Christian Hartmann / Reuters Blue, white, and red candles at the Place de la Republique in Paris, France, November 16, 2015.
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Laïcité Without Égalité

Can France Be Multicultural?

“Imagine” by John Lennon has become the impromptu French anthem after a pianist’s moving performance in front of the blood-soaked Bataclan concert hall the morning following last week’s attack in Paris. It is not hard to hear strains of “La Marseillaise” in this secular prayer for “a brotherhood of man.” But beyond such fraternité, Lennon also imagines a world without religion, and that is something few French agree on.

French Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others are as angered as everyone else by the “holy war” being waged by the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS). But they do not necessarily subscribe to the idea of a post-religious society, as France sometimes appears to be, any more than they embraced Charlie Hebdo’s brand of satire. They heard “Je suis Charlie” not as a defense of press freedom or a right to offend, but as a barb directed at them. On Sunday, a former senior government official gave a scathing interview demanding that Muslim representatives stop “shirking responsibility.”

In his historic address to a joint session of Parliament on November 16, French President François Hollande sought to calm domestic tensions. He singled out jihad and ISIS but made no reference to Islam or Muslims. “It hurts to say it, but we know that these were French people who killed other French people.” Hollande added that the terrorists are “individuals who start out by committing crimes, [then] become radicalized.” In other words, he emphasized, violating French law was the first stop on the terrorists’ slide to violent extremism—not the fact of their having been born into a given religious community. The high percentage of French converts to Islam among the recruits to ISIS—20 percent overall and 25 percent of all female ISIS recruits—testifies to this point.

Reactions to the speech have emphasized Hollande’s martial tone and the lack of a long-term strategy to rid secular France of violent religious extremism. One secular intellectual concluded in Sunday’s Le that “laïcité is unintelligible and even shocking” for practicing Muslims, who view it as “an injunction to abandon their religion.”

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