Is France a secular state?

by Jean Perier | Published: 22:10, Feb 02,2017

 
 

WHILE revisiting the concept of a ‘secular state’ one can note that such a state is always defined by its attitude towards different religions. Therefore, a secular state – is a state where the church, along with religious communities are completely detached from the state body, while being occupied with their own scope of activities.
However, the issues of religion, just like the relations between different religions and the state have recently become a matter of contention for a number of Western states. Just recently, political elites of several Western states have been limiting the freedoms of those who profess Islam, while trying to excuse such steps as ‘the opposition to political Islam’ and ‘the struggle against Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism.’
Among such states one can find France, since French society has been struggling for nearly two decades to accommodate almost 5 million Muslims.
In recent years, France has suffered several terrorist attacks, allegedly staged and executed by militants from such terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS and their affiliates. As a result, relations between Islamic communities and the French Republic rapidly deteriorated, leading to the government introducing a number of restrictive measures against the French Muslim community. This includes the ban on the participation in school trips for those mothers wearing the burqa (March 2011), the ban on Muslims praying in the streets (September 2011) that was introduced by Claude Guéant, and the scandalous denial of the right of Muslim nurses to wear a veil (January 2012) and many others.
A poll conducted last year shows that around 65 per cent of French people normally refer to the fact that their colleagues can belong to any religion, even though an ever increasing amount of workers and employees have started to speak openly about their faith at work.
Some studies, in particular, the one conducted by L’Institut Randstad show that religious talk at work have become commonplace. However, the study recognises that Muslims are more inclined to manifest their religious affiliations at work. In 91 per cent of cases, this manifestation was expressed in the request to change the working schedule in order for the employee to follow religious customs, in the demonstrative wearing of religious clothing and objects, as well as prayers during working hours.
As a result, a number of state institutions started creating potentially conflicting situations by prohibiting one’s wearing of religious symbols (for example, Muslim headscarfs) at work. Another example of the conflicting situations is the refusal of men of certain religions to obey female superiors under the pretext of their beliefs. In this case, disobeying the rules of an enterprise in most cases leads to the laying off of disobeying employees. There are also extreme cases, when employees refuse to work with colleagues who do not profess the same religion, or attempts to convert colleagues in one’s faith at the workplace.
The number of religious conflicts at work has been growing rapidly in France in recent years. Thus, in 2016, 9 per cent of all work conflicts were of religious nature, while in 2013 their number amounted to a mere 2 per cent.
However, until recently there has been no law that would govern the behaviour of employees in private companies.
Today, there is an ever increasing question being voiced about the compatibility of Islam and its practices with the rules and traditions of the French Republic and its society. Can Islam be a threat to the Republic? In particular, the wearing of the burqa, praying in the streets, the requirement for halal food being available in cafeterias, or the observance of Muslims customs and holidays – does any of this contradict the principles of the Republic?
No, it does not. As it has been explained by the French edition of slate, the French constitution and the principles of secular state guarantee personal freedom, freedom of conscience and freedom of religion as long as its display does not disturb public order.
It is also highly inappropriate for certain French politicians to make statements about French Muslims being potential recruits for terrorist organisations. After all, we must not forget that French Muslims are an extremely diverse strata of people, and most of them are well integrated into French society.
In conclusion, it should be noted that the French are becoming accustomed to a new model of society, far less secular and more like the Anglo-Saxons, since the latter is much more tolerant to all manifestations of religious beliefs. This process takes years or even decades, so patience and tolerance is the key to success here. This formula is true to all other states that are undergoing the same transformation.

New Eastern Outlook, January 29.
Jean Périer, an independent researcher and analyst and renowned expert on the Near and Middle East, writes exclusively for the online magazine New Eastern Outlook.

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