“Here’s a country that claims to be secular, yet its President has vowed to rebuild a symbol of religion…”

Photo by Stephanie LeBlanc on Unsplash

In 2018, the French government issued an 80-page handbook on how to ensure the principle of secularism is enforced in schools in France. Twice as big as its 2015 predecessor, the new report advised teachers on how to apply secular principles in classrooms, on school grounds, and during school-sponsored activities.

The 80-page report is comprehensive. The guide dictates the actions to be taken, under any possible circumstance. Selective absenteeism from sports activities, such as swimming, for religious reasons, is not tolerated. Women must shake hands with men. Muslim mothers wearing the hijab may not accompany their child on school field trips. Wearing long skirts, on religious grounds is not permitted, and students must be sent home if they were found doing so. Finally, religious festivals are banned unless they are secularized festivals such as Christmas.

The government’s printing, and distribution, of such reports, is aimed at protecting the timeless concept of Laïcité, the strict separation of church from state. The French idea of secularism, in the words of French Presidents from the right and the left, is non-negotiable. The concept is built upon a 1905 legislation: “Promulgation de la loi concernant la séparation des Églises et de l’État.” Experts have argued that the law was meant to make the French State, its institutions, and its employees, religiously neutral. The origins of the law and its aims have been central to the discussion of its anti-inclusive innuendoes. Strictly, however, the law states in its first article that freedom of conscience and the freedom to exercise religion must be protected. The purpose of the law was to restrict the growth of an over empowering and interfering, Catholic church, and not to attack religious minorities.

A year later, on an unusually cold Monday, a fire erupted at one of the Paris’s most memorable structures, the Notre Dame. As I am writing this piece, the cause of the blaze remains unclear. I hope, however, the perpetrator was not religiously motivated. Officials have reported that the cathedral sustained a substantial amount of damage. Still, the structure stands. After arriving at the scene of the fire, President Emmanuel Macron vowed to rebuild the cathedral, calling it “France’s Destiny.”

As people mourned the destruction of the precious piece of history, the 850-year-old cathedral, as France’s most affluent families pledged millions of euros to the cathedral’s reconstruction, and as copies of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, Notre Dame de Paris, quickly sold out online, the French President’s statement echoed in my mind. What does he mean it’s France’s destiny? What about the non-negotiable concept of Laïcité, the strict separation of church from state? Here’s a country that claims to be secular, yet its President has vowed to rebuild a symbol of religion: the Catholic cathedral that the 1905 legislation vowed to separate its influence from the state.

Yes, Notre Dame is a historical monument. Many believe that the cathedral is a Gothic masterpiece; hence it must be rebuilt and preserved. I agree. The cathedral is indeed an architectural masterpiece that I had the pleasure to visit at one point in time. However, Notre Dame is not just a cultural landmark. Notre Dame is a church, owned by the French government, which received an annual maintenance stipend of 2 million euros a year from the ministry of culture, and held weekly sermons among other religious ceremonies. To rebuild the cathedral and permit the monument’s use for religious purposes is in direct violation of the state’s laws separating church from state.

Like many of secularism’s admirers in the developing world, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk perceived the French model as the authentic form of secularism. Princeton’s professor of Near Eastern Studies Sükrü Hanioglu wrote in his book, “Ataturk: An Intellectual Biography,” that the success of Laïcité in France influenced the father of Modern Turkey. In his efforts to turn religion from a public to a private affair, the Turkish leader enforced several laws that sought to separate church from state. One of the statutes that Ataturk passed was the secularization of the Hagia Sophia in 1935. While the current Turkish administration has undone most of Ataturk’s work, the secularization of the Hagia Sophia should serve as a model for the French government while reconstructing the Notre Dame. To ensure the principle of secularism is respected in France, the government should no longer financially support religious institutions, such as the cathedral that has burned down.

However, France’s issues with secularism do not end with their reconstruction of the cathedral, or their sponsoring of the religious role that the cathedral plays. The 1905 French law on the separation of churches and state is absent in the Alsace-Moselle region of France. In Alsace-Moselle, local law prohibits working on Sundays and religious holidays. Moreover, the French government funds the construction of churches and approves papal proposals on the appointment of clergy, as well as pays their salaries. In the state the world looks to as a model of triumphant secularism, churches and synagogues built before the approval of the 1905 law still receive state funding. Anyone who has ever defended the secular cause has pointed towards France as a model of success. The burning of the Notre Dame, however, has shown us that even the most secular of states cannot let go of their religious past.

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