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Secularism on the decline in France

Analysis: Separation of church and state is at risk.
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French far-right Front National (FN) party president Marine Le Pen (C) speaks during a political rally in Beaucaire in support of the local municipal FN candidate, on February 22, 2014. (PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images)

PARIS — When 34 percent of surveyed voters admit they agree with the ideas of a political movement that is protectionist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-Euro, France has a problem.

France’s far-right political party, Front National, has surged in popularity over the past year to its highest level in thirty years. Led by European Parliament Member Marine Le Pen, the party has bragged it could win elections in at least 15 cities this year.

In 2011, Le Pen compared Muslims praying in the streets to the Nazi occupation of France. The party is known for railing against the country’s ‘Islamisation’, and calling for expulsions of Roma, a referendum restricting immigration, and a return to the French Franc.

Come May, when elections for the European Parliament are held, the FN party, which is gaining popularity with older French and citizens under 24, could top the list of French political parties. 

To the dismay of moderates — such as socialist parliamentarian Christophe Borgel, and philosopher Pascal Bruckner, who says the French are ‘afraid of everything' — French political culture and society are fragmenting

With mayoral elections one month away, the country’s ruling socialists are worrying about mass abstentions and voters turning to the far right in protest against President François Hollande, who has failed to reduce high unemployment — still stuck at about 11 percent — as he promised.

The appeal of previously fringe political organizations and ideologies is dragging the birthplace of revolution further from national republican ideals. Not only are liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity) under threat, but also laicité – the republican value of secularism enshrined in France’s 1905 law separating church and state.

Extreme right figures are pushing for the ‘rechristianization of France’ — erasing the secularism installed since the 1789 Revolution and the 1905 law. Meanwhile, militant Muslims refuse to accept national laws such as the ban on the burka.

A new IFOP survey shows extremist ideologies are becoming normalized in France, home to Europe’s largest minority population of both Muslims and Jews. Fifty-five percent of French citizens agree with the FN that there are ‘too many immigrants’ and that Muslims have ‘too many rights,’ according to the survey. 

Emboldened by its domestic success, FN has even formed alliances with several far-right parties in other European countries. Alongside Geert Wilders’ Dutch Party for Freedom, the National Front could constitute a new united force in the European Parliament after May.

Yet while more than one third of French voters are lurching towards the far right, there is a concurrent trend towards Islamist extremism.

Sometimes members of the extreme right and Islamic extremists unite. Fundamentalist Muslims have joined forces with ultra-conservative Catholics, some of them staunch FN supporters, to oppose what they claim is the imposition of gender theory in the French primary school curriculum. 

Two Toulouse teenagers traveled to Syria last month to fight jihad, thanks to contacts largely forged through Facebook. Both were devout Muslims — they said their daily prayers and performed regular fasts, according to leaked police and spy service interrogation documents.

Manuel Valls, France’s Interior Minister says up to 700 French zealots have headed to Syria to wage holy war. The jihadists include large numbers of radical young converts to Islam.

There is, however, one ‘middle way’ between these extremes. It is being practiced in the heart of immigrant and Muslim Paris, in the suburban region of Seine-Saint-Denis.

Paprec is a large recycling business employing 4,000 in the area, many of them Muslim. At the behest of owner Jean-Luc Petithuguenin, the company has instituted a ‘‘charter of secularism and diversity’’ in the workplace banning ostensible signs of religion such as the veil, and prohibiting prayer rooms.

‘‘As the head of the company, I believe I am responsible for enforcing social harmony,’’ Petithuguenin told L’Express magazine. ‘‘I am sincerely worried about the rise in religious fundamentalism, especially in France.’’

‘‘In our organization there are people who have suffered enormously from religious conflicts…and a certain number of our staff want to be protected from fundamentalist pressures,’’ he added.

The chief executive said some female employees fear they will be pushed into wearing the Muslim headscarf or head and body-covering veil if others are permitted to do so.

Despite the toughness of the charter, it has been unanimously backed by staff and unions.

‘‘I am fine with being a practicing Muslim but a prayer room at the workplace disturbs me,’’ said Jamal Razzouki, the secretary of the workplace committee at one of Paprec’s sites.

‘‘I do not want people to come to me and say I am not a real believer because I practice my faith only in private.’’

Some researchers and Muslim community leaders say this is good practice and protects all workers from pressure to be religious in the workplace, while on the other hand taking away excuses for extreme right sympathizers and racists to inflame religious and ethnic tensions.

Isabelle Barth, director of the Strasbourg School of Management and author of the book Management and Religion, said charters on religion in the workplace ‘‘often served to protect the silent majority who reconcile very well work and faith from the lobbying of a handful of others.’’

But Paprec’s landmark charter could find itself annulled under French law, which protects workers in the private sector from attacks on their personal rights and liberties.

This would be a shame, Paprec’s CEO Petithuguenin believes, because there is a uniquely French ‘laicque’ — secular —way of managing tensions in a society with scores of nationalities and religions.

A decade ago, former French President Jacques Chirac made international headlines for enforcing a ban on the Muslim headscarf and veil in schools. The controversial law was remarkably smoothly implemented, with only a very small number of Muslims withdrawing their children from the public system.

Today there are new initiatives designed to reinforce the veil ban, such as the controversial charter of school secularism, brought in under the socialist government, which states that ‘laicité’ is a fundamental value and principle of the republic. Analysts said the measure was aimed at fending off parental pressure for sex-segregated classes and Halal food, and as a riposte to some students’ rejection of secular teaching methods, sex education and the teaching of evolution. 

The question is whether such initiatives will be enough to stop the society from fracturing, or if it will increase community tensions by making Muslims feel unfairly targeted.

The Paprec case shows that a large number of of French Muslims favor the commitment to secularism.

Europe is battling a wave of often-violent anti-immigrant sentiment and widespread prejudice against Muslims. It is in need of sensible laws and charters that respect religious differences but also protect the silent majority that does not share the world view of extremists. 

 

Emma-Kate Symons is a Paris-based writer. Her research on street prayer is funded through a program of the Social Science Research Council and the John Templeton Foundation.

 

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