The Wrong Kind of Secularism

The French secular ideal of laïcité is not a misused noble idea — it is deeply flawed at its roots.

"The Black Stain," Albert Bettanier (1887).

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo murders, we heard a great deal about “republican values.”  Indeed, some French people seem to have heard too much; a recent opinion poll claimed that 65 percent of French people thought terms like “republican values” had been “used too much and had lost their force and meaning.”

Central among those republican values is laïcité — a French term that has so many connotations and interpretations that it is effectively untranslatable, though secularism is a reasonable approximation. Today laïcité serves as a justification for a variety of things — from banning headscarf-wearing mothers from accompanying their children on school outings to telling Muslim and Jewish schoolchildren that they must eat pork or go hungry.

But laïcité is not simply an idea that has been appropriated by the Right for political or cultural ends; it is also a value claimed by the Left, even the far left.

Moreover, the significance of laïcité is that it is not just a “value” washing around inside people’s skulls; it has a concrete material embodiment in the French educational system. In France today roughly a quarter of the population (24.7 percent) are involved in the education system, either as employees or as students, making the ideals and practices associated with laïcité central to the social and economic structures of the French nation.

Laïcité has a long and tortuous history, but the crucial turning point was undoubtedly the Ferry laws of 1881 and 1882, which established the principle that primary education in France would be free, compulsory, and secular.

Similar expansions of primary public education were taking place elsewhere in Europe. Changes brought by industrialization increased the need for a literate and skilled labor force in France, particularly after Prussia’s decisive victory in the war of 1870, which many at the time attributed, at least in part, to its educational superiority.

But there were other factors. The politicians who now controlled the Third Republic had cut their teeth as members of the opposition under the Second Empire. The Catholic Church had played a significant role in establishing and supporting the rule of Napoleon III. A French garrison had protected the Vatican, and it was only when it was withdrawn for the Franco‑Prussian War that the Vatican lost its status as an independent state and became part of Italy.

So republican politicians tended to be anticlerical and distrustful of the Catholic Church — something which corresponded to a widespread popular mood in the French population.

There were clear reasons for distrust. The clergy’s loyalty was divided between the French state and the papacy, and the papacy had its own foreign policy, which did not necessarily coincide with that of the French state. There was also fear that Catholic teachers might favor Rome instead of Paris; for example, during the Franco–Austrian war in 1859, a village priest reportedly told parishioners to pray for the Austrians because they were Catholics.

Consequently, Ferry and his supporters believed that the important task of educating the new generation should not be left to potentially unreliable allies in the church, and that primary schools should be taken over by direct agents and employees of the state instead.

The question of national defense was also key. France had suffered a catastrophic defeat in the Franco–Prussian War, and had lost the territories of Alsace and Lorraine to the newly established German Empire. There was strong feeling in some quarters that France should work to recover its lost territories.

Ferry himself did not favor war with Germany, and tried to improve relations with France’s neighbor. But his maneuverability in this regard was circumscribed by French public opinion, and the real possibility of another war with Germany. Ferry’s preferred option was to expand France’s colonial empire — a mission in line with his racist belief that “superior races . . . have the duty to civilize inferior races.” Indeed, it was during Ferry’s tenure that France occupied and annexed Indochina.

These aspirations made the question of the army central; France was still substantially a peasant country — in 1900, 45 percent of the French working population were farmers and peasants. In 1848 and 1871 it was peasant soldiers who had restored “order”  by suppressing uprisings by Paris workers, and in the succeeding decades the army would be used repeatedly against strikers.

But there was a problem with the peasantry. Their sense of national identity was decidedly weak, and peasants were much more likely to identify with their village or their province than the French nation. From Brittany to Provence, many peasants spoke languages or patois other than French; official figures from 1863 show that up to a quarter of the population spoke no French. In some areas there were reports that peasants did not know that they were French.

A central theme of Ferry’s educational project, then, was strengthening the sense of French identity by replacing religious instruction with a “moral and civic” education that would instill ideas of patriotism and national identity. The basic syllabus for the new schooling model included military training for boys and needlework for girls (perhaps sewing uniforms).

The military exercises in the new schools acquired considerable importance. As one historian has described:

It was the time of the ‘school battalions’. A republican invention made by Paul Bert and launched in 1882. It meant taking advantage of the entry of pupils into primary schools in order to inculcate them with notions of ‘patriotic citizenship’ through military exercise. The children practised marching with a toy gun with a wooden bayonet, but they also practised with live ammunition, outside the school, in army rifle ranges.

In the introduction to a 1985 colloquium on the Ferry laws, François Furet describes the establishment of laïcité in education as “the best symbol of the great and only victory of the left since the French Revolution.” Yet when Ferry’s laws and laïcité were established, the position of the Left was less enthusiastic.

For one wing of the Socialist Party, headed by the charismatic Jean Jaurès, it is certainly true that the Ferry laws and the separation of church and state were seen as a great step forward.  As a young man Jaurès had been friendly with Ferry and was sympathetic to the idea of laïcité as part of his more general accommodation to republican politics. In 1904 Jaurès defended Socialist participation in a republican government, saying it had saved the republic, and merely alluded to the fact that the republican government also sent troops to fire on striking workers.

For the Marxist left things were somewhat different. In the summer of 1882, just after the Ferry law on laïcité had been passed, Karl Marx himself was in Paris for nearly three months, on his way home after a stay in Algeria. His correspondence from the time shows no mention of the event — strange considering Furet saw laïcité as the Left’s greatest victory.

Paul Lafargue — Marx’s son-in-law and the foremost French Marxist thinker and writer for three decades after settling in Paris in 1882 — also never referenced the Ferry laws in his copious correspondence with Engels. Perhaps the omission stemmed from Marx and Engels’s low opinion of Ferry; Marx scorned his “maladministration” in the period before the Paris Commune, while Engels called him a “thief of the first water.”

However, Karl Kautsky — the so-called “pope of Marxism” after Engels’ death — had a somewhat different perspective. Although he was generally critical of the Third Republic, and the illusions in it held by many in the French socialist movement, he noted without reservation that “in the area of education, the Third Republic has done great things.”

Yet he was skeptical about the separation of church and state, arguing that “if there has now been a split between Church and State, then this can be ascribed to a Church provocation. Nevertheless, it can still be doubted whether this split will be a permanent one.”

Kautsky later commented:

today the bourgeois liberal politicians have every interest in the struggle against the Church, but by no means in triumphing over it. They can only count on the alliance of the proletariat as long as this struggle continues. If it comes to an end, their ally will be transformed into an enemy on the very day the Church goes down. Even in the time of their greatest revolutionary power, the bourgeoisie could not get by for long without the Church.

In other words he saw laïcité as a concession to the Left rather than as an alternative ideological strategy.

Lafargue had a rather more acute grasp of the issues. He was an atheist and a materialist, and was strongly opposed to church influence; his first act on being elected to parliament was to move, unsuccessfully, a resolution calling for the separation of church and state.

But he was also skeptical of those who gave great importance to anticlericalism. In the 1883 program of the Parti Ouvrier, written by Lafargue and Jules Guesde, there is a disdainful reference to bourgeois free-thinkers who want “the suppression of state subsidies to the churches and the separation of Church and State.” They point out that in the US there is such a division (so that religions are a “private industry like a grocery or a pork butcher’s shop”), but that this “does not prevent religious leprosy eating away the great American republic more than any power on earth.”

In 1886 Lafargue published a satire entitled La Religion du capital (The Religion of Capital). He imagined a conference in London with economic and political representatives of European capitalism — Clemenceau, Rothschild, Gladstone, Herbert Spencer, von Moltke, etc. Among those attending were Ferry and Paul Bert, who as education minister had been one of Ferry’s main allies in establishing laïcité. Their concern was to enable the survival of capitalism. And for that, a religion of some sort was required.

In the satire Bert declared that while he was a non‑believer himself, he was in favor of religion for the working class. “The workers must believe that poverty is the gold which buys heaven . . . I am a very religious man . . . for other people.”

The problem was that Christianity was no longer credible. In a passage of Voltairean mockery, Bert noted that it was no longer possible to get people to believe “that a pigeon slept with a virgin and that from this union, condemned by morality and physiology, was born a lamb.” The delegates agreed that a new religion was required, based on the worship of capital and a catechism imposing the duty of labor on workers.

Here Lafargue seemed to be commenting satirically on the role of laïcité — a doctrine that could play the role that the obsolete teachings of Christianity no longer could.

It is sometimes claimed that laïcité continued the traditions of the Paris Commune. It is true that the commune had separated religion from education. But, as Maurice Dommanget has argued, the communards did not much use the term laïcité, considering themselves materialists rather than neutral on the question of religion.

And, more important, as Kristin Ross has shown in her excellent recent study, the commune did not see itself as a state but rather as pursuing local autonomy with an international framework. It certainly did not see education as preparation for military service. The commune represented a quite different internationalist tradition from that developed by the partisans of laïcité.

Some of the sharpest criticism of laïcité came from the anarchist and syndicalist currents; the anarchist position could be summed up as “neither the church nor the state.” As Sébastien Faure put it, the Christian school was “organised by the Church and for it, while the “école laïque” was “organised by the state and for it.” He counterposed the idea of “the school of the future . . . organised for the child.” André Lorulot put it rather more crudely, calling state schoolteachers “intellectual cops of the capitalist class.”

Various attempts were made by anarchists to set up libertarian schools that would be independent of both church and state; one such venture received financial support from Émile Zola and other writers, though in the end it came to nothing for want of resources.

Like Marx and Engels the anarchists had a low view of Ferry, and certainly did not see him as a hero of the Left. Émile Pouget’s journal, Le Père Peinard (Tired Old Man), combined radical opinions with very direct, popular, and often vulgar language.

Pouget’s opinion of Ferry was, to say the least, aggressively hostile: “If there’s one swine who revolts me, it Ferry. What a dirty brute this animal is, he’s the biggest scoundrel in France . . . I’d like to see someone wring his neck; you could kill him with no more compunction than crushing a bug.”

Pouget had an interesting take on the current argument about whether priests should ever be allowed to work as teachers. He argued against a complete ban, but said that in order to protect pupils and to demonstrate their commitment to celibacy, priests should be castrated.

A number of other anarchist publications made the case against laïcité.

The pamphlet L’École: Antichambre de caserne et de sacristie (The School: Antechamber of the Barracks and the Sacristy) — which bore no author’s name but seems to have been written by Émile Janvion, one of the founders of the French trade union CGT and purportedly the initiator of the first “Libertarian school” in France — cited Bakunin and Stirner approvingly to argue that laïcité merely constituted an alternative dogma to that of the church.

He also noted republican politician Léon Gambetta’s claim “clericalism is the enemy,” and responded that “religions (whether of state or church) are the enemy.” He concluded: “Our anticlericals have a priestlike spirit. Our atheists are pious people.”

Janvion pointed in particular to the way secular schools encouraged nationalist sentiments. The child would be “inculcated with blind imbecile hatred for people who live on the other side of such-and-such a little river, infatuation with their own race to the detriment of all others.”

He noted secular school teachers’ practice of writing certain sentences on the blackboard that pupils would recite in chorus throughout the school day. Typical examples were: “a good Frenchman must know how to die for the flag,” “you exist only for the native land, you live only for her,” and “a good little Frenchman must prepare to become a good soldier.”

Janvion also pointed to a volume of “moral and civic education” that explained how “military service is the apprenticeship for war. It is necessary to form a solid army, capable of defending us against criminals within and enemies abroad.” The phrase “criminals within” clearly references the army’s pre-1914 role as a strikebreaker.

Antonin Franchet’s little book Le Bon Dieu laïque(The Secular Good Lord) focused on the textbooks used in the secular schools. A popular one by Charles Dupuy, a former education minister, asked pupils: “How shall we demonstrate our love to our native land? — By obeying its laws, even if they inconvenience us and by defending its territory and its independence against the foreigner, even at the cost of our own blood.”

School texts also told pupils what to think of France: “I love it as I love my father and mother. In order to prove my love, I shall now be a well-behaved and hard-working child so that, when I grow up, I shall be a good citizen and a good soldier.”

And internationalist ideals were scorned:

Perhaps you will hear around you idle and selfish people saying there’s no point in being a citizen of one’s country, that one should be a citizen of the world, what is called a cosmopolitan; that one’s native land is everywhere where one is at ease; that the native land is only a word, an abstraction which should not deceive positive and practical minds.

Even the textbooks devoted to teaching morality taught nothing of the sort:

I know one can love one’s native land without thereby detesting other peoples and desiring or preparing their ruin. But for soldiers there are cases when it is necessary to be able to hate, to hate the envious pitiless enemy who, after having misused force, having robbed us of our brothers in Alsace-Lorraine, is ever on the look-out for an opportunity to strike the final blow.

As long as hatred remains alive for the conqueror of our homeland, then the defeated one cannot forgive or forget.

So hate past injustice, the injustice which still threatens. Yes, in order to avenge the one and to ward off the effects of the other, hatred is a force, Frenchmen, hatred is a duty!

In a schoolbook by Émile Lavisse, aptly called Tu seras soldat (You will be a soldier), the author urges his youthful readers to envisage a future as a spy. While not offering a James Bond lifestyle, he unequivocally tells the schoolchildren that the ends justify the means and that lying and dissimulation are entirely legitimate:

The spy who serves his country in times of peace is a cunning, brave and bold man who goes to a foreign country to study its defenses and war preparations in order to make them known to his homeland.

All means are legitimate to achieve his end. He conceals his nationality and adopts a false name; he speaks the language of the country and hides his task by working in various professions.

The anarchist critics of laïcité are themselves open to criticism — Pouget and Janvion in particular were antisemites. Nonetheless, their observations help contextualize laïcité and make clear that it was not as unambiguously progressive as is often claimed.

Despite some opposing voices, laïcité largely achieved its goal of solidifying a national identity backed by military might. As historian Eugen Weber writes, “In August 1914 it was not surprising to hear a young peasant from the Var and his friends leaving for the front ‘happy (as he wrote to his parents) to go and defend our country, France.'”

One small interruption came in 1912, when the primary teachers union voted to support the sou du soldat, an antimilitarist fund. This produced a degree of panic — former war minister Adolphe Messimy declared, doubtless sincerely, that while he was a supporter of laïcité, the teachers’ actions were unacceptable. For a moment, the state’s agents appeared to be turning against it. But only 5 percent of teachers were unionized, and in the end nothing came of the show of opposition.

The traditions of criticism of laïcité persisted after the First World War. The journal Clarté, close to but not entirely controlled by the Communist Party, reported on educational developments in post-revolutionary Russia that might offer an alternative to church or state education. An educational conference held in Moscow in 1919, for instance, dismissed academic neutrality and laïcité as a “mug’s game” (attrape-nigaud) designed to serve the interests of the bourgeoisie.

And the early French Communist Party took a rather different attitude to laïcité from that of many on the Left today. Hadjali Abelkader — who was married to a Frenchwoman and thus, unlike most North Africans, had full French citizenship — was a founding member of the party, contributed regularly to Le Paria (the Communist paper for immigrant and colonial workers), and was nearly elected to parliament in 1924. A Muslim throughout his life, Abelkader argued that Communists should adopt a non-polemical position towards Islam.

Today, with the concept being used in the service of Islamophobia, it is especially important to knock laïcité down from its elevated status. And that requires understanding laïcité not as a noble ideal that has been misinterpreted and distorted, but as deeply flawed from the outset.

Republished from Historical Materialism 2015.