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Spotlight on France

Talking religion, post-Charlie

Audio 14:03
A Kawaa café in Paris
A Kawaa café in Paris Kawaa Grandir Ensemble

Practising or showing your faith has become more complicated in France since last year's terrorist attacks. Both anti-Semitic and Islamophobic acts are on the increase. And yet the need for different faith communities to meet, talk and understand one another is stronger than ever. The increasingly popular "Kawaa" interfaith cafés are answering that need. 


"Kawaa" (from the Arabic meaning coffee and which has come to mean a quick cuppa in French) is a simple enough idea. People of different convictions meet in a chosen café and are paired off with someone of a different faith or non-faith. They have an hour or so to get to know one another over a drink.

"There are a few rules: no preaching, and everything you say has to in your own name," says Virginie Dopagne, a member of the Kawaa Grandir Ensemble non-profit that set up the initiative.

They may or may not discuss religion; the idea is that different religious convictions should not be a barrier.

"You can speak about beliefs," says co-ordinator Anaël Honigmann, "but you can also speak about lots of other things because religion is only one part of your identity."

The organisers defend what they term "soothing" laïcité, secularism which governs religious practice in the public space and which allows people to live together, rather than the harsher interpretation which seeks to confine religion to the private sphere.

"There's a lot of tension around laïcité," says Honigmann, citing the rare but much mediatised cases of local councils withdrawing pork-free meals from school menus in the name of respecting laïcité.

"The French model is not understood by the French population, but in fact it really allows people to live their religions in France without difficulties."

The problem, she adds, is when you start expecting laïcité to sort everything out. 

"Some people, some politicians, think we have to have a harsh [interpretation of] laïcité, but that's not the issue. It's not by hiding religion that you fight terrorism."

Political scientist Olivier Roy goes further.

"We have a shift in what we call laïcité. It's now presented, including by the government, as some sort of an official ideology. An official system of norms and values which, by definition, exclude religion from the public space and confine it to the private."

Under this definition, wearing the face veil (hijab) or praying in public is seen as a problem to be resolved.

Anyone who doesn't agree with this reading is seen as anti-French says Roy.

"Marine Le Pen presents laïcité as a marker of French identity. So laïcité is shifting to the right.  It's no longer seen as a system of justice, neutrality, peace etc, it’s seen as a system of national identity which is typically rightist."

This evening's Kawaa is being held in the largely working-class 19th district of Paris, home to Europe's largest Jewish community as well as a sizeable Muslim one.

They used to mix well, go to the same schools. But there's a growing rift. Since the attacks on a kosher supermarket in January 2015, Jewish families are increasingly putting their children into faith schools.

"People don’t really meet today," says Honigmann. "Jewish people are afraid, Muslim people are afraid, afraid of being misjudged. And even if it's marginal, violence exists. So we hope [with] this kind of initiative that people will meet up again."

Virginie Dopagne admits they're still struggling to get members of the local Jewish community to come. 

"Usually we have one or two but tonight there were none. The Jewish community is concerned about security so it's not easy for them to come to public places."

She remains convinced all the different communities stand to gain if they understand one another better and refuses to admit defeat.

"I’ll personally go to the local rabbi and suggest we hold the interfaith meeting in a kosher restaurant. We’ll go to them!



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