The Corner

National Security & Defense

Institutions Matter: First Amendment vs. The French Laïcité

Coming from France, I have a very special place in my heart for America’s Founding Fathers and for the Constitution. Over the years, I have come to realize that what may be at the center of America’s greatness (dare I say “exceptionalism”) is the First Amendment to the Constitution. All of it. Don’t get me wrong, there are many other amendments that I hold dear but this one is special, if only because it shows the Founding Fathers’ remarkable ability to think outside the box and to understand what individual freedom actually entailed. I am a fan.

However, today I would like to focus on the freedom of religion aspect to the First Amendment and contrast it with what the French government has come up with: la laïcité. In my opinion, the First Amendment, and in particular the right to practice one’s religion without interference from the government is absolutely the way to go if you want to promote tolerance, respect, and peace. But you guys don’t need a lecture on the First Amendment or freedom of religion.

Now, contrast this with the French laïcité. According to The Economist, laïcité is “a strict form of secularism enshrined by law in 1905 after a struggle against authoritarian Catholicism.” It’s the opposite of the First Amendment in that, rather than tolerating everyone’s religion and keeping the government at bay, it allows the state to ban any sign of religion in public spaces. It claims to be about tolerance but it is, in fact, the opposite of it. And I find that it imposes more government intervention into religious activities of the people of France since it allows the state to tell you what not to wear.

This misguided laïcité is the principle that is driving the burkini-ban debacle in France. The Economist explains the principle nicely:

This principle is supposed to keep religion out of public life, and has been the basis of previous French bans: on the headscarf (and other “conspicuous” religious symbols, including the Jewish kippah and oversized crucifixes) in state schools (in 2004), and the face-covering niqab in all public places (in 2010). The other principle is women’s equality. It may appear bizarre, or frivolous, to argue that women should bare more flesh. But many on the French left in particular regard the need to protect women from a male-imposed doctrine as being at stake — and are willing to put it even before liberty, another founding value of republican France. The logic of the burkini, says Laurence Rossignol, the Socialist women’s minister, is to “hide women’s bodies in order better to control them.” . . . 

Some civil-liberties groups within France have tried — but so far failed — to get the burkini ban overturned in the courts. Yet French governments bristle at the notion that their various attempts to defend laïcité amount to intolerance or an infringement of the freedom of expression.

I don’t defend the treatment of women by radical Islamists, but laïcité isn’t the answer. It distracts the French government from fixing what they could actually fix, such as Islamist radicalization in French prisons. The government could also get serious about protecting the rights of secular-oriented Muslim females. Those would be legitimate and sensible actions for the government, unlike Burkini bans.

But the French don’t get it. If I had a quarter for all the times a French person has expressed his disgust that a politician in America may greet you by saying “God bless you,” I would be rich. The only way it seems the French can conceive of the government not interfering into religion is by having the government ban religion. The Wall Street Journal notes:

France’s highest court on Friday struck down one of the local bans for violating freedom of conscience, but the controversy will grind on. Other mayors have vowed to defend their burkini bans. . . . 

The burkini bans are popular enough that politicians on the left and right are willing to defend them. Nicolas Sarkozy, in announcing another run for the presidency next year with his characteristic opportunism, has promised an even wider ban on Muslim dress.

But voters may soon wonder whether it makes sense to deny Muslims reasonable accommodations for their religion, such as modesty at the beach, while failing to defend far more important liberal values such as the freedom to publish offensive cartoons about religion without fear of violent reprisals. That’s a debate worth having in next year’s campaign, if any politician cares to try.

“If any politician cares to try?” Good luck with that. Institutions matter. While America was shaped by the First Amendment, France was shaped by the laïcité.


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