Contested secularisms in France

Duration: 2013-2018
Languages: German, English and French
Methodology: Qualitative discourse analysis of contemporary sources (19th - 21st centuries), semi-structured interviews, socio-cultural semiotic analysis

The aim of this research was to describe and explain the multiple and shifting meaning of French secularism since 1881. The research draws on a simple yet effective way of mapping the ambiguity of laïcité. Following the distinction proposed by Pierre Kahn based on whether laïcité is conceived as an autonomous value or not, it is possible to distinguish two general readings of French secularism: (i) a substantialist conception, in which secularism has its own moral meaning, and (ii) a procedural conception that limits laïcité to a principle of justice by which the state guarantees that each individual may pursue his or her own reasonable conception of the good life – the conception that tends to guide French constitutional secularism. When laïcité is understood as an autonomous moral value, it is generally associated with a set of three narratives that are deeply rooted in the genesis of French secularism in the long nineteenth century: (i) the existence of a clerical threat to the Republic, (ii) the Republic as the only legitimate community, and (iii) the State’s emancipatory mandate.

Part of this research project focused on recent controversies over the visibility of Islam in public space, notably the politicisation of full-body bathing suits (the so-called burkini), controversies over halal food or non-pork alternatives in school canteens and more generally, attempts to reframe laïcité as a normative justification for exclusionary measures aimed at religious minorities. The research reveals that the alleged crisis of French secularism is in fact the result of the failure to adapt the key narratives associated with a substantialist reading of laïcité to the realities of postcolonial France.