Why you should care

Because figuring out how to navigate church and state is universally imperative in times of rapid globalization.

Last month, one of your Facebook friends might have changed a profile picture to a black square with some French words on it. Or maybe you saw the slogan in photos of demonstrations in France: “Je suis Charlie.”

The phrase, of course, means “I am Charlie.” It was a near-immediate cry of support for the controversial French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo, whose unapologetic cartoons of the prophet Muhammad had made it a target of extremists in 2011. On January 7, two gunmen attacked the magazine’s Paris offices, killing 12 and wounding 11. “Je suis Charlie” became a way to say you love free speech and denounce violence.

Turns out that’s not all it means. In the first issue of Charlie Hebdo after the shooting, Gérard Biard, chief editor, wrote that the “millions of anonymous people, public figures, dignitaries and institutions who had flown the Je Suis Charlie flag should be aware of its other meaning: ‘Je suis la laïcité.’”

La laïcité — is there no end to inscrutable French words? — boils down to secularism, a French separation of church and state, which in this case very much includes the education system. A few weeks ago, the French Minister of Education disclosed measures to promote “the values of the Republic” in public school curricula, highlighting the century-old concept of laïcité. Going forward, parents will have to sign an acknowledgement of a 2006 charter of 13 laïcité guidelines, including no proselytizing or using religion as an excuse for breaking school rules. The education minister also declared that every December 9 will be Laïcité Day. The particulars — pizza lunch and laïcité T-shirts? — are unclear.

The law of laïcité has been around since 1905, when the French government — infamous for making laws for, or “codifying,” everything — instituted a law severing the country’s political umbilical cord with the Catholic Church. The question is, can a 110-year-old doctrine made in a more homogenous France work in a much more globalized nation?

Jacques Chirac thought so. In 2004, the then-president used the concept of laïcité to try to end years of controversy around religious headgear, especially the Muslim hijab, in public schools. The issues began in the late 1980s, when middle school girls wore the hijab, or objected to classes like phys ed, biology or history, or tried to proselytize, says Bernard Toulemonde, former general inspector of national education. Some schools expelled the girls. Others did not. But Chirac simply banned public school students from wearing “ostentatious religious clothing” — basically, anything indicating any religious affiliation, including the hijab, the Jewish kippah and the Sikh keski.

Chirac’s ban might sound totalitarian, but it quelled dissidence: just four cases concerning religious symbols in schools occurred in 2006 compared to 1,465 in 2003. Nicolas Cadène, general reporter for the Observatoire de la Laïcité, argues that the state assures the equality of citizens, and teachers cannot show preference or discrimination when it comes to religion. But “laïcité is not just about religion,” he says. “Students and teachers should not flaunt their religious beliefs, in the same way they should not flaunt their political views.”

“Students and teachers should not flaunt their religious beliefs, in the same way they should not flaunt their political views.”

 

Nicolas Cadène, rerporter for the Observatoire de la Laïcité

The Gumby-esque stretching of laïcité has some discomfiting twists. The National Front, France’s extreme right party, has stopped serving kosher and halal meals in public schools in the municipalities it governs, invoking — you guessed it — the laws of laïcité. This past winter, nativity scenes were removed from public buildings, but Christmas trees were permitted to stay.

Laïcité has become a full-on buzzword in France since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo. For many, Charlie is considered the embodiment of the secular ideal because it has always held the staunch belief that no subject is too taboo to be poked with a satirical stick. It ridicules everything — especially religions — equally. To be sure, its detractors then and now — surviving edit staff are still publishing, with the assistance of Libération, the same magazine that helped after the 2011 attack — dismiss Charlie’s laïcité as intolerant and racist.

The editor of Charlie Hebdo asserted that only laïcité — “not ‘positive laïcité’ or ‘inclusive laïcité’ or ‘who-knows-what-laïcité,’ but laïcité, period” — can allow all citizens to live in peace and liberty. The problem is, there doesn’t seem to be a “laïcité, period.”

Still scratching your head? Say it in French: Je suis perplexé.

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