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Three questions for a teacher on secularism

La Croix Campus: What is secularism?

Aymeric Patricot : Secularism (the word comes from the adjective secular, which originally referred to what was not part of the clergy) defines in France a way of separating state institutions from religious institutions. It should be distinguished from secularization, which corresponds to the fact that mores are detached from religious requirements.

In this regard, all Western societies are secularizing. On the other hand, only France shows itself attached to secularism as such, codified by the famous law of 1905 whose principles still apply today.

We can consider that there are two main pillars to this law, corresponding to the first two articles. The first is to say that the Republic guarantees freedom of conscience: in France, you have the right to practice the religion of your choice, and even not to believe; religions are therefore protected, as is atheism.

The second principle focuses on the separation itself, stipulating that the state neither recognizes nor subsidizes any cult. There is therefore no privileged religion in France, and state agents must be neutral, that is to say, not display preferences. Furthermore, the offense of blasphemy does not exist, insofar as belief in a religion does not have the value of a common belief.

It is this double principle which makes the relevance and the complexity of secularism. In a way, the state keeps religions at a distance to better protect them. The freedom to believe or not to believe is accompanied by a declared neutrality of the public space.

But the debate remains lively today on the question of the visibility granted to religions. Should we limit as much as possible the expression of beliefs on the public highway? On the contrary, should we allow these expressions? Since there are two pillars, some may favor one over the other – protection of religions, or distancing.

What is the specificity of secularism at school?

AP : At school, secularism has the particularity of both being applied in daily life, for students and teachers, and of being studied in certain courses, or even of putting oneself into practice within the framework of ‘exercises or debates. What makes the question so hot is that at a time when some Muslims feel stigmatized and when Islamists are also committing terrorist attacks, school is both becoming the scene of serious events linked to these questions. there, and the place where the education of future generations takes shape, not without tensions.

Two events, among others, were significant. In 2004, first of all, French law prohibited conspicuous religious symbols at school. It was then a question of fighting against a certain Islamic proselytism, which for example took the form of a refusal of swimming lessons for girls. Even today, some Muslims feel targeted by this law, but it seems to have a fairly large consensus.

In 2020, the beheading of a college professor, Samuel Paty, by an Islamist, on the pretext that he had insulted the prophet of Islam Mohammed by showing press cartoons, caused deep emotion. For the first time, a professor was being assassinated because he defended the very principle of secularism – a sign that this principle is being challenged in today’s multicultural society.

Why does the government want to pass a bill “strengthening secularism and republican principles” intended to fight against “separatism”. Is secularism threatened?

AP: This bill aims to respond to the very strong disputes that the principle of secularism has been undergoing for several years, and of which certain attacks are the symptom. The 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo, for example, was intended to be a defense of the Muslim religion against what was seen as an assault on the secular camp. The assassination of Samuel Paty recalled the urgency of taking measures to strengthen the principle of secularism.

→ ANALYSIS. Separatism, the ten challenges of the law

In this context, the law proposes a series of measures aimed at containing certain abuses. For example, it creates an offense of endangering life by broadcasting, consisting in combating the dissemination of information which endangers the lives of the persons concerned. In addition, it imposes stricter conditions for obtaining grants for associations, or proposes to strengthen the neutrality of the public service.


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