France’s ‘radical’ interpretation of secularism, which is distinctly different from Anglo-Saxon tradition, clashes with its integration project, preventing people from different faiths and backgrounds to reconcile differences.
For most of the French elite, a woman wearing a hijab or burkini is provocative. Such intolerant beliefs persist in the country's ruling establishment, as the former right-wing French president Nicholas Sarkozy once said: “Wearing a burkini is a political act, it's militant, a provocation.”
He was not alone to see the burkini, conservative swimwear, as a threat to the French Republic.
Renaud Girard, a prominent French correspondent, who describes himself as a “grand reporter” on his Twitter account, holds similar views.
“To put a burkini on a beach in France is an offense,” he said during an interview with Al Jazeera in 2016, when the debate over the freedom to wear the swimsuit raged. He advised French Muslims to leave the country if they did not believe that wearing a burkini violated the 'secular values' of the French Republic.
But what drives the burkini phobia in France, while it's been a non-issue elsewhere?
The answer lies in the interpretation of French secularism: its intention is to keep religious life private, hesitating the expression of it in the public space.
“The French do not recognise these different communities and do not recognise these differences between people officially. But the problem is that obviously underground these differences do exist,” says Francois Gemenne, a political scientist working on migration and asylum at Sciences Po in Paris and the University of Liège in Belgium, where he is the director of the Hugo Observatory.
Is French secularism radicalising Muslims?
By dismissing diverse religious faiths and ethnic differences, France has come to the tipping point of social tensions. The country is now seething with competing resentments over the insulting publication of Prophet Mohammed cartoons, pitting Emmanuel Macron's government against the country’s second-largest religious minority, the Muslims.
“This is exactly what the French government is trying to do right now (referring to creating more tensions with its Muslims population). The government is banning some religious associations and communities. But obviously it’s a risk that they go underground,” Gemenne tells TRT World.
The French government has recently closed down BarakaCity, one of the biggest Muslim charities, apparently using excessive force against its director, who has now sought asylum in Turkey.
Other experts also draw attention to the fact that the French crackdown on Muslims could eventually serve to radicalise them - they make up circa 10 percent of the whole population.
“‘Let’s provoke them in a way that they would be radicalised (without any other acceptable choices). Then, we can tell everybody that you see we were right about them,’ the French government currently thinks in my opinion,” said Murat Yigit in a previous interview with TRT World. Educated in France, Yigit is an academic, studying post-colonialism and France’s Africa policy at Istanbul Commerce University.
According to Gemenne, the French political thinking is rooted in the idea of universalism, which is based on the 1789 Revolution’s main principles, equality, liberty and fraternity.
As a result, the French state recognises just one type of universal citizen, which should hypothetically believe these principles and forget about anything else regarding his or her background, ethnicity and religious faiths, going back many centuries.
Is that possible?
Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier, a professor of history-geography and a researcher in geopolitics in both the French Institute of Geopolitics and the Thomas More Institute, thinks that even the idea of secularism is grounded in religious thinking.
“This is a big question! First of all, there is a long running philosophical and historical debate in the Western world about 'secularism'. In my opinion, any 'philosophy of history' (an expression of Voltaire in his Essai sur les moeurs, 1756) has a theological backdrop,” Mongrenier tells TRT World.
Voltaire, an enlightenment writer and one of the prominent forefathers of the French revolution, is well-known for his criticism of religion and particularly the Catholic Church.
In time, however, all the Western states have evolved into a secularist direction, the professor says.
“Would it be possible to think about France or any other Western country ruled by a theocracy? Unthinkable,” he adds.
Fighting secularism: Laicite de combat
In France it would also be “unthinkable” to have a king or queen as leader of the country’s official church, which has actually paradoxically been the case in the UK, the world’s oldest democracy, for centuries including the modern times.
In the UK, the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, who is the official head of the state, is also the head of the Anglican Church, the top official religious institution of the country. In France, it would be unthinkable to see Macron leading the Catholic Church.
There are also strong secularist traditions in countries like the UK and the US, which follow an Anglo-Saxon interpretation of secularism, where public life should not be separated from religious life and its symbols in strong terms - as is the case in France.
French secularism originated in the 1789 Revolution which not only ousted its King along with its powerful aristocracy, but also significantly diminished the role of the Catholic Church in public life, creating a permanent tension between politics and religion.
“Certainly, French secularism is more strict (initially at least). In France, a certain type of Modernity emerged and asserted itself against the Catholic Church,” views Mongrenier, who is also the author of Geopolitique de L’Europe or Geopolitics of Europe in English
“The French secularism is a sort of exception in Europe. A European country that has pushed most for a strict separation between the church and the state,” Demenne, who is also the author of On a tous un ami noir or the Black Friend, observes.
Nearly 50 million Muslims are living across the European continent.
Gemenne thinks that according to many French elites, whether on the left or the right, any Islamic presence like the burkini in a public space appears to be a provocation to the values of the Republic.
It increasingly becomes difficult for Muslims to practice their faith, Islam, in France’s public life after the country has banned halal food labels and conducts raids over respected Muslim institutions across the country.
“For so many members of the political elite, it seems that a good Muslim in France is a Muslim who denounces his religion or her religion or keep it (completely) private,” Demenne says.
But this kind of French understanding could push the country’s Muslims to the brink.
“To some extent, yes. I would say that the radical conception of secularism, which is called fighting secularism, laicite de combat in French, might indeed push some young Muslims, in particular, into radicalism because they would feel rejected by the state,” Gemenne says.
As long as France does not accept that Islam is a religion of France and part of France, the problems would grow, Demenne predicted back in 2016, almost foreseeing the current crisis in light of the rise of the far-right and a string of Daesh attacks. The two sides — Daesh and the French far-right — feed off each other.
But can France with its strict interpretation of secularism accept Islam as a religion of the country?
“Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world today, we are not just seeing this in our country,” Macron said, signalling that the French government was nowhere close to understanding the feelings of French Muslims and officially recognise Islam as one of the religions in France.
Instead, Macron suggested that the French state plans to reform Islam.
But scholars like Mongrenier do not think that it’s a task the French government could succeed in.
“Well, I am not sure that it is possible: in the 16th Century, how Muslims could have helped to solve the theological problem between Catholics and Protestants? Certainly, there are different possible interpretations of the Quran,” the French professor says.
“Anyway, France’s state and its public service cannot handle this matter,” he adds.