however, goes beyond security and is, on the one hand, related to an unintegrated immigrant Muslim community, some of whose youthful members have fallen prey to the ideologies of Salafism.  This has made them identify with global Salafi-jihadi organizations, such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, at the expense of their allegiance to their countries. On the other hand, France’s crisis with members of its Muslim community is more or less linked to the country’s ambivalent Church-State relations.

French policy on church-state relations, including accommodation of religious practices, is governed by Laicite, or broadly speaking, the separation of church from state. Laicite originated as a form of political opposition to the monarchist Catholic Church under King Louis XVI. French revolutionaries outlawed most Catholic religious orders. Nevertheless, when Napoleon Bonaparte signed a Concordat with Pope Pius VII in 1801, Catholicism became the “religion of the great majority of French people,” and, therefore, not the established religion.

This changed when the French government issued the Separation Law of 1905, breaking with the Concordat and stipulating that central authorities would neither recognize nor pay salaries or other expenses for any form of worship, while at the same time banning religious signs or emblems in public space. But as French society, like those in Western Europe, has become more secular, French religious orders began to question the very concept of Laicite, especially as Paris and other European capitals directly or indirectly embraced the policy of multiculturalism as a societal vessel to accommodate the social needs of their growing immigrant community. Consequently, French society split over the concept of Laicite, whereby its interpretation fell along the lines of Strict versus Soft Laicite.

Supporters of Strict Laicite assert that the state should not concern itself with religious matters, and that it should neither impose nor forbid a creed. Whether a person believes in God or is an atheist is his or her personal business. Conversely, supporters of Soft Laicite assert that it is about the neutrality of the state, whereby Laicite is not about forbidding religion but rather it is about the state being on an equal distance from all religions. Some Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders, human rights advocates, and Gauche Plurielle (multi-cultural left) support Soft laicite.

These fault lines in French society deepened as members of the Muslim community have become more adept at mobilizing their community in the interest of upholding and “monotonizing” Muslim religious practices. L’Affair du Foulard (scarf affair) is a case in point. It underlined the ongoing debate over the concept and application of Laicite, and by extension over France’s “assimilationist republican” model of immigrant incorporation. This model is undergirded by the principle of Nation Une et Indivisible (One Nation and Undivided), which militates against the creation of a nation within a nation. In October 1989, three Muslim students were suspended from a public junior high school in Creil, Paris, for wearing the hijab (scarf). As the matter became a focal point for a heated debate over Laicite, a compromise was worked out whereby the students would be allowed to wear the hijab in the school but not in the classroom.

Emboldened by support from the proponents of soft Laicite, the students refused to remove the hijab in the classroom and were once again suspended. This intensified the debate and forced the government of Socialist Education Minister Lionel Jospin to instruct principals of public schools to engage in dialogue with Muslim students and their parents without expelling the students. The Teacher’s Union swiftly denounced the government’s directive. In response, Jospin called on the Conseil d’Etat to decide the matter. The Conseil issued an ambiguous statement to the effect that it is the concerned principal who will decide whether or not Muslim students are allowed to wear the Hijab in public schools. This delegation of authority to the local level has become the norm for other religious matters, including building mosques, across France’s major cities and provinces. So in theory, Paris embraces republican principles to assimilate immigrants and govern church-state relations. In practice, however, these principles have been undermined by a nuanced policy of multiculturalism that at one and the same time has neither been wholly successful in assimilating Muslim youth nor effective in applying the spirit or letter of Laicite.