French debate on 'secular values' opens in a climate of political hostility

French Junior Minister of Citizenship Marlene Schiappa delivers a speech for the opening of the general assembly of secularism in Paris on April 20, 2021.
French Junior Minister of Citizenship Marlene Schiappa delivers a speech for the opening of the general assembly of secularism in Paris on April 20, 2021. AFP - BERTRAND GUAY

As the government launches a series of discussion groups on the place of religion in contemporary French society, the battle lines are already drawn. The proposed broad public debate on the troubled relationship between faith and state has been criticised as divisive and unnecessary across the political spectrum.


Launched by Marlène Schiappa, the Junior Minister responsible for citizenship, the series of public debates opened on Tuesday with a high-level conference in Paris.

Intellectuals, lawyers and social analysts have been asked to spearhead the initiative which will involve round-table discussions and working groups on such topics as "freedom of expression, research, youth and social cohesion," according to Marlène Schiappa.

The government is anxious to involve young people in the debate, and to create a climate in which the sensitive subject of religious affiliation in a secular republic can be analysed calmly. The consultation is scheduled to last several months.

Various representative associations, like the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism (Licra), have been asked to contribute to the debate. A special website has been created to allow 50,000 young people comment directly. "The idea is to say, 'let's talk together, and let's listen to one another'," according to the minister.

Target for criticism

There are those who say the debate is a waste of time and energy, since the gulf separating the supporters of complete religious freedom from those who brandish the threat of "islamic separatism", is unbridgeable.

Socialist former education minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, says the question of religion has been used as a political weapon by the far right, then by the Republican right, and "is now being instrumentalised by this government.

"And the question is regularly raised, simply to exclude one religious group, as it happens, the Muslims," she says.

"You don't organise a debate after passing a law," says the Green European deputy, Yannick Jadot, referring to the controversial legislation on religious separatism which has survived a first parliamentary reading and is currently on the way to being adopted as law.

Another member of Jadot's ecology party, the Senator Esther Benbassa, is equally critical:

"Marlène Schiappa launches the national consultation on religion, after her government has used the separation debate as a way of stigmatising Muslims," says the senator.

Publicity stunt

Laurnet Berger of the CFDT trade union has called on the government to stop waving the flag of religious affiliation as a means of dominating media attention.

Berger says the series of national debates comes at a bad time, since the law against religious separatism "is still in the pipes, and is causing plenty of problems".

Other critics, like former ruling majority parliamentarian, Aurélien Taché, have spoken of the initiative as "a grotesque publicity stunt".

But there are voices being raised in support.

Mario Stasi of the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism is convinced that talking is better than some of the alternatives.

"If we can shift the debate away from the gutter of hatred and insult on social media, and put different points of view side by side, and look at them seriously with a view to producing concrete proposals," he says, "then I see nothing but advantages in the idea of this national consultation."

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