Street Prayer Backlash Strikes Paris Suburbs as French Secularists Have Had Enough
The inevitable backlash has arrived. After years of encroachment on French secularists’ values, citizens are pushing back. Not simply through social media or the press, but the very streets themselves. Their target? Perhaps the most visible symbol of the deepening cultural divide: Friday street prayer.
In fact, things are getting so testy that Interior Minister Gerard Collomb has intervened. In a move meant to quell secularist anger over religion creeping into society, France announced an immediate halt to street prayer in the Paris suburb of Clichy-la-Garenne. “They will not have prayers on the street, we will prevent street praying,” Collomb told Questions Politics. (Source: French Muslims in Paris suburb left with nowhere to pray as street worshipping is banned, The National, November 20, 2017.)
Leading up to the ban, so-called “traditional” French citizens had been interrupting the street prayer by singing the national anthem, La Marseillaise. The goal was to drown out the loudspeakers and make the experience so unpleasant, worshipers would go elsewhere. But that didn’t happen. Instead, feelings of hostility bubbled over, leading to skirmishes on both sides. It’s the type of combustible situation the French government wants to contain at all costs, lest it spill over into wider conflict.
#Clichy Toujours plus loin dans le surréaliste : ce sont bien des élus avec leurs écharpes qui ont tenté d'aller bousculer les fidèles. Mouvement de foule, bousculade, chutes… Les gendarmes s'interposent. pic.twitter.com/I131eryIMq
— Théo Maneval (@TheoManeval) November 10, 2017
This was bound to happen with the re-emergence of far-right nationalist politics and an estimated five million Muslims now living in France. Muslims are easily the fastest-growing French demographic, with Pew Research pegging the Muslim fertility rate at 2.8 per couple versus 1.9 for the rest of the population from 2005 to 2010. Further out, they project the Muslim fertility rate will continue to outpace the national average at 2.4 versus 1.9 through 2025 to 2030. (Source: Pew: Fertility Rate for Muslims vs. Non-Muslims in Europe, Muslim Statistics, February 6, 2014.)
Is French Laïcité Under Threat?
Laïcité is one of France’s most cherished and unbreakable value systems. Dating back to the French Revolution, it represents the strict principle of secularism in public affairs. The 1905 French Law on the Separation of the Churches and State codified national secularism, with few (if any) exceptions for overt religious acts or symbols permeating public life since. Article I of the French Constitution states: “La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique, et sociale,” which roughly translates to: “France is an indivisible, secular, democratic, and social republic”.
Unlike Thomas Jefferson’s concept of the separation of church and state in America, France’s definition goes further. It actually prohibits religious expression in the public sphere, rather than just keeping it at arm’s length. So entrenched is the secularist mindset that being religiously discreet is deemed a necessary part of being French. It’s an inextricable part of the national identity.
But all this is changing.
Many of the immigrants calling France home don’t share this same value system. In particular, Islam’s core tenets contradict laïcité in many important ways.
Many interpretations of Islam believe there is no such thing as separation of church and state. Under sharia law, many aspects of daily life for observant Muslims is controlled, and it certainly trumps any human-based law. Thus, when it comes to the requirement to pray five times a day, many observant Muslims have no qualms about openly engaging with their faith. As laïcité is neither recognized nor part of their heritage, following it isn’t a high priority.
With open confrontation here, France will need to quickly decide which value to defend. Will it be laïcité, the impenetrable old-world value, or a more flexible, hybrid system that allows for religious observance?
So far, it’s been the former. The French government is hesitant to compromise because it suspects this Pandora’s box will likely be impossible to shut once opened. If sharia law is permitted, even in limited circumstances, its defenders may demand more—more public adoption, more use in family disputes, more use in schools.
Notable Periods of Laïcité Application in Modern-Day France
1994: Education Minister François Bayrou issues a memorandum banning the veil (known as the hijab) and other “ostentatious” religious symbols in public schools. Despite this, the memorandum is ignored by large segments of the Muslim community nationwide.
1999: Two girls of Turkish origin are expelled from a junior high school in the town of Flers following a teacher’s strike protesting the veil.
2003: Two high school students in Aubervilliers are expelled for refusing to lower their veils according to their school’s rules. This becomes known nationally as the “Lévy Sister Affair.”
2010: France passes the Law of 2010-1192, which prohibits concealment of the face in public spaces. This becomes known by the de facto name “burka ban.” The law imposes a fine of up to €150 for those who violate the law, and a fine of up to €30,000 and one year in prison for anyone who forces someone else to wear a face covering. The fine can double to €60,000 for coercion of a victim under the age of 18.
2017: Interior Minister Gerard Collomb declares street prayer illegal in the Paris suburb of Clichy-la-Garenne. This is expected to be enforced nationwide.
France isn’t the economic migrant’s first choice upon crossing European Union borders. The United Kingdom, Sweden, and Germany all offer greater benefits. But with three million souls in North Africa chomping at the bit to cross the Mediterranean, France will have to shoulder its share of the ongoing migrant crisis. Many of these travelers are Muslim and will import values that are, in many cases, diametrically opposed to French secularists’ dogma.
Thus, preventing a head-on collision is practically unavoidable. Islam tends to resist assimilation. The French public has gone along with that, but a threshold has been reached. Many are fed up with accommodating Islam at the expense of Laïcité. This doesn’t sit well with many Muslims, who view Islamic law as supreme and secularism as an invitation to abandon their religion. This makes demands for assimilation difficult to bear.
In time, we hope the French can figure it out. French revolutions have a tendency to get rather nasty.