FRANCE’S PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON presses ever forward in his plans to combat terrorism with harsh policies directed at Muslims — surveilling mosques, shutting down unregistered schools, and making imams sign loyalty oaths. These measures rely upon the tradition of French secularism, known as laïcité, originally aimed at the powerful Roman Catholic Church in a 1905 attempt to separate church and state.
But now, French laïcité is targeting an immigrant-descended minority, many of whom live in public housing and face racial profiling and employment discrimination, whose forebears were beaten to death and cast into the Seine in 1961. In the present confrontation, it’s hard to avoid the impression that French secularism is now punching down, not up, and that Macron is burnishing his law-and-order bona fides in order to poach voters from the far-right party formerly known as the National Front.
The proposed measures appear to mark a dramatic shift in the purpose of secularism. But despite the different contexts and reversed power relations, there are revealing continuities between the Third Republic’s campaign against Catholicism in the early 20th century and the current campaign against Islamist “separatism.” In fact, 19th-century secularists talked about Catholicism and Islam in such similar ways that some French Catholics even began accepting this comparison, seeing Muslims as allies against the aggressive secularism of the French state. This makes it all the more ironic that conservatives now embrace laïcité as a bludgeon against Muslims. In France, secularism has never been about removing religion entirely from the French public sphere but rather defining it, neutralizing it, and using it for the state’s own purposes.
To avoid unnecessary confrontations with ordinary Catholic faithful, the Third Republic tolerated crucifixes and priestly garb in public schools; financed church properties; and even appointed and paid Catholic clergy in the Alsace and Lorraine provinces. Yet the founders of the Third Republic viewed politicized Catholic orders as among the nation’s potential enemies, none more dangerous than the Jesuits, who were barred from teaching roles and expelled from France in 1880.
Many of the common complaints against Jesuit priests were similar to the anti-Muslim tropes of today. They were accused of being an unpatriotic “state within a state,” a communitarian, unassimilated minority; like today’s Muslims, their real loyalty was allegedly to a power outside and beyond that of the French state: their superior in Rome. As John Padberg, Geoffrey Cubitt, and other scholars have detailed, the Jesuits were long accused of being “a political corps” hiding “under the veil of a religious institute.”
Because little was known of their internal organization, Jesuits were the object of deranged conspiracy theories that overestimated their actual strength, influence, and radicalism; they became the focus of anticlerical culture wars and political campaigns that were meant to marshal electoral victories rather than to solve the real social and economic problems facing the Third Republic. And they were targeted by anticlerical laws drafted with the Jesuits specifically in mind but with a pretense to neutrality, naming all “unauthorized” religious congregations.
In a strange continuity with the gender dynamics of today’s attacks on Islam, the Jesuits and other priests were especially loathed because of the influence they exercised in the confessional over the religiously devout women of France: paternalistic, Republican husbands felt that they needed to protect their own foolish wives from the tempting baubles of Jesuit piety. Then, as with today’s headscarves, it was up to France’s secularized men to educate and protect women from the superstitions to which they were so susceptible.
This discursive association between Catholic orders and Islam influenced colonial officers in French Algeria, who assumed Islamic fraternities were just as politicized and conspiratorial as the Jesuits. Some Jesuit missionaries in French Algeria admired the religious devotion of Algeria’s Muslims and hoped to convert them to Christianity, but their efforts provoked deep suspicion on the part of the colonial state. As one colonial governor put it, Algerians did not need to have their alleged Islamic “fanaticism” provoked by missionaries, nor to be transformed into Christian fanatics instead, but only to have their “private belief” protected. In other words, both missionaries and Muslims threatened France’s religious neutrality because both still had not learned to keep their faith private.
The expulsion of the Jesuits and the 1905 separation law reduced Catholicism’s role in the public sphere but hardly marked the end of church-state conflicts. It was not until the 1930s, according to historian René Rémond, that the French Catholic Church’s leadership ceased to contest the existence of the republic; even so, a sizable portion of Catholic society yearned for a government that placed Catholicism at its center.
All across Europe, caught between the specter of Bolshevism in the Soviet Union and the rising powers of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in the 1930s, Catholics sought new political solutions and, frequently, threw their lot in with authoritarians who promised to restore the place of the Church in society. When France fell to the Nazi onslaught in 1940, taking the Third Republic down with it, few mourned the end of the secular liberal order. The collaborationist Vichy regime seemed to answer many Catholics’ prayers with its apparent valorization of Catholic values and privileged position for the Church.
By 1945, however, the European Catholic experiment with far-right governments was over everywhere but in Spain and Portugal, and French Catholics accepted that there would be no return to the old days. They looked instead to Christian democracy and to the creation of a welfare state, which — by promoting family life, support for children, and high wages for the male breadwinner — gave Catholics much of what they sought. The secular republic now seemed to be working for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
And yet, church attendance continued to decline. Despite a brief resurgence in religiosity after the war, some Catholics — such as the famed scholar of Islam Louis Massignon — looked to the religious practices of Muslims in French Algeria as a source of renewed spirituality for an increasingly secular France. Much of what these Catholics admired in Muslims was the all-encompassing nature of religion in their lives, which they believed promoted a deeper and more genuine spirituality. As Talal Asad has pointed out in his critiques of secularism, Catholicism and Islam are both uncomfortable with the relegation of religion to private life; both have aspired to shape society, from public space to education. Opponents of recent European headscarf and burka bans have found allies among Catholics, who argue that states overstep their rights when they seek to regulate personal expressions of faith in the public sphere.
Why, then, has laïcité — once the bane of conservatives — now become a right-wing cause with prominent Catholic proponents? Here, France’s fraught and still unresolved colonial past sheds some light: the Algerian War (1954–’62), seen by France’s military high command as a Cold War proxy struggle between “Western civilization” and Bolshevism, placed Christianity and Islam on opposite sides of a conflict. For the first time, the army of the secular French republic fought a war ostensibly in defense of so-called “Christian civilization.” Algerian Muslims faced systematic torture, starvation, and internment in camps, while reactionary French Catholicism found itself in alliance with the aims and ideologies of the republican state. Islam now seemed to threaten the new compromise between republicanism and Catholicism.
In 2003, the National Assembly formed a special commission to hear testimony on the proposed ban of hijabs in schools and interviewed Muslim leader Fouad Alaoui to gauge French Muslims’ reactions. He tried to explain that headscarves were a religious observance, not an attempt at overt proselytization. But one deputy shot back that this was a “Jesuitical” distinction. In the eyes of the secular republic, this spokesman of Muslim France was now guilty of behaving like a slippery Catholic priest of centuries past.
As important as it is to acknowledge the uniquely aggressive way that French secularism has been applied to Muslims, the continuities of laïcité are equally telling. In policing religion in the public sphere, secularism concerns itself with defining what is and is not religion and which beliefs are compatible or incompatible with the state. This was secularism’s central purpose in France, from the 19th century until now. Macron and other leaders would do well to acknowledge that the secular state is a central player in these debates, not a neutral referee, and that negotiation and compromise with people of faith must be ongoing.