Should France's national motto become 'liberté, democratie, laïcité' to suit its strong secularism?

France’s controversial position on secularism has become increasingly known within the past 10 years. This contributes to the expanding and apparent division between the majority of France and the Muslim population.

Secularism-related protest in France
Citizens carrying placards reading “We are Charlie” and “The religions united against the hatred” take part in a French citizens solidarity march in Paris, January 11, 2015. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

The laws themselves were developed during the French Revolution in an effort to dismantle the Catholic Church and the Monarchy. But the modern-day implementation of the legislation has been highlighted as a mask for islamophobia and an attack on minority groups. One of the defining principles of French society today, the laïcité has evolved into something far from its initial aims, hence the creation of a new motto seems only appropriate. The actions of a government failing to comprehend the vital modernisation of the state questions whether secularism is made for the modern day or whether it can be revitalised. In the fight for the protection of civil liberties, the precedent of laïcité appears to remain concrete.

The modern implications of secularism

In the early 20th Century, laïcité was a straightforward attempt to protect the government from the influence of the Catholic Church. It aimed to promote social harmony and eradicated any form of religious identity in order to protect the state. The social implications of this separation in the 21st century have caused most minority religious groups to become stigmatised under the law. Whilst the general idea refers to the freedom of citizens and public institutions from the influence of organised religion, in modern-day France, persisting in upholding the position of secularism is far more thorny.

Rather than social harmony, the principle may actually be exacerbating religious and racial tensions. Modern amendments to laïcité include the 2004 law banning religious symbols and clothing in public schools. These not only show how France has remained fervent in their stance but has become more stringent in applying the laws to society.

Why secularism is not the answer to the terrorist attacks France has been subjected to

After several terrorist attacks, most notably the 2015 attack on publication Charlie Hebdo, and as French leaders look to secure the safety of the French people, the policy of laïcité arguably needs reconsidering. After the attacks, it might seem counterintuitive to abandon laïcité altogether. But allowing religious groups, namely Muslims, greater freedom to express their beliefs in peaceful ways, would make them feel more accepted and free of any direct prejudice.

Following the Charlie Hebdo attack, France also declared December 9th (the date of the 1905 law) a ‘Day of Laïcité’. It later introduced a new edict reinforcing the teaching of laïcité in public schools – inspired by the refusal of many children to participate in a national minute of silence for the Charlie Hebdo victims. As a result, parents and children must now sign a ‘Charter of laïcité’, demonstrating their understanding and respect for the principle.

Like so many utopian models, its enforcement has dystopian consequences, many likening the principle to secular totalitarianism. Steven Erlanger, Chief Diplomatic Correspondent for Europe at the New York Times, stating that,  “overcrowded mosques have forced Muslims to pray in the streets, which Marine Le Pen of the conservative National Front has likened to the Nazi occupation — and an occurrence mayors have the authority to ban.”

Laïcité can become a threat to France’s social and religious diversity

The realities of multiculturalism mean that the outdated policies of secularism no longer unify people in the same way. It has become increasingly apparent that toleration, not suppression, of difference is the only policy that could be compatible with a heterogeneous and diversifying society. France insisting on a single, unified “peuple français” – a fraternité and an egalité that renders everyone the same, is simply not enough. For France to take a step towards tolerance, it needs to revoke the laws against religious expression in public institutions. It is also necessary to educate children about other religions, instead of censoring their discussion, and to shift the public conversation about religion to emphasise freedom rather than silence. However, the government still believe secularism lays the basis for a harmonious society:

“There is greater cultural diversity in France today than in the past, which is why the country needs secularism now more than ever, for it enables all citizens, whatever their philosophical or religious beliefs, to live together, enjoying freedom of conscience, freedom to practise a religion or to choose not to, equal rights and obligations, and republican fraternity.” an excerpt from the 2014 guidance memo created by the Secularism Monitoring Centre of France.

Secularism as political ideology

There is no doubt that the French feel strongly about secularism. The far-right National Front Party has succeeded in large by presenting itself as the defender of laïcité. However the party often comes under scrutiny as many brand their defence as an impetus for forming prejudices against Muslim groups in particular. In short, Islamophobia has become the new fashion for the far right. The passing of the 2010 law, banning the wearing of burqa’s in public places has dehumanised Muslim women and alienated them from their own identity. No longer can women pride themselves on their modesty, or outwardly express their devotion to God in a seemingly harmless way. They are forced to conform to a society that views their religious expression as an attack on social norms. 

However, no matter how violent the debate is, revising the 1905 law appears inconceivable to a majority of French people. Indeed, such a change would profoundly challenge the national cement uniting France, the political reason structuring its culture, and the emancipation principle forming its History. In France, the political community takes precedence over minority groups, as it is the only body able to guarantee both freedom and equality. A community transcending the interests of others cannot exist without universalism, the founding principle of laïcité.

Is it time to reconsider the national motto?

Regardless of the efforts taken to dissolve secularist authority, the principle of laïcité is likely to stay. Whilst liberal democracy becomes more clear-cut as a result of globalisation, France’s decision to remain a secular country seems far more in line with conservative tradition. Whilst eradicating laïcité may not be favourable, the steps that France can take to become more inclusive perhaps stands as a compromise. Undoubtedly, given the current political climate, it seems relevant that France revisits its policy. Simply allowing injustice to subside ignores the issue at hand: maintaining the motto of ‘liberté, egalité, fraternité’, and ensuring it can be representative of the country’s minorities.