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Is La Laicité in schools the separation of religion from the state or the separation of Islam from French society?

By Oriane Nagberi


La Laicité is an educational policy that exists in France as a secular policy, intercepting every part of French public life. From hospitals to government buildings to schools - the French policy outlines that any form of religious behaviour within the public sector is forbidden. But has it had a disproportionately negative impact on the Islamic population of France, removing their right to practice their religion? 


Secular activity has been part of the French constitution since 1789. The constitution of the Fifth Republic from the 4th of October 1958 claims for “the organization of public education free and secular at all levels” as “the duty of the State.”. La Laicité believes that by removing religion from state activities, societal equity can be achieved, manifesting the French value of “Egalité” as everyone will be viewed as equals - no matter their religion.  


However, as immigration to France increases, a particular group has started to become more evidently disproportionately impacted by secular policies which impact public education -  Muslim Women. As a policy, La Laicité has led to disruptions towards Muslim women’s education as France has banned the wearing of the hijab and head covering within their schools. In some cases, this has led to the suspension or even expulsion of Muslim girls who come to class wearing their religious garments, and they are forced to choose between their religion or their education. 


This article will analyse the primary arguments in favour and against the policy of La Laicité.  


French policymakers often make the argument that due to the increasing diversity of the state, La Laicité could not have been better timed. In order to demonstrate this, they refer back to a world where the policy didn’t exist and to a time when the Catholic church tried and succeeded in intimidating politicians and influencing public policy. This argument demonstrates how the original influence of the church over policy can ruin democracy and in turn, deauthorise the state. French politicians argue that via La Laicité they can make sure decisions are fully democratic and remain uninfluenced by the political stance of religion. Furthermore, they see this as the best way to advance equality as the state remains unchanged by the predominantly Catholic views of France, making it a better place for those who practice a plethora of other beliefs. 


However, we bring this argument back to education - and ask the question, “ If a Muslim girl wears a Hijab to school as her personal choice how will it impact educational policy-making?”. It appears to be ridiculous to believe that the presence of the Hijab or any other form of religious wear within the classroom can change how educational policy is informed. If pupils in a classroom are under the voting age in France and have no power to make or fight against any policies - how can we say they will in turn, create a bias within French policy with what they wear? Instead, this indicates that issues lie with the institutional power of religion, not its daily practice. 


The second argument presented in favour of La Laicité is the stance that French policymakers must remain true to the cultural standards of France, which a century-old constitution has set. This is an argument that often relates to the assimilation or integration debate of immigration. And leaves us with the question of whether policy should adapt itself to change or remain stagnant in order to adhere to its traditional values.  


A counter view to this claim agrees that the policy is old, but most notably, dated, and only functions well in a society in which there is one religion; this will allow for the policy to tailor itself better to the necessary measures of separating the state from religion - instead of going overboard with the policy by excluding parts of religions which are more essential to its practice. Here we note the difference between the wearing of a hijab for Muslim women and the display of a cross around a Catholic woman’s neck. The wearing of the Hijab for Muslim women is more essential to the religion of Islam than the adornment of a cross for a Catholic woman - as this is something which has been described and discussed within Islamic scripture.  Hence, while the policy of La Laicité may have functioned well in 20th-century France, globalisation means society has become much more complex. Contemporary French society has become much more ethnically and religiously diverse - and it is difficult not to notice that these regulations have failed to take this into account. Thus, we can deduce that La Laicité has the possibility of disproportionately impacting Muslim women and girls and thus, the policy might require restructuring so that its impact may remain equal. 


Thus this article argues that it is possible to maintain secularity by not looking to suppress religious expression - as the two may be mutually exclusive. This can be done by adapting policy to the ever-changing populations of France and removing the more trivial elements of secularity, such as the ban on religious wear in schools - as this does not impact policy-making. This will also eliminate the stress of Muslim girls having to choose between their religion or their education - which will better achieve equality as all girls receive the privilege of having to make sacrifices to their identity in order to enter the public areas of the state. We highlight that La Laicité is a policy which has failed to adjust itself to the fact that there has been a significant increase in the Muslim population in France in the last few years who are disproportionately affected by this policy. It is possible to maintain secularity by not looking to suppress religious expression - as the two may be mutually exclusive. 

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