France is embroiled in a contentious national debate over whether Islamophobia is an acceptable reaction to recent terror attacks, sparked by controversial comments made by the prime minister defending intolerant attitudes.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls sparked controversy over secularism and the place of Muslims in French society when he implicitly defended the idea that being Islamophobic was tolerable.
On Monday, Valls defended conservative philosopher Elisabeth Badinter, saying he “shared” her definition of secularism during a conference debate organized by Jewish associations (Amis du CRIF). Badinter had urged people “not to feel ashamed of being called Islamophobic” on state radio France Inter.
Some commentators strongly condemned the prime minister's comments, like sociologist Raphael Liogier, who declared on France Info that Valls' message was “irresponsible.” He said it implies that “you cannot say you are anti-Semitic, but you can legitimately say you are Islamophobic.”
Liogier added, “This means the state supports Islamophobia, do you realize how serious this is, for Muslim communities who also fear terrorism?”
At the conference, Valls defended Badinter against the criticisms expressed on Twitter after her interview by a top official from France’s “Secularism Watchdog” (Observatoire de la Laicite, created in 2013).
Valls condemned the institution's definition of secularism adopted after the Paris attacks in November in a column co-signed by about 80 prominent figures including Christine Lazerges, president of the Commission of Human Rights, or France's Chief Rabbi, and the National Muslim authorities' president.
The column, entitled “We are united,” called for unity and brotherhood in order to face the “blind violence of terrorism and premeditated division.”
However, Valls blamed the institution's president for co-signing the text along with other militants, without further details. “You cannot co-sign calls, including calls that condemn terrorism, along with organizations that I view as participating in this (putrid) atmosphere.”
Commentators evoked the names of militants of political Islam like the rapper Medine or militants allegedly close to the French branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Medine, author of the controversial song “Don't laik,” self-defined himself as a secularist Muslim “faithful to the text that guaranteed the tolerance of religions and the religious neutrality of institutions” in an interview with Liberation.
The watchdog's president, Jean-Louis Bianco, replied to Valls' attacks in local media Thursday, condemning his “fundamentalist conception of secularism,” and defending his own, defined as “the freedom to believe or not, an independent State with religions and independent citizens.”
While this debate was dividing public opinion in France, national and international experts on human rights raised their voices to warn about the preoccupying situation observed in the country since the government’s state of emergency was announced in November 2013 after the Paris attacks.
Recalling that France is “far from being the first victim of terrorist attacks in the world,” the National Commission of Human Rights recalled that after terror attacks, “France should not sacrifice its values, on the contrary, it needs to reinforce democracy.” The statement especially disapproved of the recent measure to strip French citizens with double nationality from their French one, saying it “radically contradicted with all Republican principles” for creating distinctions within the French people: those who acquired French nationality recently and have two nationalities, and natural born French citizens.
Moreover, the measure is merely symbolic (as Valls had admitted himself) and will have zero efficiency in fighting terrorism, meanwhile there is already legislation that can be used against people who disturb public order, said the commissioners.
Beside this warning, five U.N. special rapporteurs on human rights co-wrote a damning public statement on the situation in France. They rarely write collectively about one country, but the laws France adopted in the name of the fight against terrorism could dangerously lead to violations of international law, they stated.
They expressed particular concern over the police raid that can copy out all digital data without the need of a judicial warrant, as well as the recent bill on international surveillance, which represents a serious attack on privacy, they said.
Context: Secularism in France
The tolerant principle of secularism (“laicite”) was originally implemented in 1905 to allow French citizens to practice the religion they desired, instead of Catholicism—until then defined as “the French state’s religion.”
But a century later, French politicians started interpreting secularism as religious neutrality that not only public officials should adopt to guarantee the individual freedom of practicing any religion, but also individuals (at school, at work, etc) by de facto reducing their freedom to practice their religion in public places.
This interpretation was first promoted by the far right (directed against the Muslim minorities) because secularism was originally a progressive and tolerant principle that founded the French Republic, championed by political leaders of all leanings, including the French left, who have gradually abandoned its tolerant origin.
Meanwhile, Muslim minorities have growingly perceived this principle as the incarnation of French intolerance of their religion.