Last October, just over a week before the brutal murder and beheading of Parisian high-school teacher Samuel Paty, French President Emmanuel Macron gave a speech about the actions his administration has taken to root out Islamic extremism throughout France. In recent weeks, a part of that speech as been revisited in American media with a mix of surprise, amusement, and indignation: Macron’s expression of concern over “certain social science theories” being imported from America and adding further confusion and pressure to France’s current political and ideological debates.
Although French critical theory has heavily influenced American scholarship on race and gender, Macron’s pointing the finger at America should not come as a surprise; after all, the French are well-known for their hauteur. There is, however, another moment in his speech which deserves attention because, unconsciously, it identifies the real source of France’s identity crisis.
The president states: “[L]aïcité (secularism) in the French Republic means the freedom to believe or not believe, the possibility of practicing one’s religion as long as law and order is ensured. LaÏcité means the neutrality of the State; in no way does it mean the removal of religion from society and the public arena.” This noble but unrealistic ideal of the neutral State is France’s dangerous blind spot.
Firstly, belief is not optional because everyone believes something and lives according to a creed. Secondly, it is impossible for the State to be truly neutral. The nature of Law is that, shaped by culture and ideology, it assumes the moral authority to determine the common good. The proof of this is that Macron later in his speech defends the closing of various Muslim schools and organizations for indoctrinating beliefs that conflict with the “values of the Republic” and negate French “principles, gender equality and human dignity,” though he does not explicitly state how or why. Perhaps he is unable to do so clearly because he himself cannot pinpoint what the “values of the Republic” are or trace from where they came. Ever since the Enlightenment, France has been loath to admit Christianity might have anything to do with its identity, and even its ties to Classical Antiquity have weakened under the pressure of post-colonial guilt.
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