Exorcising the Republic: The De-Secularization of French Politics

By Fofana, Idriss | Harvard International Review, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Exorcising the Republic: The De-Secularization of French Politics


Fofana, Idriss, Harvard International Review


The unexpected success of the Swiss ballot measure banning the construction of new minarets in the country sent shockwaves across the world. The measure, drafted by the right-wing Swiss People's Party, had earned condemnation from a majority of the Swiss political establishment and most of the press, as well as Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Jewish religious leaders. Indeed, the last polls before the vote predicted the measure would fail with 53 percent of voters opposing it.

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It was thus a huge surprise when Swiss officials announced on the evening of November 29, 2009 that the measure had passed with 57.5 percent of the vote. In an international political context still informed by narratives of a clash between the West and the Muslim world, the measure attracted significant political attention. One Pakistani observer qualified the vote as symptomatic of a new instance "of moral panic and mass hysteria [against] foreigners, and Muslims in particular," throughout Western Europe.

In the Netherlands, Italy, France, and the United Kingdom, far right parties applauded the measure and called for similar initiatives in their countries. After being overshadowed by economic concerns for over a year, questions of immigration and religion, among the favorite questions of this wing, re-emerged across the continent. The ban on minarets, more than ever, raised the question of the compatibility between Europe and Islam.

Indeed, the Swiss vote placed many of its neighbors in an unbearably uncomfortable situation. Though the media, religious, and political establishments in other Western European countries decried the measure, as they had in Switzerland, the recognition that the same could very well have occurred in their own countries placed political authorities in awkward positions.

Outside of Switzerland, the effects of the referendum may have been most strongly felt in France, where a few weeks prior, President Nicolas Sarkozy had announced a debate over what he termed "national identity" in France. Although the debate had garnered substantial criticism before the Swiss referendum, the ban on minarets irreversibly transformed the debate into a trial of Islam, thus intensifying the rift between supporters of the debate and its detractors.

The focus of the debate on Islam is in certain ways surprising. The subject had been left broad enough to capture a number of issues dear to the far right electorate, including immigration, security, and religion. By shining the spotlight on Islam, however, the Swiss referendum and the French debate on national identity demonstrate an emerging willingness to reinterpret the separation of church and state in Europe.

The Secular Republic

Although public life has probably become more secular in Western Europe than in almost anywhere else in the world, France remains one of the few European countries without a state-recognized religion. The country's tumultuous relationship with religion dates back to the days of the 1789 French Revolution.

The revolutionaries, inspired by Enlightenment thinkers and resentful of the incestuous relationship between the Catholic Church and the monarchy, orchestrated a witch-hunt against the clergy. During the short lifetime of the First Republic, the state confiscated Church lands, revoked the clergy's privileges, and replaced state-sponsored religious worship with the cult of reason, the imprimatur of the belief" in a progressive rationalism over religious belief.

Relations between the French state and the Catholic Church resumed only after Napoleon Bonaparte's accession to power. According to the terms of the Concordat, an 1804 agreement between Napoleonic France and the Church, the state recognized equally the three religions established in France at the time of the signing: the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish faiths. The Concordat established an era of religious freedom in France that lasted for a century and ended with the 1905 law on the separation of church and state. …

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