When Quebec’s newly elected premier, François Legault, signalled his intent to follow through with his campaign promise and pass legislation that would ban public servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols, Quebecers began to ready themselves for dark, divisive times.
Legault is following up on an idea first proposed over a decade ago by the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on Cultural and Religious Accommodation. It’s an idea that philosopher Charles Taylor, one of the report’s authors, later said he regretted because its implementation would reopen old wounds and lead to a rise in hate crimes.
Although polls indicate that a majority of Quebecers support the ban, Legault’s decision to disregard the advice of a world-renowned philosopher, who spent years studying the issue, seems a bit odd. His decision is all the more curious because France has been seriously rethinking its longstanding policy on secularism.
The concept of laïcité, or secularism, has been seen as a central tenet of French governance ever since the French Revolution. It’s one of the principles by which the Republic lives and breathes. France has rigorously enforced its laïcité law, which mandates the strict separation between church and the state, since 1905.
Laïcité has plagued France
However, about a year ago, French president Emmanuel Macron made a speech where he reminded citizens that while the state may be secular, society is not, and warned them to be vigilant against “radical laïcism.”
Many felt this was partially a reference to his predecessor, François Hollande, who took things a bit too far and banned burkinis on beaches, essentially preventing devout Muslim women from swimming.
Then in April, Macron told a council of bishops he regretted that the link between the church and the state was broken — and that he wanted to repair it. His statement sent French Twitter feeds into a fury.
Macron’s crazy, radical-sounding idea is an attempt to solve a major problem that has plagued French society.
Because the country’s identity has been built around the idea of laïcité, it has become so engrained in the French consciousness that showing any sign of or acknowledging one’s religion in public is frowned upon. Religion is something the French feel should be kept private, tucked away at home, out of the public eye.
This idea runs in opposition to the beliefs of many of France’s Muslim citizens and has reinforced prejudices against the community and Muslim women in particular. Many non-fundamentalist Muslim women wear the hijab not as part of their faith or religious practice but as a sign of their religion, an idea the French find offensive.
In part as a result of France’s attachment to the ideal of laïcité, many Muslims have ended up living in their own communities and attending their own private schools, essentially segregated from the rest of the population.
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, French commentators noted that laïcité might in fact have been the reason behind the horrible massacre. They theorized that the prejudice that led to the creation of Muslim ghettos made it much easier for the perpetrators of the attack to become radicalized.
Secular state out of step
It’s not entirely Legault’s fault that he has not heeded these warnings. The rigid separation between church and state and the idea that religion should be kept private is a deeply engrained cultural belief that Quebecers have inherited from France.
In Quebecers’ online commentary and in newspaper editorials, you can hear echoes of European sentiments. A commonly touted refrain is that religion should be kept at home and has no place in the workforce. Quebecers are also fond of repeating that “we live in a secular society.”
Debates about secularism have embroiled Quebec society since the 1960s.
From the mid-1930s to the late 1950s, Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis, in conjunction with the Catholic clergy, ruled the province with an iron first. The period known as la grande noirceur (the great darkness) was marked by human rights abuses and censorship.
The crucifix above the speaker’s chair in Quebec’s National Assembly was placed there by Duplessis. It hangs there today not as a reminder of our Christian past but of our struggles to overcome it. During the Quiet Revolution, passing legislation that disentangled the Catholic Church and the state was the first step towards autonomy and the creation of a new national spirit.
In the beginning, secularism in Quebec had a very noble goal, borrowed from France: freedom of thought, as premised on freedom from religion.
In France, people have finally begun to realize that the idea of a completely neutral and secular state is totally out of step with the modern, intercultural world we live in. They’ve also begun to acknowledge that this idea has caused a lot of damage and led to a fracturing of society.
The strictness with which secularism has been applied in France, and later in Quebec, was meant to disengage the state from the clutches of an institution that has been around, in one form or another, for more than two thousand years. The almost 300-year-old idea had a purpose, and it is fair to say the purpose was served.
An ideal whose time has passed
Earlier this month, thousands of people gathered in downtown Montreal to protest Legault’s racist policies, which include values tests for immigrants as well as a reduction in the number of immigrants.
Many Quebecers also feel that Legault’s policy on religious symbols, which mimics the Parti Québécois’ controversial Charter of Values, is based in racism and xenophobia.
While Legault’s proposed law will have the greatest impact on those who subscribe to non-Christian religions, as well as those who share Middle Eastern cultural values, the policy itself does not originate from racism or xenophobia.
It is based on an ideal whose time has long passed, an idea that formed the contours of the dream for a new French state in the 1960s. It is also the expression of a cultural difference that has been developing and shaping itself for hundreds of years in France, before drifting across the ocean.