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French Principle of Secularism UPSC NOTE

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  • Recently, the French government announced that the practice of wearing abaya would be banned in state-run schools as it violated the principle of Laïcité, which is the French idea of secularism.

  • The education minister described the abaya as a religious gesture, aimed at testing the resistance of the republic towards the secular sanctuary that school must be.

  • The move was met with criticism by many. 

  • Some said that this amounts to a policing of teenagers’ clothing (public schools in France do not have a uniform). 

  • Some said that it was an attack on freedom and women’s bodies. 

  • Others said that this was yet another instance of Laïcité being used as a tool of oppression rather than assimilation.

French Principle of Secularism

  • Coined in the 19th century, Laïcité is a complicated and politically charged term. 

  • It is understood as a formal separation of the State and Church. 

  • It involves the complete removal of religious values from the public sphere and their replacement with secular values such as liberty, equality, and fraternity. 

  • The underlying goal of Laïcité is to implant tolerance and assimilate people. 

  • As per the principle, religion is to be confined to the private sphere. 

  • It is important to note here that the state plays an important role in ensuring that affairs are run according to the principle of Laïcité.

  • Laïcité, a product of the struggle of anti-clerical Republicans against the power of the Catholic Church, was an abstract idea following the French Revolution in 1789. 

  • It took a concrete shape in the form of The Law of 1905 in the Third Republic when state-run secular schools were established.

  • The Law of 1905 guarantees freedom of conscience and freedom of worship except when it clashes with public order. 

  • It states that the Republic would neither pay for nor subsidise any form of worship. 

  • Today, while there are publicly funded Catholic schools in France, most children attend public schools which are secular spaces and free of cost.

  • Laïcité was not seen as problematic for the most part of the 20th century because France was largely homogenous. 

  • In the 1950s and 1960s, however, there was large-scale decolonisation in North Africa, which led to an influx of immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries such as Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. 

  • The change in demographics caused episodic tensions.

  • Over the next few decades, global developments, such as the 9/11 attack and the invasion of Afghanistan by the U.S., and domestic ones, such as the rise of the National Front, which was avowedly anti-immigration; othe incidents all contributed to this and arguably led to anti-Muslim sentiment.

  • Following the recommendation of the Stasi Commission, which was set up to reflect upon the application of the Laïcité principle.

  • France passed a law in 2004 prohibiting the wearing of “ostentatious” symbols that have a clear religious meaning, such as a Catholic dress, a Jewish kippah, or a Muslim headscarf, in public spaces. 

  • In 2011, France banned the wearing of face-covering veils in public places. 

  • Every such controversial decision of the French state in the name of Laïcité has led to new interpretations of the principle. 

  • The question now is whether Laïcité actually helps people integrate into society or whether it is being used as a tool to oppress communities.

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French Principle of Secularism UPSC NOTE
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