Op-Ed: France’s attempt at secularism causes unease, fears of marginalization

By Alex Pinsk || Assistant Opinion & Editorial Editor

Since its founding, France has been a country focused on national unity, supporting nationalistic ideals, and struggling immensely with multiculturalism. It is a country that strives for unification in all aspects of life including religion. While France may appear to be inclusive of all people belonging to different social, political, economic, and religious groups, in my opinion, its idolization of secularism holds the nation back from further growth and progression.

France’s long-established laïcité policy with regard to education was not enforced until the French government readdressed the issue. In March of 2004, President Jacques Chirac proposed a reexamination of religion in the public school system and the lower house voted to put to action the rule that banned the wearing of noticeable religious attire in public schools, according to The Economist. In efforts to unify students and promote fair and equal treatment of every student, the government forbid students from wearing large necklaces with religious symbols, or any sort of conspicuous jewelry, but most namely forbid the donning of a hijab or veil. Laïcité, or secularism, was the main cause for this decision; the nation and the government were interested in unification, and remaining secular was the best way they could think of to implement secularism from a young age.

In France, this policy is incredibly controversial for obvious reasons. There is still constant backlash over this law that is now so strongly enforced. While the government’s intention may have been to make everyone feel included, on the one hand, the results have been far from inclusive. Ultimately, many people feel marginalized and as though they have no freedom of religion or freedom of expression. There have been accounts of people feeling ashamed of their culture and less than eager to talk about religion with those around them. They have to hide part of their identity every single day school day. On the other hand, some people think that implementing laïcité puts everyone at a fair and equal place in school because everyone is practicing secularism. No religious students, even Catholics — Catholicism is the primary religion in France — can be seen wearing an obvious cross necklace or any other sort of religious attire. Thus, in a convoluted way, everyone is being marginalized. So, no one is being marginalized.

Personally, I think that however honorable the French government’s efforts may have been to promote a unified nation, they just ended up with extreme assimilation. In my opinion, freedom of religion is a fundamental human right, in school or not. Whether it is part of a person’s heritage and culture or just a personal preference, everyone should be able to express their beliefs in any way they choose. I am not one to advocate for public schools holding prayer sessions or religious ceremonies, something else that France’s government would prohibit. But if an individual wants to pray in school, wants to wear a headscarf, wants to express his/her religion, there should be no law forbidding him/her from doing so; there should be no obstacle.

France is socially not the most progressive nation, namely due to its intense nationalism and desire for a secular society. It has much to work on in terms of inclusion and accepting all forms of multiculturalism. And in many ways we do see progression with regard to the French government and its trying to adapt and evolve with its fellow countries. However, the bans on religious clothing and attire in schools are massive steps backwards.

While our laws regarding religion in publics schools are much less strict here in the U.S., we still have a ways to go with regard to making everyone feel accepted and included in schools and elsewhere. Let’s take steps forwards, not backwards.

First-year Alex Pinsk is the Assistant Opinion & Editorial Editor. Her email  is mpinsk@fandm.edu.

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