France, Islam and ‘Laïcité’The Daily
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- 12 Feb 2021
“Laïcité,” or secularism, the principle that separates religion from the state in France, has long provoked heated dispute in the country. It has intensified recently, when a teacher, Samuel Paty, was beheaded after showing his class caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.We look at the roots of secularism and ask whether it works in modern, multicultural France.Guest: Constant Méheut, a reporter for The New York Times in France.For an exclusive look at how the biggest stories on our show come together, subscribe to our newsletter. You can read the latest edition here.Background reading: For generations, public schools assimilated immigrant children into French society by instilling the nation’s ideals. The beheading of a teacher raised doubts about whether that model still worked.For more information on today’s episode, visit nytimes.com/thedaily. Transcripts of each episode will be made available by the next workday.
From a New York Times, I'm Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily. Today, in the coming days, lawmakers in France are poised to adopt controversial legislation to combat the threat of Islamist radicals, which the country's president has called, quote, the enemy of the republic. My colleague constant mail on the debate raging there about the role of government in religion.
It's Friday, February 12th. Tell me about Samuel Patte, Samuel. Was history and civics teacher in a suburb north of Paris called Nahin. He was forty seven years old. He had been teaching for more than 20 years. And almost all of these former students I talked to told me that he was that type of teacher who was always eager to stimulate the critical thinking, always eager to organize debates.
Sounds like he was a good teacher. He was a great teacher. I mean, he was really beloved by his students and he was always this teacher who again, according to students I talked to, who basically left his mark. Mm hmm.
So last October, he goes to class to give his lesson on freedom of expression, which is a lesson he'd given years and years before. And it's actually part of the French national curriculum. And the way he normally this lesson was by challenging students to engage with what could be considered offensive. And he did that by showing two caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, including one where Prophet Muhammad is naked.
And here you need to understand something about France in general. Over the years, the Muslim population has grown substantially. And today it's one of the biggest minorities in Western Europe. And this was also the case for this town conference. And so taking that into consideration, Paddy told students that if they found the cartoons offensive, they could leave the classroom or look away and constitute this kind of a nice gesture. But this gesture was actually seen by several parents as discriminatory as a way to single out Muslim students.
And so you have some Muslim parents starting to complain to the school director. And after a few days of internal tensions at the school and after everybody understood that Samuel Petit had actually only been a bit clumsy, perhaps when he asked students to leave the classroom. Well, you apologized and everything seemed to be back to normal, you know, at least in the school.
So this felt like a kind of run of the mill case of a teacher offering a provocative lesson about freedom of speech and there being a small controversy in the school.
But he apologized and everything seemed to be OK. Exactly.
But so I come to the mall on the Internet.
One angry father complained about the teacher in videos.
And I said to him and said, I need to know the limits on the inaudible of software. For example, he said that his daughter was asked to leave the classroom because she was Muslim, which was not the case. In fact, she was never in the class. And Samuel Petit did not ask Muslim students to leave. He offered it as an option.
And and and so this father starts to describe what happened in a twisted way, saying that this teacher was acting in a hateful way.
So when you say the education has nothing to do with educators of any caused people to pressure the school to expel the teacher, huh?
So the video goes viral on social media and it reaches a guy named Dulac and Zaroff on, Durov is 18 years old. He was born in Russia, is Chechen. He's Muslim. He came to France when he was six years old and he was raised in the French public school system. He was very much a product of this system.
And then last year, he started to become radicalized on the Internet. He was adhering to a vision of Islam that was very extremist. And so he sees what happened in conference that Honorine and he decides to go there and he comes to the school where he teaches and he waits for him.
And soon enough that he leaves the school to go home. And then Zohra follows him down the street. And after a few hundred meters, he comes after him and he Tazeen and he behead him with a big knife. That's awful. That's horrific. And after he beheads him, he takes a photo. He publishes it online on Twitter, and he has a message that is addressed to President Emmanuel Makau of France. And the message reads, in the name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful from Abdullah, the servant of Allah, to my call, the leader of the infidels.
I executed one of your held thugs who dared to belittle Muhammed, call me fellows before you are inflicted. Harsh punishment. So this is clearly an act of terrorism in every way it is in every way, and after a few minutes, he is spotted in the street by the police officers and they kill him.
What is the reaction in France to what happened to Samuel Petit?
People are outraged. People are mourning because. It feels that this attack could have struck at their own friends, at their own teachers, and you have to remember that this attack comes on the heels of a string of very deadly attacks that started in twenty fifteen.
Now, returning to our breaking news story, we are getting reports of a shooting at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, first with the January 2015 attack against the Charlie Hebdo journalists that left about a dozen people dead.
Bloodbath engulfed Paris tonight as terror attacks exploded across the French capital. At least six sites were hit tonight, one at the start to France. From a concert hall to more attacks to a shopping mall, gunmen with Kalashnikovs reported to a restaurant.
And then you had the attack in November of 2015 around the Bataclan and in and around Paris, striking at cafes, restaurants.
And that left more than a hundred people dead.
An evening of national celebration turned into a scene of horror when a truck plowed into a crowd in southern France.
And then over the next couple of years, you had an attack and this was someone driving a truck over a very busy street, leaving more than 50 or so people dead.
With breaking news from France, where a few hours ago a gunman opened fire on a Christmas market in Strasbourg, killing at least two people.
And then a string of very specific attacks that felt like France was constantly under this threat of terror attacks.
But meanwhile, France is grieving and not just for the dead. The French are also in grief because they know their country will struggle to recover from these wounds and they fear what will come next.
But in 2019 and in the beginning of 2020, those attacks started to stop.
And so this fear started to decrease until the killing of Samuel Petit.
And so the killing not only revives old wounds of terrorism in France, but it also points to a threat that is changing, that is becoming increasingly homegrown, and that actually changes the issue because you're dealing with people who are self radicalized, who are known to the intelligence services, who have no clear links to terrorist groups.
And so it indirectly calls into question the way we respond to those attacks. For years, French authorities had been pushing ahead on various anti-terrorism measures, but now they're looking at other solutions, other options. They want to go deeper. They want to get to the root of the issue. And this is the moment when the debate lands at the bedrock of French society at a concept that is really deep inside our national psyche, which is called laïcité.
And what is Lycett? Am I saying it correctly? Laïcité?
Yeah, that's fine. This way. OK, so laïcité is a principle. And if we wanted to simplify things, I would say that it's about the separation between the state and the church. So this is something that is familiar for Americans, something that we could actually translate by secularism. But in France, it has some sort of a bigger meaning. In France, this idea behind Laïcité is that it's about freedom from religion, you know, whereas in the US, it's really about freedom of religion.
Right. And freedom from the government impinging on religion. Exactly. Yeah. You know, in France, there is this idea that it's all about preventing religion from impinging interstate commerce.
OK, so that's fascinating. In theory, how does this principle of laïcité actually get applied in France? I know that concept. You grew up in France, so I'm guessing you have seen it firsthand.
Yeah, probably the best place to explain this concept is the school, which are considered a public place. There is this idea in Lasica that. Students are not allowed to wear ostentatious religious signs in school because it is a public space, it is a neutral space. So when I was in middle school, I think there was great aid and there was a fellow classmate, you know, at some point in a class and he was wearing this cross around his neck.
And our math teacher, if I remember well, you not just asked him just to aid that. Krosby just under his T-shirt. Right. Which is kind of surprising. But I mean, my classmate agreed, and that was completely fine, actually quite natural because, again, there was this atmosphere that laïcité as to be implemented in the public space and what else than a better public space than school.
OK, so what is the history behind this concept? Where exactly does it come from?
You have to go back to the French Revolution in 1789 or centuries.
The Catholic Church was incredibly powerful financially, politically, up until the late 70s. Dunderheads. And that's when the French Revolution happened and it largely put an end to the reign of the Catholic Church in France. Mm hmm. And for the next century, for the 19th century, it's pretty much a constant battle between the church and the state, you know, with this idea that the Catholic Church should not get too much power. This battle is, you know, sometimes quite violent.
And it leads to this 1995 law, which was really the first one that rooted in two legal terms, this principle of making sure that religions should not interfere instead offers, meaning that you are allowed to practice a religion privately.
They shouldn't be, you know, this kind of constant presence in the public life. And at the same time, it is expected that the state does not interfere in religious affairs. The state is not there to support any religion nor to repress any religion. So the element of this concept and this 1995 law that feels most distinct, especially to my American ears, is this freedom from religion. And you're saying that comes from this long history of France trying to be free from the power of the Catholic Church and therefore, this concept and this law, it attempts to address this deep suspicion of a religion's influence on the state.
Right, exactly. And so how does this principle of laxity evolve over time?
Last year was largely untouched for most of the 20th century, and that could be because France at the time was largely homogeneous.
But that starts to change with an influx of immigrants from Muslim countries. And that leads to the low being first really tested in the 80s and the 90s. In 1999, you had three girls, three young girls in a middle school who refused to take off their headscarves, and because of that, they were expelled by their director. Well, and, you know, at the time, it was kind of a small controversy, at least when it started.
But then it really sparks off a whole debate on the wearing of the veil in schools. And there is this decision, this judgment by France's Supreme Court a few months later that say that wearing headscarves in schools is actually not incompatible with the principle of laïcité, not incompatible. So it's not incompatible. Right. But the debate had taken root in the country. And so in the following years, you have new incidents in schools that are reported, especially in the French press, of young guys who are pressuring young girls to wear a headscarf in school.
And that started to kind of worry people. And so the government responds to that new challenge by passing a law in 2004 that bans the wearing of religious signs of ostentatious religious signs in schools.
And I'm going to guess, based on my understanding of your age, that when you were in school and your classmate was asked to hide his cross, that that law would have been in practice. Exactly right.
OK, so at this point in the history of Laïcité, it feels like France is having to make a choice. Right. Do we as a country adjust the way we view this concept of the separation of church and state to accommodate?
The religious practices of new arrivals, especially Muslims, or do we force people to change their practices?
Exactly. And the choice that France makes at the time. Is to force people to accommodate with the French model of integration and I just mentioned the 2004 law, there is actually a second law that was passed in 2010 and this time it banned the full face veil in streets, in public spaces, in basically public buildings with this idea that the full face veil actually breaks with this principle of equality between women and men because it is some sort of a subjugation of women to men.
So Laïcité is once again codified into French law. And if we're being candid in a way that targets Muslim religious practices. Yeah.
I mean, again, the 2004 law, the 2010 law, it's all about banning religious signs. But we need to be honest there. The real aim, you know, is targeting Muslim practices. I have to imagine that.
As this is happening and these laws are accumulating for some Muslim people in France, this is starting to feel. Kind of oppressive and maybe even a bit discriminatory and asking them to give up a pretty big part of their identity.
It is and this is a debate that we have had for the past two decades, basically trying to make sense of still whether it is something that actually helps people to integrate into society or whether it is a tool that oppresses more and more people and especially Muslim people. It's actually a debate about the model of integration in France, really.
Do you assimilate meaning that you need to change your own practices so that you resemble people, or do you integrate in a way that allows you to keep your traditions, your behaviors? And that doesn't prompt a backlash from the rest of the society? We'll be right back. We could all use some support when things start to feel overwhelming, Tuck's face matches you with one of thousands of licensed therapists in over 40 specialties, including depression, anxiety, relationships and more at the fraction of the cost of in-person therapy.
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Hi, I'm Clairton is Geter. I'm one of the many names you hear in the list of credits on the Daily every week.
A big part of my job as a producer is talking to my colleagues, to New York Times reporters to get their expertise on the news. But we also want to explore the human side of the news. And so another big part of my job is talking to people about how they're experiencing what's happening in the world. That can mean walking up to people on the street, making cold calls, it spending months making sure we represent all sides of the story, whether it's about what shapes our political identities or how our coping with crises, we always feel like there's something to learn from these conversations.
We often hear from listeners that these types of stories are what makes the daily special, and we want to keep bringing them to you. We can't do that without subscriber support. If you haven't subscribed to The New York Times, you can do that at NY Times. Dotcom slash, subscribe and thanks. So concerned, how does the murder, the horrific killing of Samuel Petit influence this decades long debate about laïcité?
So President Emanuel my had been working on a package of laws to deal with the growing threat of Muslim radicalism for several months. We need to remember that it's been five years that France has been regularly the target of terrible terrorism attacks. So this attack on Samuell particularly comes on the heels of years of terror attacks in France. And so this attack really creates an incentive for the government to double down on Lycett and to use it as a tool to respond to this growing threat of Muslim radicalism in the country.
And so part of this package is about banning home schooling for kids over three years old, because there's this fear that children who would be educated at home in an atmosphere that is this sort of Islamist environment, it would be a threat for the republic.
There is also a legislation that would curb online hate speech the kind of hate speech that led to the killing of Samuel Petit. And there's also a provision that would reigning community associations, but also religious associations by obliging them to sign a declaration of allegiance to so-called values of the republic. And it would also impose stricter controls on their fundings.
So making religious groups sign a document that says we pledge essentially our loyalty to the state. Yes, exactly. And so how are French Muslims responding to this overall package of laws? Yeah, so you have two reactions, I would say on the one hand, you have several imams or leading figures of Islam in France who support that bill, saying that they have grown aware of their responsibility to make sure that a peaceful version of Islam is promoting in mosques.
And they're thinking that this bill will help them better control and restrict the way Islam is taught in France.
On the other end, you also have Muslims who feel that this law unfairly targets them and kind of conflates Islam with radical Islam's.
And I think this is the thing they're really worried about, about this new atmosphere, about this new climate that in a way implies that religions can be, and especially Islam, the starting point for separatism and extremism. Mm hmm.
So it sounds like in their minds, this law maligns Islam. It sees the religion itself as nurturing radicalism. And they don't agree with that. Right.
And so for Muslim people, it kind of creates this situation where you actually have an opposition between your French citizenship that does not allow you to express your religious beliefs, or at least that asks you not to express them too much and your religious identity that is seen as opposed to your French identity, rather than combining those two identities, these low risks, dividing them even more.
Is anyone in France asking themselves whether instead of trying to strengthen, let's say, the country should be rethinking it? And rethinking it in the opposite direction, which is to say. Making religious immigrants feel welcomed and embraced for their religiousness. And is it possible that that. Might better serve the goal of assimilation and integration and ultimately making France safer. Well, it is a question that is very difficult to ask in France, because ultimately that actually calls into question our very model of integration.
You know, France was based on this idea that to integrate people, you assimilate them, meaning that you try to have people looking quite similar, having the same culture, having the same historical references. Um, and I mean, all in all, kind of behaving in a homogeneous way.
And it was part of that idea that as the society in French grows diverse as multiculturalism is increasing in France, well, this new reality kind of contradicts those ideas of assimilation.
And so if you try to think about a new model of Lycett, you actually have to think about a new model of integration and. The question of whether Laïcité could fit into this new model of integration that accepts more diversity. I'm not sure that it would work, you know, because it basically contradicts this very idea that we want everyone to be neutral about their religious beliefs and roots.
Right. So you're saying France isn't quite ready? To let go of this concept. Of assimilation. But I wonder if over time France is really going to have that choice, if it's really going to be in. Francis has to make that decision, probably not, because at some point and President Emanuel had acknowledged it himself. Society is becoming more and more multicultural, and so you cannot. Remain in a model that worked well in the 1960s, but that does not fit with the reality.
Twenty, twenty one, but so far and this low is a perfect example of that. It is true that France is kind of clinging on this perhaps ideal of assimilation. But when are people going to question, you know, the very way they were raised and educated and the way they integrated immigrants? It's difficult to know when that's going to happen. Acosta, thank you very much. We appreciate your time. Thanks, Michael. We'll be right back.
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On Thursday, the House Democrats prosecuting former President Trump concluded their case, branding him a danger to American democracy who risks inciting new violence unless he is convicted and barred from holding office.
Because if you don't if we pretend this didn't happen or worse, if we let it go unanswered, who's to say it won't happen again?
The impeachment managers, led by Congressman Jamie Raskin, appealed to senators from both parties to rise above partisanship and hold Trump accountable for his role in the insurrection at the Capitol.
Senators America. We need to exercise our common sense about what happened. Let's not get caught up in a lot of outlandish lawyers theories here exercise your common sense about what just took place in our country.
Trump's defense lawyers will begin making their case for his acquittal later this morning.
And if you look at the projection, I would imagine by the time we get to April, that will be what I would call for, you know, for better wording, open season, namely, virtually everybody and anybody in any category could start to get vaccinated.
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