I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the French state has been having a bit of a time of it lately. Specifically as it relates to a few trivial issues like the definition of liberty, women’s rights, and thinking anything through for just, like, one fucking minute.
You see, the nation of France has had this thing embedded into its structure for some time called ‘laïcité’. Laïcité is, fundamentally, secularism enshrined within the apparatus of the state. Originally used from the latter half of the 19th century to refer to the freedom of public institutions from the influence of the Catholic Church, it has, in today’s world, expanded to cover all faiths. Laïcité guarantees the separation of church and state. It forbids the government from taking any positions on religious matters, outside of the practical effects that they may have on citizens’s lives. Doesn’t sound too bad, right?
The policy also, however, influences the lives of those citizens, as it essentially dictates that as a French citizen you are, above all, a French citizen, equal in rights to all other citizens, and devoid of religious or ethnic distinctions. That means that, while you are free to personally believe in and practice whatever you want (within the confines of the law), ‘officially’, in the public sphere, you abide by the ‘enlightened’ values of the Republic. Still sounds kinds reasonable so far right?! I mean, who wouldn’t want to abide by the ‘enlightened’ values of an Algeria-pillaging, slave-trading, war-waging, workers’ rights-destroying Republic??
In fact, that should be our slogan:
‘White People: We Can Just Say That We’re Enlightened, And That’s Good Enough.’
(Accurate) flippancy aside, secularism, as a theoretical concept is, in this author’s view, a wonderful idea.
As usual, however, it is in the execution of an idea that we find a maelstrom of nuance.
In the interests of brevity, let us focus here in on one religious minority within France, as a case study.
It could be any one. Doesn’t matter.
Maybe, let’s say, ohhhh, I dunno…. Islam! That’ll do.
And let’s take a relatively recent incident as a jumping-off point: the banning of the burkini (a full-body-covering swimsuit for Muslim women) in Cannes, the overturning of that ban by a French high court, and the subsequent comments of the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, who just the other day said, in reference to Marianne, the national symbol of France:
Marianne has a naked breast because she is feeding the people! She is not veiled, because she is free! That is the republic!
‘Liberty Leading the People’ by Eugène Delacroix (1830)
The not-so-subtle message, of course, being that the covering of part of one’s body — if done for religious reasons — is entirely against the spirit of the French Republic. Optional nudity, on the other hand, symbolises FREEDOM. For you see, the French Republic, in its valuing of personal liberty above all else, applauds women for being free to uncover their breasts if they want to; and, like, they can totally cover up if they want to, too! France is chill like that! But don’t be doing it for any other reasons than personal, you silly female scamps! None of that religious stuff, now! France can always tell the difference between the religious and the personal — because there totally is a difference, what with the indoctrination one might face due to being brought up in a certain faith being absolutely and empirically distinct from the ABSOLUTE FREEDOM OF ACTION AND THOUGHT that modern, capitalist societies practice.
Our societal pressure to conform — whether to arbitrary masculine ideals, subservient feminine roles, strictly defined sexual identities, or indeed whichever ephemeral consumerist doctrine is currently the norm (iPhone x) — couldn’t be further from religious indoctrination. It is important we repeat this to ourselves daily. Failure to do so might rob us of our vital and necessary feeling of superiority. This high horse, however, comes at a heavy cost to humanity. The constant ‘othering’ of Muslims; the fear mongering and the insidious conflation of race, religion, and terrorism — this is how you keep people in line, how you rob them of their empathy and their outrage. This is how you make it okay to drop bombs on people’s children from a drone thousands of feet up in the air. This is how you can call officially sanctioned murder, ‘security’. Their children die; our humanity withers away.
Manuel Valls’ statement was immediately torn down from several angles. One historian of the French revolution and French citizenship, Mathilde Larrere, tweeted at Valls: “Marianne has a naked breast because it’s an allegory, you cretin!” She proceeded to go on an epic Twitter rampage against him, decrying his ignorance and providing the historical context for the painting that Valls was referencing. That painting, incidentally, is only one of many depictions of Marianne. Her breasts, appearing both covered and uncovered in them, have sweet fuckall to do with the substance of the matter.
Valls’ gibberish outburst, on its own so absolutely tone deaf and stupid, is, however, emblematic of something bigger, and more dangerous. The French state, with its all-too-recent history of colonialism, neo-imperial violence, and structural racism and Islamophobia, has shown an unfathomably poor degree of self-awareness. Struggling with a recent spate of horrific terrorist attacks, its reaction has been chest-beating and talk of ever-increasing, never-ending war abroad, and a crackdown on its Muslim population at home. Rather than choosing to engage with its Muslim citizens, it has decided to tighten its oppressive grip on them, failing to understand a lesson that even a five-year-old instinctively does: If you bully and hound, eventually something will snap. This is of course, an extremely sensitive and nuanced issue, but time and time again studies and analysts have shown that terrorism does not arise in a vacuum. The cycle of violence that breeds it is a self-perpetuating beast that needs willpower to tame. France is, at the moment, depressingly bereft of willpower.
Smaller manifestations of this, such as the (thankfully for now overturned) burkini ban, should not be seen as trivial.
In short, if you are unsure as to whether someone is being forced to do something and you want to make sure that they’re not being forced to do it, don’t force them to do something!
Anyway here’s Lowkey: