TRUTH BOMBS: Religion is pushing back! But only Christianity is the truth.
ARTICLE: Paris — France has turned increasingly hostile in recent years to outward displays of religion, particularly those associated with Islam. The burqa was banned nationally, and French politicians controversially tried to keep the “burkini” off many town beaches this summer.
The hard line might make it seem as if religious symbols are on their way out. Still, despite a growing hostility, the visibility of religion may actually be on the rise in France.
Laïcité, or French secularism, has always been interpreted by some as a tool to suppress the public expression of individual faith. Even a century ago, when it first became law, some leaders used laïcité as an argument to ban Roman Catholic robes from the streets of the French Republic.
The garments were ultimately allowed, but the debate did not end. Today, questions over displays of faith are even shriller – but in some ways less controversial – than they were then. After the burkini was banned by some mayors in the name of laïcité, for example, the majority of the French approved the ban.
Yet according to a recent annual study by the Observatory for Religion in the Workplace and the Randstad Institute, 65 percent of respondents say religion has been more present at work, up from 50 percent last year. Those who work with Muslim women say that far more don the headscarf than they did in 2004, when it, along with other religious symbols, was barred from schools. Jewish leaders say the more strictly observant within their community are complaining that students must sit for university exams on Saturdays, the Shabbat. And in a nation in which atheism is growing, political leaders on the far right are invoking their Christian heritage in their appeals to supporters.
What may sometimes appear to be secularism on the march belies a deeper, more multifaceted debate over where and how religiosity is expressed in French society. As Islam gets conflated with terrorism and religion generally has gotten tied up in identity politics, France is struggling to balance its secularly driven commitment to laïcité with increasing determination among the country’s religious communities to express their faith in public.
“The French have become less tolerant about the expression of religion in shared or common space, in the street, on the beaches, in the public square,” says Jean-Paul Willaime, an expert on laïcité and religion at the EPHE, or Practical School of Higher Studies. “It makes religious groups, whether Catholic or Protestants, Jews or Muslims, react … and want to further express their identity in public places.”