Indiana Daily Student

One nation, over God?

Contrary to popular belief, there’s one thing more French than berets, Daft Punk and old men busking with accordions.

It’s the concept of laïcité.

French-English dictionaries tend to struggle with laïcité, offering such translations as “secularity” and “secularism” and sometimes simply opting for the Anglophone-friendly “laicity.”

For an American, laïcité is most easily understood as a separation of church and state much more extreme than our own – after all, though our laws may be God-free, our money, Declaration of Independence and Pledge of Allegiance are not.

As the instructor of our program’s crash course on French civilization would say, the French would never, ever have that.

The whole shebang started in 1789, when, among other historical developments, one of the rights of man and of the citizen was decreed to be freedom of religion: The government could never endorse any official religious stance, be it the enactment of a state religion or a declaration of atheism, and to bother someone “on account of his or her opinions, including his religious views” was expressly prohibited.

But it wasn’t until laïcité hit the schools that everything got complicated.

In 1881 and 1882, the Jules Ferry laws made French education “gratuit, laïque et obligatoire” – free, secular and mandatory. Another century later, a fierce debate broke out, pitting a third of the French motto – liberty – against the other two – equality and fraternity.

And in stark opposition to what I hold to be an American ideal, it wasn’t liberty that won.

Before being banned in 2004, the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols in schools formed the center of the dispute. Hijabs, turbans, large crosses and Stars of David were said to be in dissent with the laïcité of France’s public schools – and evidently, the government agreed.

Five years later, a strikingly parallel development is taking shape in France.

The burka, a garment worn by Islamic women that covers the whole body, including a screen to hide women’s eyes, is “not welcome on the territory of the French Republic,” President Nicolas Sarkozy declared in June.

“We cannot accept, in our country, women imprisoned behind a mesh, cut off from society, deprived of all identity,” Sarkozy said in an address to the French Parliament. “That is not the French Republic’s idea of women’s dignity. ... (The burka) is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience.”

And thus, in favor of fraternity and equality, liberty is losing again.

In civilization class, that idea didn’t sit well with fellow Hoosier Rachel Morris.

“To be free one must have the right to wear whatever one wants,” she wrote on a note she passed to me. “The problem isn’t the burka. It’s the rapport between men and women” of certain religious ideologies.

Trying to stay within the framework of French thought, I replied, “To be equal, women can’t stay inferior to men. The problem is that liberty isn’t equality.”

“Liberty first, then follows equality,” she said.

“Pas en France,” I wrote back.

Not in France.

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