French Jews are in a difficult situation. On the one hand, France has endured a significant uptick in radical Islamist terror in recent years, of which Jews have been a chief target. On the other hand, and in order to moderate threats from religious violence, France has recently emphasized a strand of its political culture that fiercely separates private religious beliefs from the public arena. Laïcité, as French secularism is known, would eliminate almost all public displays and accommodations of religion—Judaism included. Jewish leaders in France seem willing to accept a more empowered laïcité in part as a way of defending their community against Islamism. Are they right to? In this month’s feature essay, the French writer Anael Malet argues that their choice is understandable but ultimately short-sighted.
To think more deeply about the problem the Jews of France face and to put Malet’s arguments to the test, we convened a discussion involving her, Angelique Talmor, a writer who worked in the French government, and Michel Gurfinkiel, the founder and president of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, a conservative think-tank in France. They were moderated by the Mosaic columnist Neil Rogachevsky, a scholar of French history. The event took place on Tuesday, May 24, at 12 pm Eastern time, live on Zoom.
My friends let’s get going. My name is Jonathan Silver. I’m the editor of Mosaic, the host of today’s conversation about the political and cultural dilemmas before which stand the Jews of France, the third-largest concentration of Jews in the world after Israel and the United States and the largest Diaspora community of Europe. At Mosaic, we’ve been covering this subject since our founding almost ten years ago, publishing long and short essays on the condition of French Jewry by the late Robert Wistrich, as well as by Shmuel Trigano, Ben Cohen, George Weigel, Natan Sharansky, David Pryce-Jones, and the late Walter Laqueur, as well as penetrating analyses by each of today’s interlocutors—about whom more momentarily.
Our moderator is the Mosaic columnist and Yeshiva University professor Neil Rogachevsky, who just yesterday published for us a truly significant historical and political document, a speech that David Ben-Gurion delivered in April 1948, that bears striking resemblance in affect and even some phrases to the speeches of Winston Churchill, whom Ben-Gurion had observed up close during the Battle of Britain. But Neil’s also written about France for us, including essays on the author Shlomo Sand, Islam in France, and French politics. Neil, I’ll hand the program over to you in just a moment, but it’s a pleasure to welcome you today.Joining him of course is the author of this month’s feature essay, “French Jews on the Tightrope,” Anael Malet, a graduate student at Bar-Ilan University, and a Krauthammer fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Engaging her in conversation will be an Angelique Talmor, a graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School, fellow Krauthammer fellow, and the author of a very good piece for us back in early April on the fascinating French candidate and public personality, Éric Zemmour.Then there is the longtime Mosaic contributor, the founder of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, the former editor of Valeurs actuelles, Michel Gurfinkiel. Gentlemen, ladies, you are all welcome. And now, Neil, I’ll hand it over to you to begin our program.
Thank you very much, Jonathan. It’s delightful to be here. As Jonathan kindly mentioned, I once studied France and paid careful attention to it. I haven’t been too close to it in a while—in fact, a while is now approaching another-lifetime-ago territory—so it’s quite a pleasure to learn from this outstanding and distinguished panel on a topic that is indeed very French, but also has major implications for other countries across the West, including the United States, Canada, and other lands where our Mosaic subscribers come from. Our subject is laïcité, the policy of secularism that has been at the core of the republican form of government in France for over a century, but which, as Anael notes in her really brilliant essay in Mosaic, seems to be undergoing a crisis at the current moment. That crisis has ramifications for all French citizens, but it should particularly interest us as Jews and therefore has been a major subject of conversation among the Jews of France.
Since the passage of the famous Law of Separation in 1905, which was really when republican government was secured in France, France has said that it is a secular state. So that sounds like the United States. The United States [Constitution] says that there can be no established religion. However, as Anael notes in her essay, in recent times in particular, this law, this secularism, has been interpreted quite dramatically, quite rigorously, and not only does it proclaim the state to be secular, it proclaims that all outward manifestations of religion in public life should be banned. Religion should be confined to the private sphere, essentially alone. Now, that goes much further than the tradition in the United States. The old formula, which is still somewhat useful, whatever its flaws, was that in America republicanism tried to protect religion from the state, whereas in France republicanism tried to protect the state from religion.
Now, defenders of the state say that originally when this law was passed, it allowed France to establish itself as a modern country. It imposed order over a deeply disunited and fragmentary country, allowing it to become a republic rather than a monarchy or some other kind of despotic regime. But its current travails are undeniable. Indeed, there is a growing sense among both defenders of the law as well as its ardent critics that the French secularist model is breaking down. It is said to be in a crisis. This appeared in the recent French presidential campaign. It’s widely seen as at the core of the French crisis itself. That has a word, le malaise Français, which is not a good cocktail that one could order in the Right Bank, but which expresses a general dissatisfaction, widely shared amongst the French public, about the general direction of the country.
The breakdown of French secularism is connected principally to the question of Islam in France. France, as we all know, has a large and growing Muslim population. Some number of French Muslims are increasingly alienated from French life—from the laws of the republic, as is often said in French discourse. This too has an ism—many French things need an ism—separatism. And there’s a sense that some percentage of French Muslims are checking out of mainstream French political life. At the extreme end of this, there is a sense of rising Islamism, which not only aims at a kind of separate life within France but quite consciously and politically opposes the French state itself.
So the question becomes: what is to be done? Should laïcité be strengthened? Should it be reformed? What are we going to do in this contested situation? Now, the obvious response is that probably nothing will be done. Things will bumble along until the real crisis comes politically. But this question is actually producing some constructive and very thoughtful commentary, interesting and very vital debate, which we want to get into today.
Now I would say this debate is conducted crudely on two poles. On one hand, there are those who want to reinforce French secularism. That means doubling down on this model of restricting religion from French public life. This would include measures such as banning kippot and headscarves, banning exemptions from non-kosher food in schools and public institutions in France—obviously of concern to Jews and Muslims. “Let them eat pork!” In general, defenders of this point of view say we have to do this. It is only by reinforcing the powers of the state by means of the state that we can keep back the threat of segregation, of separatism, of Islamism in France.
On the other hand, interesting critics—and Anael in her essay really arrives as one of the unique critics of this that I’ve seen—say the model itself needs to be reevaluated. The attempt to enforce this strict separation of religion and politics obviously doesn’t work for religions like Islam and Judaism, which are not only matters of private confession or private belief, but demand participation in public life itself. They further say that laïcité in France, secularism, was always shot through with a healthy dose of hypocrisy. It worked for Christianity, for the Catholic majority, for Protestants as well, and of course for ardent atheists, but never really was fitting for minorities to the extent Jews [and Muslims] would need to be accommodated. It was sort of a privileged class after World War II. So what is needed, say the critics, is to find a new balance. How do we reform laïcité? How do we allow for a certain expression of religion in public life while of course defending the laws of the republic itself?
Now, what I like about this debate as an outsider is there are good arguments on both sides, very intelligent and public-spirited people on both sides. In this conversation, we mirror this high-minded debate in France. Anael’s essay is quite a brilliant polemic on secularism, but is also subtle, and she gives her fair due to the defenders of secularism. She notes where it came from in French history, and Angelique Talmor, who I’d say is kind of a defender of the secularist model—she’s worked on the ground in French politics and so she has that necessary practical perspective on how this theoretical debate works in practice. What are its limitations? What do we learn about this debate from the actual practice of French politics?
About Michel Gurfinkiel, I’m not sure. I have an idea, but I don’t know exactly where he comes down on this debate, but he’s sure to add vital perspective. He is in my view one of the truly wise men of France and one of the most eloquent spokesmen of European Jewry. So with that, I would like to turn it over to our panel. I think I’ll start by asking Anael if she could share her argument with us on the limitations of secularism, then we’ll go to Angelique for response and finally to Michel Gurfinkiel to provide his commentary. So with that, Anael.
Thank you very much, Neil, for this introduction. Thank you everyone for coming to share your thoughts on France, on French Jews. I’m really excited and I’m very honored also to be part of the panel and to be discussing this with extremely talented people. Really, it’s very exciting and thank you very much for that, Angelique and Michel.
So let me start with a very short personal story, because I think it would set the situation up really well. In 2005, when the law was passed in France that banished conspicuous religious insignia in public schools, I was twelve. I was a student in a French public school in one of the suburbs of Paris. As the media reported, there were not really any major incidents after the law was passed, but I remember very clearly the girls, the Muslim girls, coming to the gate of the school the first morning the law was due to take affect—thirteen-year-old, fourteen-year-old girls—removing their headscarves at the gate of the school. I remember looking at these girls, looking at their eyes and looking at the eyes of their mothers and trying to understand how it would feel like to feel so exposed, maybe ashamed and humiliated, really, to have to do this. Personally, I really identified with these girls.
At twelve, I couldn’t really understand why the state, which was so far away, so big, had to mess with and come into the very local level of our suburban high schools and at such a small scale and for such a little piece of fabric. Of course, I know religion is symbolic. Religion is not just a piece of fabric. It mobilizes the hearts, the souls of people. And for that reason, I think it should be treated very gently and very wisely by the authorities lest it become poisonous to the community, which is on the verge of happening right now in France. So I don’t think that the French state and French society has been handling religion wisely, and that’s one of the elements, the main points, that I wanted to make in my article.
What I wanted to do in this article is to tell that story. Everyone knows, especially I think in America, about anti-Semitism in France, about the terrorist attacks, about the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the rise of Islamism. And I had in mind to write a kind of postscript to that story that had not been written so far. This is about what has been happening as a consequence of this events—the tightening of laïcité, of course, in the law, but also in the general culture because that’s also important; its effect on practicing Jews in France, and also in my opinion, it’s adverse effect on the growth of Islamism in France and its success in France among the Muslim population. So I wanted to show the dramatic situation of the Jews, where the Jews are right now. On the one hand, they’re victims of Islamism, and on the other hand, they’re also the victims of the reaction to Islamism by the government and by the general public, who believe that a harder version of laïcité is the only solution for the current situation.
Let me just end also with what my article is not about, because it’s a very difficult topic and there are many subtleties here, I think, that are important to understand. I’m not saying, for example, that laïcité is Islamophobic. A lot of people are saying things [like that] in France, especially on the far left, and I think it’s a very poor argument that should not even be considered. Laïcité has its own history and its own causes. I’m also not saying that laïcité is the cause of Islamism. I didn’t write a lot about this, but the causes of this phenomenon are complex, and laïcité is not one of theme. But what I am saying is that its concrete application does not help to fight Islamism.
Thirdly, I’m talking a bit about the new law that was passed in 2021 because it’s very important. It was Macron’s main project on laïcité, for reforming laïcité. I think it’s not going in the right direction in many regards. I’m not saying though that it’s all bad. There are in the law measure for fighting Islamism that are very good, including controlling the finances of Muslim organizations and expelling extremist preachers. That’s very good. But there are elements of the law that are not good, especially its expansion of laïcité, which is very much part of Macron’s policy. And also the fact that he didn’t repeal the 2005 law and its spirit: the idea that the citizens must be neutral, which I think is not the right direction for laïcité. So I hope my article helps make the situation clearer, and I hope it helps to start fruitful debates among all of us on these topics.
Fantastic. I know that was a great introduction to the themes of your article and the moderate, intelligent case against current secularism. Angelique, you can respond to whatever you like, but why don’t you start out by laying out the case for the maintenance of laïcité or articulating your position on the matter.
Right. So I think, first of all, it’s quite interesting to note that I think Anael and I have a bit of a different background as both French Jews. I’m perhaps more secular than she is. I think that having that perspective about the difference in our analysis is good to have in the back of our minds. I think that one of the things I fundamentally disagree about with Anael is that laïcité is something that’s been heightened. I think it’s always been something that’s been central to the French Republic.
The French Republic in itself is something that was created as a result of revolutionary universalist ideas. It wanted to create a system of government where the state’s legitimacy no longer came from the Catholic God as it did for the monarch, but from its citizens. So laïcité became a way to facilitate this new construction of the notion of citizenship that created a national fraternity, which transcended religion or race. So for me, there’s this revolutionary and universalist project inherent in the French Republic, where equality among citizens is a central point, and there’s only a republic because of that.
There’s always been a notion of deference to these values that’s inherent in the notion of French citizenship. To be fair, for me at least—if we’re talking about back when these values were applied during the Third, the Fourth, and the Fifth Republics, [i.e., from about 1848 onward]—Jews have fundamentally flourished in France, especially compared to other places, when laïcité was applied. We had a French prime minister, Léon Blum, even at a time in the Third Republic before Vichy, where there was already, obviously, a lot of anti-Semitism. We’ve had a Jewish president, Pierre Mendès France, a lot of ministers, high-level bureaucrats, CEOs, influential intellectuals, and much more. For me, there’s something that’s fundamentally part of French identity in a way that I don’t think is particularly changeable.
Also, laïcité is something that’s always been something central. The 1905 law was passed, but it became a constitutional principle in 1946; it was reaffirmed in the first article of the French Republic’s constitution. It must also be said, and Anael doesn’t really talk about this, and perhaps this is a bit of a public-law consideration, but because laïcité started as a political principle and became a legally established principle that’s been applied by the courts, there are also other constitutional principles that are of equal value, such as liberty of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and association, and protection against all forms of religious discrimination. So as such, the French system really says that the legislature or the courts have to find a balance among these different competing constitutional principles. These have been mostly made in the 1905 law, and it’s actually one reason given as to why you can have encroachment on freedom of religion: the notion in French law of “public order.”
Essentially, [the underlying theory is that] if you don’t have this order within society, nobody can enjoy freedom and liberties, and as such some encroachment of liberties is necessary. Such encroachment on freedom of religion is justified when you need to safeguard other constitutional rights, especially the ones I mentioned above.
For me, this is quite different from the Anglo-Saxon model. I personally think it’s intellectually dishonest to take it from an American point of view because the Anglo-Saxon model encourages the existence of a juxtaposition of communities who live together in a theoretical harmony, thanks to their total freedom of the exercise of religion. But the two models, of laïcité and of freedom of religion, are based on different things. It’s laïcité, which is the neutrality of the state towards all religions, versus separation of church and state; there’s a difference as to what’s guaranteed. In France, there’s really an emphasis on the equality under law of all citizens; in the U.S., the emphasis is on preventing discrimination because of religion. And there’s a different relationship with religion to begin with: you have this notion of public order in France that we just mentioned, and in the U.S. the notion of multiculturalism and reasonable accommodation.
This is actually summed up by wording of the 1905 law. In France, you have freedom of conscience, which I think is different from freedom of religion in the U.S., because freedom of conscience has a much more exclusively private-sphere connotation. So, just looking at that, I’d like to challenge the fundamental assumption that there’s a normative issue limiting what’s religiously permissible for the sake of national cohesion and belonging, particularly when we’re talking about a state like France, where the rule of law does apply equitably among all religions, and there’s a non-corrupt legal system that enforces this. So the French social contract really emphasizes the obligations and not just the rights of the citizens, and this entails a different report in religion than the Anglo-Saxon notion, in the sense that, in France, the right of freedom of religious opinion has to be reconciled with the explicit obligation of all Frenchmen to work for national cohesion.
I think that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with France having a different view of what citizenship entails and how laïcité plays into that. It’s a political choice of a society to reject communautarisme [loyalty to specific communities], and instead to have only one community and that’s the Republic, the state. No high-level person I’ve spoken to in the Jewish community has felt that there’s structural anti-Semitism because of this. For everybody I’ve talked to, we’ve mostly been in agreement that although there is a significant increase in anti-Semitism in France, so long as the state doesn’t become anti-Semitic—which I think in the way Anael analyzes laïcité, she sees that as an implicit consequence. But I fundamentally disagree. So long as there isn’t a rise of state-sponsored anti-Semitism, we’ll be able to have a Jewish future that will continue in France. That’s my analysis on the laïcité part. I have a bit more to say on the Jewish analysis, and how all this applies to Jews, but I don’t know if you wanted to go back and forth in conversation first.
Fantastic. Let’s maybe leave that second part for our next round. Before asking Michel Gurfinkiel for his response, I’m just going to tell we’ve got some audience questions already, which is great. If you do have a question, please put it in the Q&A function in Zoom, and I’ll get to those after our back and forth. So, Michel, would you like to reply?
First and foremost, I would like to say how much admiration I have for Anael’s essay. I believe that she has been able to raise a very real question in a way that nobody has so far. Very few people have truly discussed these matters honestly and frankly and from a Jewish point of view. There is a lot of ideological biases that are perverting the public conversation, the public discourse, both in France and in Anglo-Saxon countries and in other places. It’s only natural, except that maybe the French are more inclined to hide behind the concepts and to deny what is happening on the ground.
Something that is a very essential tenant of French culture is the difference between, as Blaise Pascal famously said, l’esprit de geometrie and l’esprit de finesse—between the spirit of geometry and the ability to be more pragmatic and to engage in a more nuanced appreciation of what is going on. There has been a polarization of French culture since the 17th century. It probably goes back even further, and it’s still very, very real and very present in French culture and in French politics as well, given the French love of drafting constitutions and laws, and love of talking about a new law and of possibly again revising the constitution.
We are living under the Fifth Republic, [which was founded in 1958]. One of the candidates in the recent presidential election spoke frequently of the necessity of bringing about a Sixth Republic. When we are speaking about the Fifth Republic, we of course do not talk about the monarchical restoration, of the July monarchy [1830-1848], the first empire [of Napoleon], or the second empire [1852-1870], and certainly we are not talking about the bout of dictatorship and the German occupation known as Vichy. But what at times is more important than the laws in France is the way civil society has been able to organize compromises in order to manage the laws and to bring them back to the level of reality.
When we talk about laïcité and the separation of church and state, we should in fact go back to what actually happened over the past 100 or 120 years. It’s true that in 1905 the French made the final decision to separate the state completely from all the churches—from the Catholic church, mainly, but from all religions. It was not the first time in French history. Under the First French Republic, [after the French Revolution], that was already the case. But what should be seen as even more important than the law of separation is the fact that there were two drafts of that law. The first draft was very radical and really provided for a kind of Kulturkampf, a kind of war against the church and a war against religion. This first draft was immediately mitigated by the Republican party in France and the final draft, the final understanding, the final interpretation of laïcité was much milder. It provided in the famous words of Aristide Briand, who was the main architect of laïcité, for a free church within a free state, which is vastly different from a republican state waging war against religion and against the church.
In fact, when you look at the history of the relationship between politics and religion, between the Catholic Church and the French government, between the other religions and the French government throughout the 20th century until the very beginning of the 21st century, you can see that the French have been very, very smart in gradually finding a way to accommodate everybody. The French Republic was secular enough not to interfere with the lives of the secular people, but at the same time, it was pro-religion enough to allow religious people to go on with their own way of life.
For instance, one very important example was schools. The secular school in France was in fact created in the end of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century as a tool against the Catholic Church. But in the second half of the 20th century, the laws about national education were changed or softened in such a way to allow for the so-called free schools, meaning religious schools, to operate with some support of the government and some support of the taxpayers. Everybody was, in fact, very happy with all that.
One group in France that benefited enormously from this spirit of compromise and moderation was the Jewish community. I was born in 1948, which actually doesn’t turn me into a very young person, but it does mean we have a person here with some memory of the past. I remember very well that back in the 50s or early 60s France was a country where you had lots of Jews everywhere, but very little Judaism. Observant Judaism was a rarity. It was extremely difficult to lead the life of a moderately observant Jew, which was something completely normal in the Anglo-Saxon countries. Then things improved for many reasons. But the major reason was that laïcité was finally understood in a very moderate way.
There is no question that the main reason why an aggressive, even totalitarian, version of laïcité is making a comeback is the issue of Islam. All of a sudden you have France a massive, massive immigration of Muslims from North Africa, from sub-Saharan Africa, from Turkey, from other places, who have a lot of different views and understandings of what France really is, but they basically have a Muslim view of what Islam is. Islam is, essentially, not a religion where government and religion are separated; it’s a religion that is about government. Government—the right, the proper government under God’s law—that’s Islam. That’s simply Islam. Thus we are now in a completely new period of French history and of the history of the French Jews.
We’ve seen two very, very ominous developments over the past two decades, basically. One is that the problems of immigration and the problems involved with the rise of a very conservative or a very radical form of Islam have not been assessed by anybody, almost anybody, except for the far right within the French political class. There has been a terrible state of denial of what was going on. The second problem is that the only answer the political class, for that very reason, was able to contemplate was to become even more radical in the issue of laïcité. Again, whatever the issue, the Jews were in every case the first to pay for the blindness of the political class.
For many years, the government and the political class, and some of the media—not all of the media, some of the media—did not want to acknowledge that there was a Jewish problem in France, that there was a problem of anti-Semitism in France, that there was a problem of violent anti-Semitism in France, and that this problem stemmed not exclusively, but in a very considerable part, from radical Islam. By the same token, people were not willing to admit that the same secular laws that were theoretically intended against Islam would never be applied seriously to Muslims because Muslims were simply too populous in this country to be dealt with in that way, but the new laws would certainly interfere with the daily life of the Jews.
This is the situation which I believe Anael Malet has very remarkably described. I can of course suggest a few more considerations. Of course, I have listened very carefully to what Ms. Talmor said. Up to a point, I also agree with a lot of things that she said. But nevertheless, I disagree with her on one basic instance. I believe one may of course draw a distinction between the French and the Anglo-Saxon models; one may say that the Anglo-Saxons are wrong in judging what is going on in France according to the Anglo-Saxon model. On the other hand, there is certainly a vast difference in practical terms between being Jewish in a place where there is no war fought against religion and a place where for various reasons people think that such a war should be fought today.
Thank you, Michel Gurfinkiel. That was phenomenal. I think through all these three presentations we’ve already had an amazing airing of point of views and a constructive debate on the matter. Anael, do you want to come back and share your thoughts based on the general context just provided and about some of Angelique’s criticisms of your point of view?
Of course. Thank you, Angelique, and thank you, Michel, for your comments. I’ll just start with what Angelique said. There are many interesting things and many interesting points that you raise. The first one that you mentioned was that the Jews flourished under laïcité. As Michel said, the law of separation in 1905 was a law of compromise, it was a good law. So my point in the article is not to say let’s erase the last 100 years of our history and get rid of laïcité. It’s about going back to the initial spirit of compromise and tolerance that the 1905 law had, and which in my opinion, changed in the past twenty years or so.
On the point that Jews flourished under laïcité, I very much agree with you, because the 1905 law allowed this. You mentioned Léon Blum and the French Jewish political personalities, but also you must remember that, first of all, we are living in a different stage of French Jewish history. This is not the same population now. Today, French Jews come in large part from North Africa. They;re not Ashkenazi Jews from the first half of the 20th century, and this is important because today’s French Jews flourished in the France of the 80s and 90s, before laïcité became so stringent. That’s when the most important and largest Jewish schools were funded in Paris. That’s when the Jews created vibrant Jewish life, in the last decades of the 20th century. So I disagree on that point.
You mentioned also the question of trust in the rule of law in France. I agree with you. Thankfully, France does not yet have an anti-Semitic government—I really, really think we are very far from that. But there are issues that must be raised. For example, take the last law in 2021, and what’s happening now in one of the cities in France, Grenoble: the city council voted for a law that allowed women to wear modest swimsuits that were hygienic. Apparently, there are also women who go swimming topless. I don’t really know the details, but basically the law stated that you can dress however you want to in a swimming pool, so long as you don’t do anything unhygienic. Well, Macron’s law in 2021 allowed for the prefect, the representative of the central government, to interfere in this law because it is a potential breach of laïcité, and to ask for the courts to give an immediate decision as to whether it is permissible.
Now, this law is being applied in a way that I think is very worrying because these are just women who want to wear modest swimsuits. I don’t think the state should invest all of its strength, all of its power in preventing this, especially since a city has voted for these new rules in the swimming pools. So yes, we should trust the rule of law in France, but we should be worried that with the spirit of stricter and more aggressive laïcité you will have people who will not interpret the law in a way that is fair and tolerant for everyone.
About the last point. You mentioned the French difference and the French spirit of citizenship, which is different from the English model. I agree with you. This is clear. France has a long history, and it should be proud of its history. But again, it should conduct itself according to the values, which are also important, of tolerance and wellbeing for everyone here. For example, you mentioned that the French spirit of citizenship requires that religion be in the private sphere. I think this is a problem. This is a very important problem because I think religion has its voice in the public sphere. It has something to share and to contribute to public debates, and also it’s not fair because Judaism and also Islam are not religions of the private sphere. They’re not religions of belief, that focus on inner belief and what you’re doing is in the privacy of your own home. They are religions about practice. By definition, you’re going to dress in a certain way. You’re going to eat in a certain way.
So to demand that religion should be only in the private sphere, I think, is not fair and could not work for Jews. Those are just a few points, and I can’t reply now to everything you said. You said many other interesting things. But I’ll stop here.
Responding to that, I think Michel said something very important in his remarks when he asserted that the way this had worked in the past was that the ardent principle of the law didn’t, in practice, reach its full theoretical extent. It was balanced by a sense of the circumstance, by the moderation of the administrators, by the rulers, who said, “Oh, okay, these Jews? It’s no problem. In fact, it’s maybe beneficial for us that they live their Jewish life in a full and meaningful way.” Wise statesmen are not always at the helm; a wise person made that decision. I don’t know if we see any such people in politics today. Perhaps you guys see some hope that moderation of this kind will prevail among the leadership of friends. But if not, what would you suggest be done concretely? This discussion has been extremely good at the level of ideas, but concretely, what kind of proposals would you suggest that could potentially move things in a more productive direction? I’ll ask that and anyone can jump in there and then we’ve got a bunch of questions.
Let me just add something also because it’s connected to your question: not everything is about the law. The law is very important in shaping a society, but at the end of the day, it’s what people make of a law and what impact it has on the culture of people in the ground. I think that a lot of discrimination coming out of laïcité today has actually not come from the state, but has come from the interpretation that people, random people, or low-level administrators, private companies, or others have been practicing in the past year. So I think that what should be done is to anchor a version of laïcité that is not going beyond its initial spirit, a version of laïcité that emphasizes tolerance and emphasizes the importance of religion in the public sphere. And I’m not just talking about religious arguments, I’m also talking about the visibility of religion.
I think the more religion is visible in a public sphere, the more it is also subject to public scrutiny. So if you start to hide, you can do whatever, including the most terrible things, in the privacy of your own home. But when you start to have to justify yourself in public, that’s when you can moderate your religion and start to understand that, well, you may not be right and maybe too extreme in that. So I think that’s the model that I would like France to take, rather than negate its history and say that we’re not France anymore. It has the resources. It has a 1905 law. It was a good law. And the additions, especially of 2005, took it in a bad direction. The idea that every citizen should be neutral, I think, is very much not in line with the initial idea of laïcité. People, citizens should be free to express their religion even, and especially, in the public context. I think especially for the Jews. The Jews I think have been, and should continue to be, advocates for this moderate version of laïcité.
I’d love to jump in, because part of where Anael and I differ is that, in my opinion, if there has been a diminution of Jewish flourishing, I think it can mostly be attributed to anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism has been rising in France due to new populations feeling emboldened against Israel and against Jews because of stereotypes that come largely from the Middle East, and some unfortunate things that have come out of the culture of the newly-arrived populations. If you assume that France is really living through a civilizational change, in a sense, where you are having a more diverse population, you are having Islam becoming a significant religion demographically, even more than it already is. We don’t have actual statistics on where it’s at right now because France doesn’t allow those. But I think—
Because of laïcité, [collecting such data is forbidden].
Well, yes, but what would be an effective alternative for combating radical Islam? If we implement the interpretation of laïcité which you are advocating for, and it emboldens certain forms of Islamic radicalism in France because there isn’t as much stemming it, Jews will be the first to suffer. For me, the question about reinforcing laïcité and why I don’t have much of a problem with it even though it does require, especially for the more religious, that Jews in France make concessions, is that France doesn’t have a better way that it’s found to integrate Muslims. I kind of disagree with you a bit on the impact it’s had, but the other options are things that could resort to unethical discrimination that could also be instrumentalized against Jews as well. So for me, I don’t really see another option.
I think Jews, at least, have the ability to go to Israel if being a Jew in the Diaspora is not something that we feel like we feel comfortable in. Raymond Aron said famously in Le Spectateur Engagé, “Jews now have the liberty to elect to be Jews in the Diaspora. They can also choose to be Jews in Israel, but if they choose to be Jews in France and as such French citizens, they must respect their nation as France and not Israel.” But that also implies deference to what French society becomes. I don’t know. I think that at the end of the day, I’m not a religious person. I think that perspective does change things. And a lot of my friends I see are religious enough, but also are secular enough to make those accommodations.
But for people who aren’t, I’m not sure that there is much of a future in France, regardless, because for me, it’s a double-edged sword, in the sense that if we dial back laïcité, and it emboldens radical Islam at the end of the day—I’m not as optimistic as you that it wouldn’t—what happens to the Jews? And then either Jews adapt their practice in France under an emboldened laïcité, if it’s successful in restoring social peace, which has been lost in part because of this demographic and cultural change we’re seeing. I’m not sure. I think it’s a double-edged sword, but I’m not sure that’s a good solution either.
Yeah. Maybe I’ll answer now. I think you’re saying that in your opinion, laïcité is somehow the only solution to the current situation. I actually think quite the opposite. Again, to be clear, there are many things to be done and that have been done partially by the government to fight against Islamism, and these are not about laïcité. These are, as I said, controlling the finances; creating a Muslim education that’s made in France and not made in Saudi Arabia or different places; tackling hatred online. But there are many more things that have not been done yet. Controlling books and information is very hard. And you and I agree, it’s a civilizational change, and it’s a struggle that must take place.
I don’t think that adding on the top of this struggle, as Michel said, a Kulturkampf that pits laïcité against religion is going to be very helpful. So I think my solution is to separate, theoretically, the two debates. On the one hand, there’s laïcité, which we should maintain on a moderate level. And on the other hand, there are very pragmatic and concrete policies that we can do to control Islamism in France. So to give some statistics—I’ve been searching—there’s an estimation that around maybe 7,500, between 507,000 people who are suspected of being close to radical Islamist ideologies or circles, but who are not active—meaning they’re not terrorists, but they have affinities with these ideologies.
How do we control these ideologies? First of all, we control them by making sure that the other millions of Muslim that have nothing to do with them are not seduced by these ideologies. And how do you do this? You make them feel that they are welcome when they practice their religion moderately. If they want to put a veil, they will be welcomed in school. They would be able to practice sports in public clubs and they will be able to visit the head of parliament or be elected in a political list, and so on and so forth. There are so many situations where they can feel excluded on the job and so on.
So you make sure that these people are not going into the ranks of the extreme groups. As we go to the extreme group, yes, you need to apply a very, very tough policy, but those policies have nothing to do with laïcité. The problem is that in the public debate, the connection has been made again and again, for instance when Samuel Paty, a history teacher, was assassinated by a terrorist just before the law was debated in the parliament. He, on the radio, was talking about halal and accommodation of food in public restaurant. I think the connection is absolutely must not be made because these are separate issues. That’s the problem.
I don’t know. I agree with part of what you’re saying. But on the other hand, I think that perhaps I’m just more pessimistic in saying that the point of trying to reinforce laïcité is to reinforce some common values among different populations who come from ethnically and religiously different backgrounds and have that be the backbone of society in France that brings them all together. The veil, for example—especially with its connotations that are at least reasonably different from the reason women cover up after marriage in Judaism, and that have to do also with the sexualization of women, that women aren’t viewed the same way by men—is for me antithetical to the French conception and the republican conception that women are supposed to be equal to men.
So it implies a change in society and civilizationally for me that I’m not comfortable with, and I think that a lot of people who are pushing for this more extreme form of laïcité, even with its negative consequences—especially for religious people—want to push back against, and the only way that they really can without going down a slippery slope that really we’ve seen with Vichy-esque tactics, et cetera.
Let me tell you about facts of life in France. You have heard a lot about burkini being banned at swimming pools in France and so on and so on. Actually, my wife, who likes to go to swimming pools, who usually goes at times where there are very few customers, which allows her to be happy with her own personal views about swimming and display of semi-nudity and so on and so on, was shocked by something different, that in some very recently rebuilt, refurbished swimming pools in France, showers have been turned into, how should I say, mixed showers, that is, no separate facilities have been provided for people to shower according to their sex or gender, which certainly can be seen as promoting absolute equality between men and women. But it’s something that in the same way can be extremely embarrassing for a lot of women and perhaps some men as well.
So I mean, this is one example among many other examples of the difficulties into going too far with the view that religion goes against human rights and human rights are whatever the woke interpretation of human rights is supposed to be. Catholics and Jews and other religions have the view that some functions in religious life are devoted to men. For instance, Orthodox Jews believe that rabbis have to be men. Okay. This is the case also for the Catholics who believe that only men can be priests and so on and so on.
Naturally, this goes against the concept of complete equality between man and woman. But on the other end, this is perhaps pertinent with the reality of men and women having different functions and romanticizing about different functions as well. So why should, in fact, the government interfere? Let me go a step further. One recently elected mayor in a middle-size city in France, true to the agenda of the Green party, started a policy against the romanticization of airplanes. It decided to cut the city subsidizing of an aviation club in the city. The mayor, who was a woman by the way, had this remarkable sentence: one should act in such a way that young boys and young girls will not dream anymore about becoming pilots.
Let me just say that a lot of people in France in fact believed that that was suddenly going too far. How are you going to regulate the dreams of people? Maybe religion is an illusion, but it’s your dream and people should be allowed to have their dreams as well. What we know about religion among Jews and what we know about religion among Muslims in France is very interesting in itself. For instance, there is no question that the Jewish revival in France was in part, and in a very large part, in a very large measure, a reaction to the intense feeling of betrayal of the Jews in France and in the French empire as well in 1940. The French Jews had been real believers in the French Republic’s gospel, the idea of complete and full equality and a chance for Jews to become full-fledged citizens.
Now in 1940, the Vichy state, admittedly under German occupation, simply by a stroke of the pen totally destroyed the republican or the democratic status of the Jews overnight. What happened next was that Jews—most of the Jews, not all of them, but certainly the vast majority of them—made a decision to get out of that bad bargain. For instance, they stopped using the formulation Israëlite, people of the Mosaic persuasion, and they started calling themselves Jews, just the way African Americans at one point stopped talking about themselves as colored people, and started talking about being black and talking about black power and black lives and so on and so on.
The main reason why French Jews massively opted for Zionism, for support for Israel or for immigration to Israel, and the main reason so many French Jews decided to come back to their religious roots, was essentially that reaction, a reaction coming from the very center of the Jewish personality, of the human personality. We had been cheated by the French government, the French society, and so on, and it cannot go on like that.
Talking about Muslims in France, you will realize that their assertiveness, while dressed up as a religious assertiveness, in fact has nothing to do with that. It has to do entirely with a kind of revenge—and some would even say a legitimate revenge—of people that had been colonized against colonization and the colonizers. I would like to mention a remarkable, remarkable work by one Anglo-Saxon academic, Gavin Murray-Miller, who wrote a remarkable book about the trans-Mediterranean Republic that was the old delusion of the French going too far, according to esprit de geometrie that were absolutely convinced that everybody in the French empire, the Muslims in Algeria, the black people in Sub-Saharan Africa and so on, and of course the Jews everywhere should simply become French, and that France overseas, France in North Africa, or anywhere was really the same as metropolitan France.
In many ways, the Muslims in France today, of whom almost 100-percent come from the former colonies with perhaps the exception of the Turks, they just are true to that vision. They said, yes, France and the colonies were one single political unit. The difference is that the French, meaning the non-Muslim French, had the upper hand, and now by virtue of numbers or for other reasons, we have the upper hand and religion is very often a way to express this reversal of geopolitical fortune.
My personal guess is that the best way to fight the dangerous consequences of the rise of Islam within French society is to help the more moderate brands of Islam to take over. In that respect, I would say that the most decisive and the most promising development has been the Abraham Accords. From the moment after that you have conservative Muslim countries—not just in the Gulf, the kingdom of Morocco as well—saying the issue of Israel is over. We have made decision for peace. It doesn’t preclude some kind of settlement on the Palestinians, but we have made a decision for peace. And we remember that we were good friends with the Jews. So the moment this kind of Islam exist and perhaps is going to develop and to take more strength, I believe that it may help a lot of problems to be solved in some way in Europe, in the West, and especially in France.
That was a wonderful, wonderful review and wonderful sentiment expressed there at the end. Unfortunately, we just have time for one question, which I’ll get to. We could go on and on all afternoon or evening, depending on our timeframe, which is the mark of a good discussion. So I’ll just ask this one question. This comes from retired ambassador Herman Cohen. This is paraphrased. “How is the issue of a separation of religion and state currently taught in France and how should it be taught?” So I think I’ll give Anael the last words since she’s spurred us on to this discussion with her wonderful, provocative essay.
Thank you very much. How should it be taught in schools? I imagine in public schools. I think there is a lot of variety on the ground, and there are contradictory signals from the ministry [of education]. So up to recently, you had the French Minister of Education Michel Blanquer, who is considered to be more of a hardliner on laïcité issues. In the last summer, I think, he did a massive campaign about laïcité in school. He put posters in the streets, in the cities of laïcité, and they show a little black girl sitting next to little white boy. Some were very mainstream posters that everyone would agree on. But some were not so moderate in terms of how they interpret laïcité. For example, one was saying that laïcité is that a little boy should be told that he has a freedom of conscience and he should be neutral, and it almost seemed to be saying he should oppose his parents, and that he should be winning. I don’t really remember the details. But I remember I wrote a short essay on that.
I think sometimes laïcité is taught in a very good way, in a way that’s saying that laïcité is about toleration, is about living together, is about building a society together and respecting each other and the state being neutral, all of the essentials of the 1905 law. Sometimes you’re not protected against a situation where a professor had more hardline views and then will give a more hardline position. It’s likely to change because the new minister of education is more on the left on these issues, way more on the left. I don’t know what his stance on laïcité is really, but I expect him not to be like Blanquer, to move in a different direction. But only time can tell.