November 19, 2015

Absence of religious identifiers has defined France's national philosophy

The Hindu
PARIS, November 17, 2015

Attacks have put French secularism under threat

Absence of religious identifiers has defined France's national philosophy.

French secularism or laïcité implies the absolute separation between State and Church (or religion in the broadest sense). Its everyday manifestation is striking because it is so firmly embedded in public life.

Enter a government office, or post office, or a state-run educational institution, and, but for the tonal variations in skin colouring, there is nothing that links a person to his or her religion.

While in the United Kingdom the visible sartorial markers of multiculturalism -- burkhas, head-scarfs, turbans, Jewish kippas, hennaed Muslim beards, tilaks, rosaries and the even the more discreet religious pendant – proclaim themselves in state-run work places, in France it is the complete absence of these identifiers that define its national philosophy.

Principle under threat

As the country seeks to make sense of the recent terrorist attacks by Jihadists from the Islamic State or Daish (as the group is referred to here) in which 129 people were killed, it is this lived principle of French citizenship that is under threat from the Islamists and French law forbids the government collecting and storing data on its citizens’ race and religion.

Muslim population around 5 million

Unofficial estimates put the French Muslim population at around five million. A 2015 report from the Pew Research Centre indicates that 7.5 per cent of French residents are of Muslim descent, but the figure in no way indicates their degree of religiosity.

France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, and the most diverse, as its relationship with the Muslim world has a long colonial history.

One third of immigrants from Maghreb

A third of its immigrant population is from the Maghreb (Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco) and came to work in France post World War II.

And while some French Muslims have become national icons – footballer Zinedin Zidane who was born to Algerian parents comes to mind -- large segments of the immigrant population have been distanced from the mainstream in terms of economic and social opportunities.

High unemployment rate

National data for example indicates that in 2013 the unemployment rate for all immigrants was 17.3 per cent, nearly 80 per cent higher than the rate for non-immigrant rate of 9.7 per cent.

Despite the economic and social disadvantages faced by a large section of immigrants, French society is still amongst the most secular, says Ammar Abd Rabbo, a photojournalist of Syrian origin. The Daish want to disrupt what he calls the “French way of life,” and divide people who have lived together.

Religion a private affair

“The French are discreet about religion and consider it completely private. No one talks about god here in public. As a person of Syrian origin, I can say that 95 per cent of French Muslims do not identify themselves as Muslims first. They see themselves first as citizens or Parisians or may use another secular identity. Religion may come fourth or fifth in their self-perception.”

The French authorities have identified the victims of the November 13th carnage by age, gender, occupation and nationality, but not by religion. While, as Mr. Rabbo says, the French public has welcomed the potentially intrusive anti-terror emergency measures that the Government has put in place, he is aware that this could have an alienating effect on some sections of immigrants.

“Muslims should never have to prove they are not terrorists. This is a time of great confusion for France.”