A march for justice for the murdered Orthodox Jewish woman Sarah Halimi in Paris on April 25, 2021. GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AFP via Getty Images.
French Jews find themselves walking a tightrope, struggling to keep their footing while fending off challenges from two forces that threaten their lives as individuals and as a community. These forces are both opposed to each other and are twined together, at once amplifying and menacing the other no less than they threaten the Jews of France. Of course, that French Jewry—the largest group of Jews in Europe and one with a long and proud history—is in trouble is not news. This has been the case for decades. (Mosaic first covered their challenges in 2013 and proceeded to again in 2014 and 2015.) But these longstanding trends have accelerated and now pose novel dangers.
The first force is radical Islamism. Over the last few decades, Islamist extremists have directly targeted French Jews, murdering at least a dozen and pushing thousands more to change neighborhoods or to leave the country in response to daily humiliations and harassment—which, until recently, French authorities were happy to ignore.
The second force is the spirit of French secularism, known as laïcité. Laïcité is an idea unique to France, and it has a long and complex history. Yet in the last two decades—and even in the last few years—laïcité has, in part as a reaction to Islamism, broken loose of its historic restraints. It now exacts an inescapable daily toll on Jewish life in France. More worryingly, French Jews themselves seem inclined to accommodate laïcité rather than resist it. Their reasons, as we will see, are as understandable as they are short-sighted. If the communal health of French Jewry is to be preserved, Jewish leaders will have to press for their country to moderate one of its most cherished political traditions.
I. The Origins of Laïcité
It would be hard to find a value more central to French self-understanding and to its political life than laïcité. The Paris-based writer Rachel Donadio captured the idea in the Atlantic last year:
Everyone knows about “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” But it is laïcité that defines the most ferociously contested battle lines in contemporary France. The term has come to express a uniquely French insistence that religion, along with religious symbols and dress, should be absent from the public sphere. No other country in Europe has followed this path. . . . . Laïcité is not the same thing as freedom of religion. . . . What it sometimes means is freedom from religion. At a time when religion-fueled terrorist attacks continue to traumatize France, laïcité has become inextricably tangled with questions of national identity and national security.
Laïcité is deeply rooted in France’s modern political history, and strongly intertwined with the birth and ultimate victory of the French republic over centuries of monarchy. When, in 1870, the Third Republic was finally established, the difficult question of the new regime’s relationship to the Catholic Church was not solved. A solution was hinted at and sketched out: as the founding Republican party saw it, the republic could only survive if it was divorced from the Church and set firmly outside of the moral authority of religion in general.
A series of related reforms followed over the course of a generation, which culminated in France’s well-known Law of Separation, passed in 1905. As its name suggests, the Law of Separation marked a formal break between the Catholic Church and the French state; it also reinforced and codified laïcité. Among its dozens of clauses aimed at protecting “freedom of conscience,” the 1905 law prohibits placing “any religious sign or emblem on public monuments or in any public place whatsoever,” with limited exceptions. In short, the law did something other than simply revoke the Catholic Church’s status as an official state religion. It established a strict religious neutrality among state institutions and actors. The core of laïcité is thus legal: no French president could ever be sworn in on a holy book, for example, nor could any state school hold a nativity play.
There is a cultural component of laïcité, the outer bounds of which are not well defined, but are naturally explained by the political and historical context in which the idea developed. To some laïcité zealots, any unchosen encounter with religious expression in a state setting, however innocuous, undermines the principle. In 2020, when a student-union leader appeared before a parliamentary hearing wearing a hijab, for instance, MP Anne-Christine Lang announced that she was leaving. Several other members of Parliament followed her. Lang explained that she could not “accept that in the center of the National Assembly, the beating heart of democracy . . . that a person appears in a hijab before a parliamentary inquiry committee.” She later defended the walkout, citing her position “as an MP and a feminist who values republican principles and women’s rights.”
To outsiders, the notion that republican principles would be threatened by the appearance of a headscarf seems absurd—it is hard to imagine a politician in the United States offering that kind of justification. And Lang’s approach is extreme, and comparatively novel, even within France. But it reflects both a subtle truth about the spirit of laïcité as well as a steady evolution in how the public understands it.
Despite its emphasis on a unifying public secularism, French law prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion and protects the right of individuals to hold religious beliefs, “as long as the manifestation of such opinions does not interfere with the established Law and Order.” Manifestation is a crucial word here: whereas the First Amendment to the American Constitution emphasizes religion’s exercise, the Law of Separation puts forward the freedom of conscience—that is, private devotions whispered in the inner chambers of the human heart.
In the past, the 1905 Law of Separation was understood to mean that freedom of religious expression was generally protected. For decades after the passage of the 1905 law, laïcité was viewed as a way of keeping state institutions free from religious bias and French citizens free from the moral and political rule of any single dominant religion. But the anti-religious impulse of the French republican ideal was always latent. Deeply seated in this way of thinking is the idea that ardent religious commitments—at least when expressed in public—pose a threat to the nation’s social solidarity. Inspired by notions of the social contract sketched out by the foundational Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the architects of modern France decisively elevated the citizen’s loyalty to the state above his private beliefs. Seen in this light, the 1905 Law of Separation is a further articulation of the French republican tradition, though a tamed one. But over time, the ideological impulse it contained has only grown stronger. Today, the legal and cultural applications of laïcité seriously impede religious exercise.
The radicalization in laïcité’s meaning involved demographic changes and cultural fears that cut to the heart of the nation’s identity. The new understandings of laïcité arguably began to crystalize in September 1989, when three Muslim students were suspended for refusing to remove their headscarves at a public school in the Parisian suburb of Creil, one of the area’s many banlieues—the low-income neighborhoods largely populated by North African immigrants, many of whom are Muslim. There was a sense that state or local authorities ought to step in to help preserve both student safety and the unified, secular character of France’s public institutions.
The headscarf affair, as it came to be known, set off heated debates about how best to defend the spirit and letter of laïcité. In November 1989, the State Council (Conseil d’Etat), France’s highest administrative court, delivered a ruling on the issue, stating that while wearing headscarves was “not by itself incompatible with the principle of secularism,” schools could still restrict the practice if, among other things, it appeared to constitute “an act of pressure, provocation, proselytism, or propaganda.” Each case, the court decided, was to be negotiated by schools on an individual basis. In this way, it attempted to balance the interests of religious freedom with guiding principles rooted in the 1905 law.
This helped ease tensions between school leaders and Muslim students, though it did not eliminate them. The early 1990s were marked by occasional episodes in which schools would punish students for donning headscarves and Muslim groups would respond with legal appeals or protests. The problem grew worse after 1994, when a government memorandum was issued to schools discouraging administrators from permitting “ostentatious” religious symbols. Between 1994 and 2003, dozens of students were suspended or expelled for wearing headscarves in class.
In 2004, Parliament passed a law banning “conspicuous” religious symbols such as crucifixes, yarmulkes, or scarves from being worn in all public schools, which serve the overwhelming majority of French children. This ran counter to the 1989 ruling by the State Council, which sought to balance laïcité as well as the right to religious expression. By extending the principle of religious neutrality in the public sphere not only to government actors but to potentially any users of public services across the country, the 2004 law made the idea of laïcité both broader and more confusing. It ushered in an era in which public and private authorities applied the principle in a wide range of contexts.
Examples of extreme laïcité measures now abound. In 2011, Parliament banned face coverings such as the niqab from being worn in all public places. In 2016, 26 municipalities forbade women from wearing “burkinis,” a type of modest swimsuit, on public beaches. (The burkini bans were later overturned by the State Council.) These legal bans dovetailed with a shift in cultural norms; for example, some public schools across the country stopped the long-established practice of accommodating dietary restrictions for Jewish and Muslim students. When pork is served in school cafeterias, Jews and Muslims are often offered no other options. (When I was a child, I relied on these substitution meals in the public school I attended.) Private entities also began to crack down on religious expression; in the name of “French secular exceptionalism,” the French Football Federation continues to enforce a ban on religious head coverings against the world football federation’s guidelines.
II. Radical Islam in France
Of course, the new fervor for laïcité did not emerge in a vacuum. Most of the previously mentioned examples relate to French Muslims, and the energy devoted to strengthening laïcité in France is a response to a set of problems that the country has struggled with for decades.
Beginning in the 1950s and throughout the 1970s, France’s industrial sector surged, requiring cheap labor that the country’s native population could not supply. To solve that problem, France opened itself up to mass immigration from its former colonies in North and West Africa. But by the late 1980s, the economy had slumped and the demand for labor had evaporated. Thousands of new immigrants found themselves out of work, frustrated by an unrealized promise, and consigned to life in soulless housing projects provided by the state. They did not stay quiet for long. Writing in 2002, the British psychiatrist and social critic writing under the pseudonym Theodore Dalrymple attributed the high rates of crime among the inhabitants of these projects to an “emasculating dependence” as well as resentment toward the French bureaucracies who kept them mired in their dependency. The political scientist Jocelyne Cesari, by contrast, attributed rising crime in the projects (particularly a series of riots in both the 1980s and the mid-2000s) primarily to prejudices among the mainstream French public. The segregated nature of public housing, she argues, exacerbated the problem; immigrant populations had trouble improving their lot or moving to better neighborhoods because they were routinely discriminated against.
Whatever the cause, the growing, concentrated immigrant communities with high crime rates posed a problem. At some point, this problem became interwoven with that of radical Islam. Beginning in the 1980s, extremist movements became increasingly influential in the banlieue neighborhoods. Organizations with ties to radical movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood, fought intently for social and political influence over France’s Muslims. According to the sociologist Bernard Rougier, these groups “actively spread an ideology of schism between French society and its institutions and the Muslim community.” Rougier is here describing the very social schism that laïcité is meant to prevent. But economic and labor factors here establish social conditions that precede ideas. For, as Rougier goes on to say, “Muslims who do not accept their vision of Islam prefer to stay silent out of fear of being seen as traitors. This ideology of separation is then employed by jihadists to support violence.”
And support violence jihadists have. A series of high-profile terrorist attacks took place during the 1990s, most notably the 1995 bombings of public-transportation systems and a school. These attacks were some of the first to alert the French public to the threat, though for a long time the virulence of the Islamist project was still not well known or understood.
In part that’s because much Islamist violence at the time was targeted at Jews and not the wider French public. To name a few instances from that period: Over a single weekend in March 2002, vandals set fire to three synagogues, destroying one in Marseilles. A gunman opened fire on a kosher butcher shop; a Jewish school was broken into and vandalized; a young Jewish couple was attacked; the woman, who was pregnant, was hospitalized. In 2003, a Jewish disc jockey, Sébastien Selam, was murdered in gruesome fashion by a Muslim neighbor; the perpetrator later said, “I killed my Jew, I will go to paradise.” Then there was the 2006 murder of twenty-three-year-old Ilan Halimi, who was kidnapped and tortured for weeks by a gang whose leader had ties to Salafism, one of the varieties of radical Islam.
In recent years, however, the targets of Islamist violence have expanded, as has France’s understanding of the threat.
Since 2012, Islamist terrorists have murdered over 270 people on French soil, and wounded hundreds of others. The country is still reeling from a series of attacks in 2015, beginning with the January 7 shooting at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which claimed the lives of twelve employees, including several of France’s most senior and admired cartoonists. A string of related, deadly attacks followed over the next two days. And on the night of November 13, 2015, gunmen and suicide bombers executed a series of strikes throughout Paris, including at a popular restaurant, a crowded concert hall, and a soccer stadium where then-president François Hollande was a spectator. A total of 130 people were killed and hundreds more were injured, many critically.
French leaders have responded to these and other attacks in a variety of ways, including escalating France’s military involvement in the Syrian civil war and unilaterally shutting down some French mosques. But the bulk of French lawmakers—and much of the French public—sees laïcité as the core, perhaps the sole, solution to the problem of radical Islam. Especially when compared to the intense nationalism espoused by right-wing leaders like Marine Le Pen, it is also widely seen as a moderate approach to the crisis.
More recently, and despite his warnings that laïcité has too often been captured by those who wish to discriminate against Muslims, the newly re-elected President Emmanuel Macron has made strengthening it a key goal, even asserting that the idea is the “cement of France’s unity.” To Macron, radical Islam does not appear to be a novel or unprecedented threat. He instead presents it as symptom of a larger problem, a sign that a fundamental principle of France’s secular republic has weakened. And while Macron remains among the more moderate advocates of laïcité, he nevertheless seems to have yielded to the view that a tougher version of laïcité is the only solution to the problem of radical Islam.
This explains why Macron recently advanced a bill through Parliament that inaugurates a new era for laïcité—one that betrays the very principle of separation of the 1905 law, and enables unprecedented state control over religious association. Among other things, the law—which was passed in August 2021 after months of debate and a constitutional challenge—requires religious organizations to obtain government permits every five years to continue operating; heavily restricts the right of parents to homeschool their children; punishes local municipalities that “infringe on the principle of laïcité; and, in something of an attempt to sacralize laïcité, requires any private association to pledge an oath of faithfulness to the Republic. Macron’s law also institutes a “Day of Laïcité” on the ninth of December—the anniversary of the 1905 law—to be celebrated in all schools and administrations.
Macron claims that the laïcité he espouses would not entail erasing religion from public space or infringe on the free practice of one’s religion. But the new law does exactly that. For one thing, it prohibits private-sector employees who provide public services—like transportation—from wearing conspicuous religious garb like kippot. As Philippe Portier, France’s leading historian of laïcité, explains, the law marks “a clear turning point in the history of the regulation of worship in France. . . . We are moving towards a ‘secularism of security,’ with fewer freedoms and an increase in controls.”
III. Jews in Between
Is the new era of laïcité good for the Jews? Islamism certainly isn’t. In addition to terrorist attacks targeting Jews, which have not dwindled even as they’ve also been propagated against the wider public, a low-level thrum of hostility surrounds French Jewish life. On average, a Jew is assaulted every day in France; in 2014, 74 percent of Jews wearing kippot reported being attacked, and 51 percent of reported racist incidents in France were directed at Jews.
Many of these episodes reflect hostile conditions in the neighborhoods where Jews have long lived alongside Muslim families. Much has been made of the consistently high aliyah rates of French Jews, a leading cause of France’s dwindling Jewish population, which shrank by an estimated 13 percent from 1990 to 2015. (Thousands of others have moved to London, Canada, or the U.S. rather than Israel.) But as Ben Judah documented for Standpoint, there is also an “internal aliyah” taking place in France. The largest movement of French Jewry in recent decades has been from one banlieue neighborhood to another, a shift that is often due to upward mobility but also to an attempt to flee hostile neighbors. As the co-president of a community synagogue in suburban Charenton explained to Judah, “a Jew can’t live where he wants anymore.”
One can thus understand the attraction that French Jews feel toward government actions meant to ameliorate the threat of Islamism. And Macron’s new law contains a number of provisions that may have a salutary effect in fighting Islamist terror, such as a plan for enhancing the capacity to punish people who incite violence online. In part for this reason, many Jews and communal leaders, including Haïm Korsia, the chief rabbi of the French Rabbinate, and Joël Mergui, the Rabbinate’s president, endorsed it.
Yet all political decisions involve tradeoffs and unintended consequences. Here it’s worth raising some of them. Macron’s new law, despite its praiseworthy intentions, elevates laïcité to a new level, as a sacred and non-negotiable principle. Rather than correcting the wrong turn that laïcité had taken in 2004, with the ban of religious signs at school, it reinforces it.
The 2004 ban serves as a cautionary tale. It exacerbated rather than neutralized Islamist sentiments. In assuming that the devout would prefer to abandon their religious obligations rather than educational opportunities, it reflected a misunderstanding of the nature of religious commitment. Macron’s law, which bans religious garb even in private workplaces, continues to uphold this false premise. Both laws assume that religious people who do give in to such pressures will become proud French patriots, rather than simply resentful.
Evidence suggests the opposite. In preventing Muslim girls from wearing headscarves in class, the state pushed many Muslim families even further away from mainstream French life. In recent years many Muslim students exited the public-school system, and their communities have become not more integrated but more isolated and religiously stringent as a result. Laïcité laws bolster the message of radical Islamists: French national culture is antagonistic toward Islam and its adherents. It thus reinforces, rather than attenuates, the prevailing sentiment among Jews and Muslims alike that they are on the sidelines of the nation.
What’s more, though they seem to be directed at the integration of French Muslims, in virtually every case, laïcité-related measures have posed new problems for French Jewry. The 2004 ban on religious garb in public schools, for example, created a situation in which Jewish students who wished to wear yarmulkes were no longer welcome in class. And as mentioned, other informal accommodations that had long been in place in state schools—such as providing suitable lunch options for religious students or allowing religious girls to dress modestly while playing sports—disappeared. In the past, public schools and universities would informally arrange not to schedule major exams on Jewish holidays; that is no longer the case.
In the face of these and other constraints, observant Jews have been forced to adapt by bringing their Jewish observance ever closer to the framing ideal of conscience protected in the 1905 law: Judaism must become invisible to the public. What this looks like in the daily life of religious French Jews is troublingly easy to illustrate. It has become conventional wisdom among French Jews that one must never mention religion when requesting a day or two off from work for Jewish holidays. Instead, Jewish employees ask for sick days. On Friday evenings, in order to leave work in time for Shabbat, Jewish parents will often explain that their children’s private-school closes early on Fridays and pretend that they must pick up their kids; the reason for the school’s closing, Shabbat, goes unmentioned. The cultural commitment to laïcité, meant to encourage the embrace of elevating republican values, in practice encourages dishonesty and hypocrisy.
A quick search through websites offering rabbinic guidance for Orthodox Jews in France reveals an array of difficult situations facing women who, for example, wish to cover their hair or refrain from shaking hands with men. Married Orthodox women are often advised to cover their hair with wigs rather than cloth head coverings in order to avoid problems at work. As a result of such pressures, many observant Jewish women, like their Muslim counterparts, choose not to pursue careers at all. Self-described college students on these sites claim that their professors are unwilling to be seen making any sort of accommodation for religious practice, out of fear of violating the tenets of laïcité. Many students have had to forgo exams scheduled on Shabbat; rabbis often encourage them to leave France and study elsewhere.
Landlords or local administrators have pointed to laïcité as justification for making it difficult for Orthodox Jews, who don’t use electricity on Shabbat, to purchase or even borrow mechanical keys with which to enter their apartment buildings on Shabbat. They have also prevented Jews from building communal structures like the sukkah or eruv. As Jonathan Hayoun, former head of the Union of French Jewish Students, noted of the non-Jewish French majority, “They are constantly confusing religious observance and extremism. Laïcité is also about good will and living together. Before, we used to find solutions.” Now, he says, Jews must contend with a secular zealotry that is no more given to reasoned compromise than the most ardent religious believer.
The results of this are predictable. Just as laïcité measures have had the unintended consequence of driving some French Muslims toward greater isolation from mainstream French life, similar things are happening in some religious Jewish communities. For example, families often purchase apartments in predominantly Jewish buildings, so that a majority of board members can vote to provide mechanical keys for those who wish to have them. In wealthier neighborhoods, observant Jews have even organized funding for their own real-estate projects so they can ensure the provision of mechanical keys or Shabbat elevators in multi-family homes.
Some community leaders prefer closed-door political activism when countering laïcité’s strictures. In some suburban towns outside Paris with large Jewish populations, community leaders work to have a small majority of Jews elected to town councils, or organize quiet initiatives to support and influence mayors who appear more sympathetic to their Jewish constituents. In one of these towns, Jewish residents hoped to arrange for the construction of an eruv—an infringement to laïcité that Macron’s new law would now formally punish. (In the past, French Muslims have similarly lobbied town councils, for example, to obtain community-center space for Eid festivities, or construction permits for new mosques.)
There are also efforts to get Jews elected to student councils in universities, based on the assumption that this could help Jewish students navigate issues such as exams that are scheduled on Jewish holidays. As early as 2007, some 200 students reported not being able to take a national college entrance exam that was scheduled on Shavuot. This was a move that would effectively bar the students from their ambitions. Public universities are considered the best in France, and are accessible only to those who pass a nationwide examination that takes place every year. Students often spend over two or even three years after high school preparing for the test. Missing the exam means missing out on university. The French Rabbinate and the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF), an umbrella organization representing French Jews, invited prominent government leaders to discuss the issue. The government representatives promised to intercede on behalf of the Jewish students to the minister of education. As Korsia (who had served as a rabbinical representative for French universities before becoming chief rabbi in 2014) put it, “We are obviously not asking that there be no exams on Jewish holidays because of us, but we simply hope that the universities, within the framework of the 1905 law, will work with us to find common-sense solutions.”
Later, in 2011, Korsia was secretly filmed by French journalists as he interceded on behalf of a Jewish college student who had missed classes on Shabbat and was given a failing grade as a result. (The video is still available on YouTube, along with many outraged comments from laïcité defenders and Muslims alike). Also in 2011, the French left-wing newspaper Mediapart revealed that the office of then-president François Hollande had issued an order to permit ten Jewish students to take exams for France’s public engineering school a day in advance, as the official exam had been scheduled on Passover. This was treated as a scandal—and in some ways it was. The students were sequestered in a hotel to avoid leaking the test materials or drawing attention to themselves; they were also monitored by Rabbinate officials disguised as “education associates.” While it seems outrageous to force students to endure all that just to take a test, the French media was outraged that they had been permitted to take the test at all. The journalist and laïcité advocate Caroline Fourest mocked the students in a column in Le Monde: “Instead of obtaining a dispensation from their rabbi, they turned to the Ministry of Education, which had to adapt to the needs of five to ten candidates out of 13,000.”
Proponents of laïcité also have few qualms about threatening to ban kosher and halal slaughter, threats for which they’ve found serious support. In 2012, then-Prime Minister François Fillon declared that he was in favor of such a prohibition. Following a meeting with Fillon and other leaders, Joël Mergui announced that he had “received guarantees from the prime minister, so the incident is over.” But it is assuredly not over forever.
This kind of private lobbying, which is the very result of laïcité’s disgust with public pressure campaigns by religious communities, is one of the activities that the new laïcité law seeks to reign in. Macron has repeatedly condemned officials who have responded sympathetically to such requests. In doing so, he has further ostracized Jewish and Muslim communities and forced their leaders to negotiate covertly. Now, he is trying to take that option away too.
IV. The Jewish Choice
These closed-door negotiations illustrate a larger point, one that complicates any condemnation of Mergui and Korsia’s decision to back the Macron law: Jewish life in France now largely depends on secret arrangements with local or national authorities. By portraying French Jews as staunch supporters of the Republic, Mergui and Korsia hope to gain the trust of the authorities—trust that they will need at some later date when, in private, they will plead for laïcité exemptions.
Thus, when speaking before the French Parliament in February 2021, Korsia began by celebrating the Jewish attachment to the Republic. He mentioned the Jewish prayers on Shabbat for the safety of France, and proudly proclaimed the talmudic principle of “dina d’malkhuta dina,” according to which civil law is religiously binding upon Jews. This strategy seems to have worked: many lawmakers expressed their satisfaction with Korsia’s message, and some even suggested that the Jews could serve as a model for Muslim communities. In response, Rabbi Korsia declared—ironically—that the Jewish community was ready to assist its Muslim counterparts.
Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant leaders are taking a different path. They have forcefully denounced the new law. The Conference of European Churches wrote that it “creates a real culture of suspicion against religious communities.” These representatives of other religious traditions are, in this case, correct. For while Macron ought to be commended for recognizing the cancer of radical Islamism, by invoking laïcité to oppose it, he is treating the illness with a therapy that will unavoidably poison healthy cells in the body politic.
Yet most French Jews don’t see it that way. When it comes to laïcité, most of them see that they are a minority, guests in a house of which the ethnic French remain masters. As such, the Jews see the refusal of their hosts to accommodate them as normal. They hold that the possibility of reconciling religious obligation and civil law is possible, but that it will likely happen somewhere else; that is the promise of Israel, a home where they can be more than houseguests. Thus situated between their residence in France and a national future in Israel, French Jews put up with the trouble of laïcité. Those who choose to stay may be bothered by it, but see it as the price to pay to ameliorate the threat of radical Islam. For the most part, they do not see how laïcité actually makes that threat worse. Observant Jews are also wary of being lumped together with fundamentalist Muslims; endorsing laïcité is one way of distinguishing themselves from a group that many French people fear or despise.
In a notable October 2020 speech announcing his new law, Macron cited the existence of separate swimming hours for men and women as a symptom of “the deficiency of the Republic,” as well as education officials who had “imposed menus that accommodate religious restrictions” in public-school cafeterias. Macron was clearly directing his ire at Muslims—in the speech, he boasted that his administration had closed fifteen houses of worship and four schools, including one in which “seven-year-old girls wore full-face veils.” In doing so, he was pointing the finger at traditionalist Jews as much as at traditionalist Muslims—something that many of even the most observant Jews are not willing to see.
And that’s where French Jewry, ready to accept laïcité despite its obvious costs, is wrong and short-sighted. In playing the laïcité game, Jews are playing by house rules, rules by which they will simply never be able to win. The truth is that despite laïcité’s dislike of religion, it does not dislike all religions equally. Indeed, laïcité is based on an understanding of religion as a matter of purely private faith, an understanding that is foreign to both Judaism and Islam. This conception of religion, so profoundly rooted in a strand of the Christian cultural heritage of Europe and Enlightenment philosophy, naturally makes little room for those whose religious life depends on public practice and ritual rather than private devotion.
For Muslims and Jews, of course, laïcité poses a hazard to daily religious life—a hazard that the wider French public is not aware of and doesn’t much care about. For the 41 percent of French people who profess to be Catholic, laïcité poses little challenge, so intertwined are secular France and its Catholic past. And laïcité of course poses no obstacles to the 40 percent of French people who profess no religion at all.
With laïcité on one side, and radical Islam on the other, the path is narrowing for the Jews of France. The more radical Islam grows, the stricter laïcité becomes. And the stricter laïcité becomes, the more Islamist ideology radicalizes. It must be pointed out how cruel a cycle this is for Jews: France fails to protect them, and then forces them to pay the price for others’ misdeeds in the currency of their own communal freedom.
Is there anything left of the narrow path in the middle? Adopting an American model of constitutionally mandated acceptance of religious practice in France is unlikely; the French are very proud of their cultural history, which now includes over 100 years of laïcité. The best that contemporary France can hope for—and the best strategy for the country’s Jews to promote—is a return to an earlier moment in that cultural history. The pre-2004 understanding of laïcite allowed for wider freedom of religious practice, and allowed or—and at times even celebrated—religion in the public sphere. This last position has been advocated by Korsia. Given laïcité’s cultural strength and the threat of radical Islam that prods it, it is unlikely that France and its lawmakers will listen. Nevertheless, this is a chance for the Jews of France to suggest their country moderate fundamental attitudes that are so plainly based on questionable assumptions. It’s time for France’s Jews to abandon their understandable shyness and speak up. Silence is the best friend of radicalism, whether the radicals are followers of Islamism or of laïcité.