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Holding my hands up: I was wrong about laïcité


Laïcité is the French principle of state secularism. It is based upon the separation of church and stately institutions, including the government and education system. Laïcité was born in the context of Catholicism’s stronghold over a fast diversifying France. It aimed to nullify Catholic influence in national affairs to create an environment of intellectual and religious equality.

Essentially, it stems from a commendable desire not to discriminate against minorities. In recent years, laïcité has somewhat backfired a little. It has become a very sensitive debate in my home country, especially with the Muslim community whose practices require, you know, wearing all the gear and that…

In theory laïcité relies on the division between private life and the public, sphere within which all should appear as equal, indiscriminate citizens of the Republic. In effect though, it’s a public ban on religious signs.

Recently, controversy hit again as photographs emerged of armed French police confronting a woman on a beach and making her remove some of her clothing as part of a ban on the burkini, which covers the body and head. Authorities in several towns have implemented burkini bans on the grounds that it goes against state secularism. They’ve since been condemned by French courts and the UN human rights office. Not a good look.

This is wrong. As someone who’s enjoyed living abroad, I like to think I have a good neutral eye to take a step back, observe my surrounding and call out the bullshit many justify under the umbrella of ‘national character’.

Perhaps that’s the reason I’m happy to scrutinise the stupidity of outdated customs, be them American attitudes to guns, Britain’s supposedly brilliant democratic structure – you know, the one with the House of Lords – or religious beliefs in general. It’s all just too ludicrous not to. French customs, well, they’re not as fun to mock when you’re French.

I’ve been a defender of laïcité in the past. Its unifying universality is a noble principal, and besides I never have much sympathy for any group demanding to play by a different set of rules.

Today though, it is with the reluctance of patriotism that I add laïcité to my list of dumb shit countries do. While I still think a line has to be drawn at practical considerations (I for one don’t think anyone should be allowed inside a bank with their face entirely covered, whatever their motive), the ban on all religious symbols in public places is unnecessary and at odds with the principles on which a truly liberal society should be built. Laïcité needs reforming so it can reflect the society it intends to protect.

Of course state and religion should be separate, and nobody’s faith should affect national policies. I wouldn’t want my child to be taught creationism as factual, nor be prevented from eating pork – pork’s lovely. But I disagree with the law’s definition of state, which extends to and impeaches one’s freedom to dress however they may.

My experience here in London shows that allowing people to display signs of individuality doesn’t create cultural schism and bigotry. Instead, it helps us understand each other better and see beyond superficial differences. This must include one’s right to dress to please their favourite imaginary friend.

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