By Julie Barlow

Laïcité ImageA short interview with French historian Patrick Cabanel.

While the debate was raging on over Quebec’s Charte des valeurs québécoises (Charter of Quebec Values), in September, France’s Education Minister, Vincent Peillon, announced a new French Charter of laïcité, or “official secularism.” The document, now posted in France’s 7100 high schools, contains 15 articles that stipulate boys and girls are equal and forbid students and teachers from wearing “religious” clothing, among other things.

Why exactly does France need a new policy stating schools are officially secular, and why now?

Julie Barlow asked the French historian and expert in school cultures Patrick Cabanel (Professor at the University of Toulouse II – Le Mirail) to explain what secularism means in France, and how schools became the battlefield of Church and State.


Julie Barlow: The concept of secularism in France dates to the French Revolution. What was the original goal?

Patrick Cabanel: The original goal was to create a buffer between the French State and the Catholic Church. The battle between Church and State unfolded during the 18th century struggle between Enlightenment thinkers and Catholics. France, of course, wasn’t the only place where this was happening. But in France, Republicans (who were anti-Catholic) were fighting for democracy and the Catholic clergy opposed it. The Republicans gradually won the battle between 1860 and 1880. When they established France’s Third Republic in 1870, they looked for a way to make the public sphere in France neutral, not religious. That’s what we call laïcité (secularism) in France.


JB: Over the last century, many French governments have adopted laws to reinforce official secularism. Why is François Hollande’s government reviving the issue now?

PC: Maintaining a neutral public sphere is an ongoing struggle in France. The only thing that has changed in the last century is that the “adversary” of secularism is not Catholicism anymore, but political Islam. Religion has always been a source of political divisiveness here. Official secularism is the only way to unite French citizens around a single set of fundamental values. This would be true even if everyone in France were Catholic! There would still be divisions between different types of Catholics, not to mention atheists. Since religion is a dividing factor, the public space must remain a common, neutral space where everyone is comfortable.


JB: So why does François Hollande feel he needs to reinforce official secularism specifically in French schools?

PC: Secularism comes into play in a number of spheres of France public life: politics, hospitals, admission to cemeteries – also a sensitive issue in France. Public schools are the most delicate, and arguably the most important area where official secularism comes into play. Why? Because school is where the French citizens of the future are “built.” So they are the first place secularism and religion come face to face. French Republicans have always argued that religion, especially Catholicism, must be kept out of this process. The difference is that today, the main threat to the secular character of schools is political Islam.