Laicism or multicultural secularism?


Le concept de laïcité est souvent méconnu des Britanniques. Ces derniers pratiquent en effet un laïcisme multiculturel davantage fondée sur une association des différentes cultures que sur leur assimilation. Pour mieux comprendre l’ambiguïté qui ressort de cette différence, il s’agit d’analyser les points de divergence et de convergence entre les deux laïcismes, alors que France et Grande-Bretagne  font face à des défis politiques et culturels.


It is difficult for people in countries such as Great Britain to understand the French concept of “laïcité”.  There is no exact translation for the word “laïcité” into English.  The two countries practice religious freedom in different ways and have sought to separate Church and State. While the French Republic is highly centralized, however, the UK is historically a “multinational” nation and thus more inclined towards multiculturalism.  The separation of Church and State is not always obvious. The Queen is defender of the faith and supreme governor of the Church of England; the House of Lords still has bishops, even though their power is now purely symbolic.  (And the French government is also symbolically bound by the Concordat with the Vatican’s Holy See in Alsace and Moselle, which were under German control when the 1905 law was passed).  Still, the Church of England can influence policy when Lords Spiritual vote as a block on issues like abortion and euthanasia. In Scotland though, the separation of Church and State is more obvious; unlike the Anglican, the Presbyterian Church fought for Separation of Church and State.

England was secularized because secular power rose within Government and not because it needed to limit religious power and issues opposing different religious sects.   The English political philosopher, John Locke, was exiled in Amsterdam – because of religious/political intrigues in England – when he wrote a letter on Toleration, published in 1689 : “Neither Pagan nor Mahometan, nor Jew, ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion… The Gospel commands no such thing… and the commonwealth which embraces indifferently all men that are honest, peaceable, and industrious, requires it not.”

In France, however, there was more of a conflict between religious and non-religious people. The French “laïcité”, signed into law in 1905, stems from disputes between Catholicism and the young rising French Republic.  It enables different religions to coexist as long as they don’t interfere with public affairs, but especially insist on absolute neutrality of State, sometimes to the point of exclusion. Jules Ferry made clear that schools are to forbid the teaching of Religion.  They are not to be hostile to religions, but must remain neutral. French secularism comes from Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire or Montesquieu, who sought not only to promote freedom of speech and of religion, but also to combat obscurantism and dogmatism. In the latter sense, it became an ideology of the French Revolution (French priests were slaughtered).  But the intention of modern French secularism, even if it gives French people a more critical or wary view of religion, is not to pull down religions. It seeks to absorb the different religions under a shared national identity or philosophy.  To prevent discrimination, the law forbids even the collection of official statistics on the demography of religion.

Both systems are based on equality. But the French laicism adopts the point of view of the individual, free to choose his or her religion under the national banner, whereas the Anglo-Saxon, more concerned with the protection of religious freedom than with censuring religious excess in public affairs, feels that every religious community should be equally free from national power. The French and the UK models both seek to preserve and to foster social cohesion, but both are facing similar cultural divides. Religious minority populations are growing in both countries.  Recent polls have revealed that 75% of the French and the UK’s population believe that Islam is incompatible with their way of life.  In the midst of the economic crisis, politicians try to reassure an increasingly nationalistic public opinion (UKIP in the UK, Front national in France, Cameron’s In or Out Referendum), even while courting religious and ethnic minority votes. David Cameron declared the failure of multiculturalism in his 2011 speech, but has tried to show that he promotes a so-called “diverse” society.

According to the article “Tories who don’t know it”, ethnic minorities in the UK are religiously conservative and generally believe in the Tory values of hard work and economic austerity, but vote massively for Labour, probably for cultural, not economic, reasons.

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy also declared that multiculturalism has ”failed”, but previously  hinted that religious communities should play a role in public life. Current French President François Hollande proposed to inscribe the 1905 “laicité” law in the Constitution, but there has been no follow-up. In fact, there is no clear path nowadays to religious freedom and social cohesion. We may see fewer and fewer differences between the two secularisms, and a development of new approaches, combining elements of UK multiculturalism and of French “laïcité”.



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