France is proud of its secularism. But struggles grow in this approach


Secularism has been brought into the international spotlight by the ban on hijabs for French athletes at the upcoming Paris Olympics.

France’s unique approach to “laïcité” — loosely translated as “secularism” — has been increasingly stirring controversy from schools to sports fields across the country.

The struggle cuts to the core of how France approaches not only the place of religion in public life, and also the integration of its mostly immigrant-origin Muslim population, Western Europe’s largest.

Signs of faith barred

Perhaps the most contested ground are public schools, where visible signs of faith are barred under policies seeking to foster a shared sense of national unity.

That includes the headscarves some Muslim women want to wear for piety and modesty, even as others fight them as a symbol of oppression.

“It has become a privilege to be allowed to practice our religion,” said Majda Ould Ibbat.

She was considering leaving Marseille, France’s second-largest city, until she discovered a private Muslim school, Ibn Khaldoun, where her children could both freely live their faith and flourish academically.

“We wanted them to have a great education, and with our principles and our values,” added Ould Ibbat, who only started wearing a headscarf recently.

He teen daughter, Minane, hasn’t felt ready to.

Her 15-year-old son, Chahid, often prays in the school’s mosque during recess.

Navigating French culture and spiritual identity

For Minane, as for many French Muslim youth, navigating French culture and her spiritual identity is getting harder.

The 19-year-old nursing student has heard people say even on the streets of multicultural Marseille that there’s no place for Muslims.

“I ask myself if Islam is accepted in France,” she said in her parents’ apartment, where a bright orange Berber rug woven by her Moroccan grandmother hangs next to Koranic verses in Arabic.

Minane also lives with the collective trauma that has scarred much of France — the gripping fear of Islamist attacks, which have targeted schools.

They are seen by many as evidence that laïcité (pronounced lah-eee-see-tay) needs to be strictly enforced to prevent radicalisation.

Minane vividly remembers observing a moment of silence at Ibn Khaldoun in honor of Samuel Paty, a public school teacher beheaded by a radicalised Islamist in 2020.

A memorial to Paty as a defender of France’s values hangs in the entrance of the Education Ministry in Paris.

Secularism – pros and cons

For its officials and most educators, secularism in public schools and other public institutions is essential.

They say it encourages a sense of belonging to a united French identity and prevents those who are less or not religiously observant from feeling pressured, while leaving everyone free to worship in private spaces.

For many French Muslims, however, and other critics, laïcité is exerting precisely that kind of discriminatory pressure on already disadvantaged minorities.

The see it as denying them the chance to live their full identity in their own country.

Amid the tension, there’s broad agreement that polarisation is skyrocketing, as crackdowns and challenges mount for this French approach to religion and integration.

While open confrontations are still numbered in the dozens among millions of students.

It has become common to see girls put their headscarves back on the moment they exit through a public school’s doors.

“Laws on laïcité protect and allow for coexistence — which is less and less easy,” said Isabelle Tretola, principal of the public primary school whose front gate faces the door to Ibn Khaldoun’s small mosque.

She addresses challenges to secularism every day — like children in choir class who put their hands on their ears “because their families told them singing variety songs isn’t good.”

“You can’t force them to sing, but teachers tell them they can’t cover their ears out of respect for the instructor and classmates,” Tretola said.

“In school, you come to learn the values of the republic.”

Secularism is one of four fundamental values enshrined in France’s constitution.

The state explicitly charges public schools with instilling those values in children, while allowing private schools to offer religious instruction as long as they also teach the general curriculum that the government establishes. Read more

  • Giovanna Dell’Orto is a freelance journalist for Associated Press and Associate Professor, School of Journalism and Mass, University of Minnesota.
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