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Why is French secularism not understood in the Anglo-Saxon world?

La Croix: Emmanuel Macron’s speech at Les Mureaux on “Islamist separatism” has been misunderstood in the Anglo-Saxon world: several articles accused him of targeting ” Muslims “. Why ?

Florian Michel: The main problem in this controversy concerns our different conceptions of secularism. The United States cannot understand this term, which is moreover not translated into English but designated by the expression “The laïcité”, implied in the French way. Some propose to translate the word by “Secularism”, but secularization is something else: it designates the process by which a society gradually detaches itself from its religious references. Secularism, it is of the order of the law.

→ CONTEXT. “France is not fighting against Islam”, replies Emmanuel Macron to the Financial Times

To qualify their own system, Americans speak of “Separation” between the Churches and the State. As the jurist Elisabeth Zoller has shown very well, the United States is nonetheless a perfectly secular state, with a separation more severe in certain aspects, and more coherent than ours, in legal terms.

On Wednesday November 4, the President of the Republic published the letter he sent to the Financial Times to clarify his position. How does he try to make it understood?

FM: Anglo-Saxons cannot understand what Emmanuel Macron is trying to explain to them, in particular this sentence: “France, and we are attacked for that, is secularism, that is to say, for Muslims as for Christians, Jews, Buddhists, all, the neutrality of the State – which ever does not intervene in religious affairs, and the guarantee of exercising his worship “. I have had hundreds of hours of conversation with Americans on this subject; I have always seen this radical difference in approach between us.

In the United States, we know that the French state does not cease to intervene in the religious sphere, whether by financing teachers in private denominational establishments, by ensuring the maintenance of cathedrals, by legislating on the size of scarves or wanting to organize “Muslim worship”. The President of the Republic says it very well himself by indicating, in this same letter, his project to create in Paris “An institute aimed at showing the great wealth (of) Islamic civilization”. A project that is probably unthinkable in Anglo-Saxon countries, suspicious as they are of state intervention.

Yet American presidents – and Donald Trump first and foremost – keep quoting the Bible, and God is everywhere in the United States …

FM: In fact, the separation of Church and State is strict on a legal level, but it is not opposed to religions. These can be expressed freely in the public sphere. Personal expression of faith, be it Jefferson, Truman, Kennedy or Carter, is meant to confirm America’s religious pluralism. This is for example Kennedy’s speech of September 12, 1960, in the middle of the campaign: ” I am catholic “, But “Religious freedom is not divisible”.

→ ANALYSIS. “Separatism”, the malaise of French Muslims

What American secularism prohibits is taking a political decision that would constitute a violation of religious freedom and the equality of religions. As summarized by the Supreme Court in a 1971 judgment, a law must have neither an object, nor a goal, nor a religious effect. In the United States, not one federal or state dollar can go to denominational private education. And the French law prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols at school is just as unimaginable in the American context.

The interview that Emmanuel Macron gave to the Qatari channel Al-Jazeera, Saturday, October 31, also created controversy. When he recalled that “Secularism has never killed anyone”, an American journalist and Jesuit asserted the opposite, citing the Maoist and Soviet regimes, or the Revolutionary Terror. Where does this confusion come from?

FM: Most Americans see our secularism, not as the expression of “state neutrality”, to use Emmanuel Macron’s phrase, but as imposed by the state against religions. Hence this reference, excessive of course, to the Terror, or to Mao and Stalin.

→ EXPLANATION. On Al Jazeera, Emmanuel Macron tries to ease tensions with the Muslim world

In their eyes, the right position is theirs: that of a strict separation with respect for all religions, expressed by Thomas Jefferson in his letter to the Baptists of Danbury, written in 1802. He mentions the need for erect a ” separation wall “ between Church and State, before concluding with these words: “I also return to you your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of our Father and Creator to all, and offer you and your religious association the assurance of my respectful feelings and my high esteem”. This concept of the “separation wall” is still the one that prevails today in American jurisprudence. The political scientist Denis Lacorne speaks in this sense of “Philo-clerical secularism”.

The United States has experienced several jihadist terrorist attacks: on September 11, 2001 in New York, but also during the Boston Marathon in 2013, in San Bernardino in 2015, in Orlando the following year. How do the American authorities view Islamist violence?

FM: Because of their conception of secularism, but also because the reality of their immigration is not the same, the United States does not have the same understanding of Islam as in France. In the United States, there were 3.45 million Muslims in 2018 – or about 1% of the national population (according to data from the Pew Research Center), which means that they are invisible there. The issues in terms of integration or radicalization do not arise in the same way at all. For Americans, the Islamic question seems above all an issue of international relations, a foreigner in the distance, an external threat in Iraq, Iran, or Afghanistan.


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