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‘A Distinctly French Universalism’: Translating Laïcité after Charlie

[The Grande Mosquée de Paris. Photo by Arthur Asseraf.] [The Grande Mosquée de Paris. Photo by Arthur Asseraf.]

Mayanthi L. Fernando, The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Naomi Davidson. Only Muslim: Embodying Islam in Twentieth-Century France. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012.

Joan Wallach Scott. The Politics of the Veil. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.

It was impossible to avoid the discussion, despite my repeated protests. In Lyon, as in the rest of France, there was nothing else to talk about—especially when I found myself seated across from a colleague who teaches at an international lycée, the crucible of Republican education. He was visibly emotional as he said: “I told my students now one had to choose: either you’re Muslim or you’re French, it is simply no longer possible, one has to declare which identity is more important.” The discussion’s next turn was perhaps inevitable: a third party revealed that I had actively denied “being” Charlie on Facebook, and that I found the publication to be Islamophobic. My friend went from emotional to indignant. It was in “bad taste” to criticize the publication so soon after the attacks, and as an American, I simply couldn’t understand laïcité (no matter that I have published on the subject and am a historian of France and Algeria). Having lost my calm, I retorted: What was Charlie Hebdo defending if not the right to “be in bad taste”? Misguidedly, perhaps, my friend tried to ease the tension by commiserating on our respective stories of terrorism trauma, telling me that he had never felt “more French” than after the attacks of 9/11. As if to make a last goodwill attempt at bridging the two sides of the Atlantic, he told me how upset he had been after 9/11, and how he had been touched by Obama’s message to the French people after the Charlie Hebdo attack (this was before the diplomatic brouhaha that followed his decision not to attend the march in Paris). I mentioned that I, too, had perhaps more strongly identified as Muslim in the aftermath of 9/11. And then we finally managed to change the subject.

If the Franco-American debate on democracy and secularism has often been tense, it has not been unfruitful. One thinks (and not without sympathy) of the thousands of undergraduate students in the United States who are force-fed Alexis de Tocqueville’s writings, but also more recent thinkers such as Loïc Wacquant and Jacques Donzelot. Similarly, the past decade has seen a rich scholarship on the conditions, limits, and effects of French laïcité, produced by scholars trained in the United States. The work of Joan Wallach Scott, the renowned gender historian, has been at the forefront of this movement. Her books Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man (1997) and Parité!: Sexual Equality and the Crisis of French Universalism (2005) demonstrate how the universal subject proscribed by the French republic is also an abstract subject who is allowed no particularities. The difference of sex, then, is an “obstacle” to this abstraction. This insight has been foundational for thinking about other forms of difference. Scott herself has drawn on these works to think about the place of Muslims in French society in her 2007 book The Politics of the Veil.

It is hard to underestimate the French attachment to secularism; just a cursory glance at the papers this Thursday revealed the nation-wide fascination (or paranoia?) regarding the status of laïcité. The cover of Libération, a left-leaning newspaper read: “My secularism is going to crack.”[1] In the feature story, two opposing viewpoints were proposed. The third article, entitled “compromise,” resumed the crux of the matter: “Must one question the principles of French secularism? Certainly not.” (“Faut-il remettre en cause les principes de la laïcité à la Française? Certainement pas.”) The radical left Le Canard enchainé also ran an article on the front page, which included gems such as “The Islam of today has fallen seriously behind regarding the necessary secular conversion.” (“L’Islam d’aujourd’hui a pris un sérieux retard sur la nécessaire conversion laïque.”) Similarly, for someone from the other side of the pond, it is hard to imagine the existence of a national Observatory for Secularism (Observatoire de la laïcité), which was first formed in France in 2007 to “formulate proposals regarding the transmission of secular morals” (“formuler des propositions sur la transmission de la morale laïque”).

[Cover of Libération, 22 January 2015. Image via the author.]

According to Scott, laïcité, is thought to be so distinct from (and allegedly superior to) other variants of secularism that translating the term is deemed impossible (15). Indeed, as her pioneering work points out, there has long been a mutual incomprehension between American multiculturalism and French republicanism (or assimilation), under which the Yankees are accused of being “obsessed” with race, and the Gauls are seen to live in a world of delusional (and hypocritical) sameness. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, however, there have been vociferous (if often misguided) attempts at translation. On Mediapart, Oliver Tonneau, self-identifying as a committed leftist, wrote an article to his “British friends” in which he highlighted the affinity between the spirit of Charlie Hebdo and that of the beur movement of the 1980s.[2] He also repeated the well-known refrain that girls who do not wear the headscarf are “persecuted by fundamentalists,” in ostensible defense of the 2004 law banning the practice in public schools. In explaining to Anglo-Saxons that Charlie Hebdo was vehemently against the National Front,[3] he underlined that “France has a long history of a secular Islam.”

Over the past few years, a new generation of scholars has used Scott’s insights to think about the questions of religion and race in France, exposing the porous nature of these categories. In Only Muslim: Embodying Islam in Twentieth-Century France, Naomi Davidson, a historian, focuses on the embodied practices and “built environment” that created a specifically “French Islam” (Islam français) from the interwar period to the present. In The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism, Mayanthi Fernando, an anthropologist, studies the articulation of a “Muslim French” subjectivity (a translation of the term citoyen français de confession musulmane), a term that references French citizens who seek to practice their faith within the various spaces of the Republic.

Lest we take these terms to be abstruse academic parlance, I would point out that when French President François Hollande gave a speech last Friday, he reaffirmed that Muslims were the main victims of “fanaticism, fundamentalism, and intolerance.” At the same time, he posited that French secularism was the solution to this crisis, arguing that laïcité was precisely the tool that would help protect French Muslims (les Français de confession musulmane). Manuel Valls, who has been Prime Minister since March (when the Socialist party suffered dramatic losses to the Right), made a speech admitting to the problem of “territorial, social, and ethnic apartheid in France” in which he, too, reaffirmed the universal conception of the republic, emphasizing its commitment to peace and religious dialogue. The notion that the Muslim religion must take on a particular, republican form underpinned both speeches. Indeed, as Fernando, Scott, and Davidson all emphasize, it is the inclusion of Muslims in France and the cultivation of a certain form of visibility that marks the form of control exercised by the French state. While this may seem paradoxical for those who think about domination as exclusion, it is an inevitable analytical shift in the French context, where the myth of singularity makes it difficult to talk about difference in a laïque framework.

Reading Edward Said in Paris: Inclusion as a Strategy of Power

One of the problems with translating laïcité is that the concept itself is a moving target. The “longstanding tradition of secularism” or “anticlericalism” that the press is so fond of discussing these days has taken on different avatars at different times. The ideological foundations of laïcité are often traced to the Concordat between the French state and the Pope in 1801 and the 1905 laws on the separation of church and state—even as the latter were applied selectively in Algeria, and continue to not apply to Alsace-Moelle or French Guiana. Even in the more recent period that concerns these authors, there are different visions of secularism at work. For example, the interwar period witnessed attempts to create France as a secular “Muslim power,” while Vichy’s valorization of “tradition” dovetailed with a call to “protect” Islam (see chapter four of Davidson’s book). The Fifth Republic itself has vacillated between the socialist vision of a “right to difference” (droit à la différence) and a more conservative notion of assimilation, typified by the National Front (FN) and Marine Le Pen (daughter of Jean-Marie, who was a lieutenant during the Algerian war and has been accused of partaking in torture) as well as the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). Scott herself recognizes the distinction between “republican” and “democratic” models of secularism, a conception she borrows from Jean Baubérot, who was the only member of the Stasi Commission to vote against the ban on the headscarf.

While acknowledging these multiple forms of laïcité, Fernando is committed to treating secularism as an analytical formation on its own terms. In her words, she is “unconvinced of the analytical purchase of pluralizing secularism.” Rather, she brings her “analysis of French secularity to bear on considerations of secularity more generally” (23), pointing to “a shared normalizing force to secularity” between France and the United States. To take seriously Fernando’s claim about secularism, then, is to recognize secularism as a “global project” (24) that hinges on a set of normative commitments and subjectivities. She does this work by opting for an analytic framework that focuses on religion and secularity rather than race and class, which Fernando claims can obscure the “distinctive problem that public Muslim religiosity poses for the French secular state” (16). This leads her to emphasize the “regulation of religion…and the competing imperatives of separation and administration, as crucial to secularism’s operation” (21).

One example of this is her discussion of the state’s management of a “problem” that arose in the working-class Goutte d’Or neighborhood of Paris. Faced with large numbers of men praying in the street, the state responded with a ban on street prayer on 16 September 2011. More intriguingly, the same area witnessed the creation of the Institute for the Cultures of Islam in 2006, which was moved into a permanent site in 2013. While officially part of the Socialist mayor’s campaign to “revitalize” the neighborhood and “encourage the vivre ensemble (living together) in the French capital,” the institute also helped get Muslims “off the streets” (107). Fernando convincingly shows how this space was created in order to “refashion Muslim sensibilities” (109) by introducing a separation between religion and culture (123), obliging Muslims to be both “visible,” and shaping Islamic practice in order to appeal to non-Muslim sensibilities (130).

Fernando is attentive to how architectural design reflected these attempts to secularize Islam. Yet while she focuses on how spatial organization echoed a normative understanding of religion, Davidson emphasizes the centrality of space (along with conceptions of the Muslim body) in French colonial understandings of Moroccan Islam. Colonial administrators such as Maréchal Louis-Hubert Lyautey had modeled their conception of French Islam on Moroccan practices, which they took to represent “the height of North African Muslim civilization” (9). This leads her to question “the usefulness of laïcité as a category for understanding the history of Islam in France” (12). Instead, she focuses on French understandings of Islam as an embodied faith to argue that it operated as a racial category. She notes that arguments about cultural “sensitivity” led French administrators to treat North Africans as “only Muslim,” offering them exceptional treatment that was denied to other faiths. The Hôpital Franco-Musulman de Bobigny, built in 1935, had a “typical” North African façade and was designed to respect Muslim religious rules. This strategy, which she traces to racialized labor policies during World War I, was applied irrespective of the patients’ religious needs or desires. It stemmed, rather, from the belief that “Muslims were in thrall to their bodies in a way that Jews were not” (68). Muslims “were considered a danger to public health but were also taken seriously as having particular religious embodied practices” (75). Even if Muslims avoided going to the hospital, the French administration insisted on keeping them under a special—and religiously defined—regime of care. In the conclusion to her book, Davidson argues that the “French Islam” constructed after World War I did not disappear, but continues to live on, as evidenced by the headscarf debate and the creation of the French Council of Muslim Faith (CFCM) and the Institute for the Cultures of Islam (ICI).

If Fernando and Davidson configure the relationship between religious and racial difference somewhat differently, neither framework easily reconciles itself with studies of Orientalism that view Self and Other in dichotomous terms. Both authors, and Scott as well, mention the political context of current discussions: a pervasive anxiety regarding French (and European) identity, of which the National Front has been the most obvious beneficiary. But as Fernando shows, the vision of a monolithic France has long since disappeared. Scott also highlights the changes wrought by immigration and socio-economic factors; the school, for example, no longer exercises the same function that it did in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. If it was conceived as a means of assimilation under the Third Republic, after 1968 it became “a place where individuality was encouraged” (111). Moreover, the massification of schooling has meant that the classroom plays a much more comprehensive role than in the late nineteenth century (108).

In drawing on the historical underpinnings as well as the contemporary dynamics in their study of laïcité, these authors herald an analytical shift. Rather than focusing on forms of exclusion, they interrogate the conditions of inclusion—thereby displacing a previous scholarly concern that saw the self and other in Saidian terms. As Fernando claims, her subjects are less taken with the right to difference than the “right to indifference” (70). Unlike Arthur James Balfour, with whom Said begins the first chapter of Orientalism (42), François Hollande cannot use the pronoun “we” as a self-evident signifier. The “Orientals” are French and if they “speak another language” (such as Arabic), they risk doing it with a French accent. The French state cannot “speak for” these individuals; rather, it finds acceptable channels (and individuals) through which this group can appear to speak for itself. The disciplinary project that appears in these three works is not one that seeks to keep French Muslims as “Other,” because that is simply no longer historically possible. The project is rather to make them properly French, a vision that is necessarily fractured through the optic of laïcité.

The Failure of the Socialist Party, from the Algerian War to the Present? 

The nature and history of laïcité is not only a question relevant for academics; French politicians, seeking to woo voters, have also haggled over the subject. Indeed, there are signs that Hollande’s government received a boost from the violent events of last week. For some, this comes as good news. After all, the Socialist party encouraged the anti-racist SOS racisme movement in the 1980s in which the beur movement, mentioned earlier, played a fundamental role. Others, however, have accused the Socialists of co-opting the movement, and of using it as a political strategy to defeat the Communist Party (PC). Moreover, the Socialist party (and its predecessor, the French Section of the Worker’s International) can hardly claim a stainless record with regards to colonialism and anti-Semitism. The connection between the Socialist party and SOS racisme thus points to a different (and perhaps less polemical) line of questioning, addressed by these works in different ways: How do we explain the failure of the Socialists on issues of Islamophobia and racism? Alternately, how have leftist ideologies inspired—and alienated—those who identify as Muslim?

Davidson investigates the twin motivating forces of Marxism and Islam among working class immigrants during the SONACOTRA housing strikes in the late 1970s. She focuses on the ways in which Marxist sentiments were shrouded in the language of Muslim practices, asking why this occurred at a time when there seemed to be a decline in the number of observant Muslims (181). The Algerian nationalist paper, El-Moudjahid, also understood the plight of Algerian immigrants in terms of political (rather than religious) concerns. Even when the rector of the Grande Mosquée responded to the riots, he understood it as an ethnic and cultural, rather than religious, phenomenon. According to Davidson, this fact “reflects an internalization of the ways in which the French state’s discourse on North African immigrants emphasized embodied religious practices to talk about the innate nature of Muslim identity along ethno-racial lines” (188). In other words, Marxism and Islam may have been two, co-existing, languages of contestation, but the discourse of the French state, which cast North Africans as “only Muslims,” resulted in a conflation between ethnic and religious identities.

If Davidson’s study of the strikes of the 1970s focuses on first-generation immigrants from North Africa, Fernando asks how individuals trying to be “French Muslim” view the more secular orientation of their parents. These individuals are not immigrés, as common parlance in France would have it. Born in the metropole, they possess the social capital and political will to criticize their parents (along with the beur movement) for having refused their Muslim identity—something they view as an acceptance of the very terms of colonial domination (40). The colonization and liberation of Algeria is thus both present (in their histories of immigration) and absent (in their attempts to be fully French) in the contemporary construction of French Muslim identities in France. We should be careful not to see all Muslims as engaged in this project, however; according to Fernando, French Muslims themselves see the Salafist brand of Islamic practice as tending towards jihad (57). But a study of how Muslim identities have been interpellated by the French state helps us question Robert Fisk’s claim that the Charlie Hebdo attacks “can be traced back to the Algerian war.”

If full inclusion in the French republic has been denied to these individuals who, unlike their parents, are fully French, then this political violence continues discursively by a resolute insistence on their exclusion rather than inclusion in the French body politic. Certain populations in France are undoubtedly marginalized based on their racial, ethnic, and religious identity. At the same time, however, their history is not that of their parents or grandparents; this discrimination occurs against full members of the Republic who have been born (and politicized) in France. The Kouachi brothers (much like the perpetrator of the last major terrorist attack in France, Mohamed Merah) exemplify the failure of social services in France, as a volunteer worker who knew the two boys herself admits in this article. Amédy Coulibaly saw his best friend killed by the police while committing a robbery when he was eighteen. Moreover, the spaces of French prisons, perhaps more so than that of French mosques, provided the trio with the ideological radicalization and social network to carry out the attacks. Lastly, as Juan Cole has pointed, out, the logic of “sharpening contradictions” is part of the global dynamics of radical Islamism (as it was used by Stalinists in the early twentieth century).

I am fully aware of the discursive and political weight of the Algerian war, and Scott does an admirable job in recounting its importance for the contemporary period. Nevertheless, if Fisk could follow the discontinuities (as well as the continuities) into the present, he would be able to treat Muslims in France as they are asking to be treated—as fully French.

Between Citizen and Muslim

Yet to recognize that French Muslims are citizens of the Republic is not to overlook the fraught relationship between the children of North African immigrants and the French state that culminated in a series of changes to citizenship laws since independence (most notably the Pasqua laws enacted in 1993). Thus the language of citizenship—like the language of vivre ensemble—is far from neutral. An example: A colleague recently sent me an article, ostensibly to counter arguments that Stéphane Charbonnier (pen name Charb, the head of Charlie Hebdo) could be seen as racist. In the interview, Charb stated that he was fed up with people asking “moderate Muslims” to denounce terrorism. His logic is the inverse of Davidson’s; rather than discussing people of North African origin as “only Muslims,” he says there are “no Muslims” in France. For Charb, there are only “people of Muslim heritage, who respect Ramadan as much as I respect Christmas…But in no way does this oblige them to be more involved against Radical Islam, since they are not moderate Muslims, they are citizens. And as citizens, they do react, as they buy Charlie Hebdo, as they demonstrate with us and vote against these right-wing assholes.” I suspect that this view will elicit sympathy from the readers of Jadaliyya, and perhaps temper the unreflective association of Charlie Hebdo with reactionary racists.

Yet I would like to ask for a closer reading of this interview, a reading that pays attention to Joan Scott’s discussion of a “distinctly French universalism,” which I have borrowed for the title of this essay. According to this logic, to be a citizen in France is to be an abstract individual. Yet this right was long denied to women, Jews, and Muslims. As Fernando points out, French Muslim citizenship has been both fragile and conditional (66). I close with this example because Charb’s interview exemplifies the laïcité that characterized Charlie Hebdo. This is not to conflate its project with that of the FN or the UMP (i.e. the “right-wing assholes”), but nor does it allow us to celebrate a secularism that has been used as a way to discipline Muslim subjectivities (thank goodness for those Muslims who don’t fast for Ramadan!). The specter of communautarisme (communalism) may be a “phantasm,” as Olivier Roy has recently claimed, but it is one that continues to haunt France.

There is no doubt that the artists at Charlie Hebdo saw themselves as committed anti-racists and republicans who were defending French secularism—the essence of the neutrality of the public sphere. Their understanding of this laïcité, however, is hardly neutral. Not only does it have a long history of treating Islam in a way that differed from other minority religions such as Judaism, as all three of these authors point out, but this alleged universalism has a history of marginalizing various groups. In recognizing individuals rather than collectivities, it has denied the roots of belonging that define social collectivities and emerge in the wake of structural discrimination. It is telling that the defense of Charlie Hebdo is also rooted in such universalisms: that the publication made fun of “everyone” and that after the attacks national unity has been restored.

The narrative of unity is different from wholeness, as Fernando points out, and underscores both sameness and universality. As I have shown, even when politicians such as Hollande and Valls have sought to reassure Muslims, drawing on the legacy of the Socialists’ “right to difference,” they have done so in the language of French secularism. The question is not merely to recognize difference, while continuing to treat France’s Muslim population as immigrants or as Muslims, but also to acknowledge sameness. This means engaging in a critical analysis of laïcité and taking seriously the forms of subjectivity and belonging that have been rendered invisible to (or outside of) the history of the Republic.

[I would like to thank Thomas Serres, Anthony Alessandrini, Darcie Fontaine, and Emily Marker for their thoughtful comments on earlier drafts of this article.]


[1] This is likely a reference to Jean-François Richet’s 1997 film Ma 6-T va crack-er (i.e. Ma cité va craquer in standard French), which shows the conditions of life in a housing project outside of Paris and the anger that it provokes among the residents. By evoking the difficulties of life in the banlieues, the cover illustrates the position of Valls and others on the Left who have linked the problem of laïcité to social conditions and education.  

[2] The beur movement, encouraged by the government of François Mitterand, was an anti-racist political movement that also became an important part of French cultural life in the 1980s. The “marche des beurs” was the first anti-racist march in France in 1983 and emerged largely in response to the rising power of the National Front. It was composed of North African participants and took its name from the word for “Arab” in French slang.

[3] One could also add that the publication has been generally anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist, though differences between the editorial line of Philippe Val and Charb have not been without controversy. Recently, one of the founding members of the publication, Henri Roussel (whose pen name is Delfeil de Ton), recounted that Charb took the publication over from Val in order to remedy what he perceived to be the latter’s Zionist and Islamophobic tendencies.

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