Adventures in Laïcité

Christmas time is traditionally a period of religious tension and social stress, and the first Christmas since the advent of “laïcité républicaine” has not spared France. Last month, students in Lagny-sur-Marne (Seine-et-Marne, e.g. outer Paris) had to give up their Christmas tree after a group of students (from what I’ve read, the principle won’t say what faith they professed if any) demanded the strict application of French law concerning secularism in the schools.

Students, parents, the French press and of course the usual suspects were shocked to discover that the idea of secularism might apply to their treasured fetishes. The tree was ultimately restored, from what I can garner from the press, following claims that Christmas trees are pagan and secular, not religious, in nature. In any other country, pagan and secular are mutually exclusive terms, and if a garment is religious, a holiday damn well can be too. I did not see an exception for Druidism in the “Loi sur la Laicité”. Besides, if we are to accept claims of secularism, where does it stop? I have to wonder if an Arab girl who claims to wear a headscarf not because its a religious symbol but because she’s having a bad hair day gets the same consideration.

Alas, the passage of the holidays has not made matters better. Today’s AP feed brings news that Muslim children may be expelled for failing to eat the meat offered in the school cafeteria. The letter making this threat was sent to twenty-odd Muslim parents. There was no mention of vegetarian students. Apparently “all children must eat all the dishes served, even if only a small portion” in order to have a “balanced diet.” Now, I went to university in Strasbourg and I saw the kind of meat on offer in university cafeterias. It was years before I could bring myself to eat rabbit after living in France. French cuisine may merit it’s reputation, but the national reputation for taste does not extend to school lunches. I have the strong suspicion that no vegetarian, Jewish, or simply fussy child will ever be the target of such a decision.

Promises that this law would apply equally to all religons are revealed to be the farce they always were. I stand by my prediction: this law is a fiasco. It will solve no problems, liberate no one, and create nothing but idiocy and new contradictions. It is already serving as an excuse for the institutionalisation of bigotry.

16 thoughts on “Adventures in Laïcité

  1. Ouch… you might become a persona-non-grata in France for even loosely comparing French cuisine with a CROUS canteen ;)

    On the law, you’re right. Conceptually untenable, politically disastrous.

  2. Good and very relevant post.

    Tit for tat, I say. No foulard = no Christ-mas tree.

    I do believe the word Christ in Christmas tree has lost much of its original meaning, it now is basically a piece of traditional decor, and cannot be compared with the headscarf that is apparently gaining more and more (politically religious) meaning. But fair is fair, you reap what you sow, lex dura, sed lex and all that.

  3. Oops, bad syntax: Christ is not the piece of decor, it is the tree. Well, I suppose a case could be made for both Christ and the tree being decorative in some households…

  4. Conceptually untenable, politically disastrous.

    And, self-defeating. Most considered the headscarf a comfort-symbol, like the christmas tree. Banning it provides significance.

  5. There is one important difference between the tree and the “foulard”: the tree is not a personnal mark.

    DSW

  6. It doesn’t matter – the school is supposed to be a secular institution. That is the justification for the law (which, incidentally, I have some sympathy with). And as a Christmas tree is, supposedly, a religious symbol (although this would be a matter of some debate – it really shows the intertwining of Christian and ‘heathen’ celebrations), it has to go.

  7. It doesn’t matter – the school is supposed to be a secular institution. That is the justification for the law (which, incidentally, I have some sympathy with).

    The fact that a school is a secular institution may justify exclusion of symbols that affirmatively represent a religion. It doesn’t justify requiring students to affirmatively violate their religion, e.g., by eating foods that are forbidden under religious dietary laws.

  8. I remember thinking that the part about diet should be respected as long as it was physically possible, and in fact it opens interesting possibilities for those of us who have no proper sacred food.

    As for the tree, I think it is equivalent of representation of religious art. Should we forbid in school knowledge of art and architecture that have a religious sense? I think not.

    DSW

  9. I was referring more to the headscarf laws than demanding Muslim children eat non-halal food. Although that in itself raises interesting questions about Sikh children wearing turbans…

  10. Jonathan, I don’t see why ,in a secular state that recognizes no religion, religious requirements should be any more respected than any other wish of a child or his family. There is no more reason to recognize the right not to come to school on saturdays because it is Sabbath than there is to allow skipping classes every Tuesday morning because that’s when the local team has its soccer practice.

    The link beetween No?l and the birth of Christ is quite loose ; the “christ” in christmas observation falls awfully flat in the French “no?l”, and the christmas tree is . It is celebrated by about every French La?cards and some muslim families. In the thirties the Catholic church routinely burnt Santa Claus effigies ; now christmas is more about P?re no?l than Christ.

  11. Being French but living in the US, I looked at the laicite debate with some skepticism: doesn?t this law actually imply that egalite is stronger than liberte?
    First, on the Christmas tree story. This is tit for tat, I agree. By the way, why should public schools be off on Sunday? This is blatantly a Christian tradition, isn?t?
    Anyhow, this canteen story made me so some research to understand the case better. Apparently, a minority (20 families) of Muslim families were complaining that the kids were eating non Halal meat (i.e. meat not prepared according to the Prophet?s prescriptions). The families ask that the kids either do not eat any meat at all or that the meat becomes Halal.
    This being France, it is considered very important that the kids are ?educated? to the ?good taste?, meaning that menus are supposed to be planned by nutritionists and be balanced. So not eating things is considered badly.
    True, kids should have an alternative. Yet, I wonder how the canteen of a small town is supposed to do to address those needs. Pork has already been banned from a lot of French canteens. Should everything become Halal, so that purchasing costs remain low? How does a small canteen address the logistical problems of matching everybody?s needs?

  12. Thibault, surely the authorities can just give the families to opt out of having school meals and having to provide food for their kids independently? To say “if you don’t want what we provide, fine – just sort it out yourself and don’t expect us to pander to your whims”

  13. Ken,
    I totally agree with you. This is actually what my school canteen did 20 years ago, in my little French village.
    On the other hand, if everybody starts bringing stuff, it may be hard for the cooks to accomodate everyone.
    Last, I’ve seen that McDonald’s had introduced Halal McNuggets in Detroit. Yep, McDonald’s setting the right example for France, funny.

  14. A pyramid of cat skulls was once found in the Paris sewers — above a cafe noted for its rabbit dishes. Hope the school’s lapin doesn’t go meow. Worse croissants I ever had were in Paris — best in Saigon.

  15. I detest this ridiculous and ill-conceived law. I live in France, but am an American. It was most clearly targeted at Muslims, and everyone knows this. Pretending it is anything else is just sticking your head in the sand. Anyone who thinks you can get rid of a religion by banning its symbols should realize this kind of targeting of a religion will only cause more extremists to take hold, rather than to make things better. Schools are perfectly capable of being secular while teaching about all different types of beliefs and religions (including atheism). Further, as a vegetarian, I find this notion of forcing people to eat meat (or any food for that matter – what of allergic children?) really disgusting. I don’t care how small the town is or any other ridiculous excuses (meat is the most expensive thing to buy in France so a vegetarian option would be cheaper to provide!). There is simply no reason to force a child to eat something they don’t want to eat during a meal – all child psychologists will tell you this – it doesn’t teach anyone anything. Many modern nutritionists do not consider meat to be a necessary part of a balanced diet, so that excuse can just go out the window as well. It seems to me like simple abuse of children, in this case targeting Muslim children because they are ‘different’. The schools most certainly can make some changes for them, such as to provide balanced vegetarian meals that meet Halal requirements. And as far as knowing what the needs are – our schools here require kids to sign up for canteen meals by the week prior so that the correct number of meals can be planned – surely a selection of meat/no meat meal can be added to that listing? I find France very far behind in this regard, and it always amazes me because 99% of the time I agree with French political stances, but this one just blows me away – I truly don’t understand how anyone in their right mind can think this law is a postive improvement on the situation.