France has a secular almanac that is rhythmed by moments in the Catholic faith. Nowadays only five per cent of the French attend mass. Fifty-one per cent describe themselves as following the family tradition of being Catholic. Half of these don’t believe in God. But France is also home to the largest Muslim and Jewish populations in Europe. Today, France struggles with its past in Vietnam, Haiti, Togo and many outlying parts of its boundless Empire.
Algeria was part of France from 1830 to 1962. Europeans in Algeria were named Colonists. Algerian Muslims were called Indigenous. To obtain citizenship, they were required to renounce their Muslim identity. Since this would constitute apostasy, only about 2,500 Muslims acquired citizenship before 1930. The Pieds-Noirs or “Black-Feet” were Europeans who were born in Algeria, like Yves Saint Laurent, during the period of French rule. Among them were the Algerian Jews who were granted French nationality under the 1870 Crémieux Decree. After Algerian independence, 800,000 Pieds-Noirs were evacuated to France. The Algerian Muslims who migrated to France when Algeria became independent did not arrive in France as citizens like their Jewish brethren.
Among the French faithful of every fold, there is immense fluidity in piety and religiosity. Some practice nothing. Before the Revolution, Catholicism was associated with the French monarchy and the wealth and privilege it represented. In 1799, Napoleon made a Concordat with the Pope that recognized Catholicism as the religion of the majority but not of the state. This was a moment of emancipation for the Jews in France. Count Clermont–Tonnerre argued that “The Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals.”
With the Grand Sanhedrin under Napoleon in 1806, it was agreed that Jews must adopt French laws customs and culture and limit the distinctiveness of their religious identity which henceforth must be restricted to the private sphere. And for this they were given full and equal status as citizens under the law. Originating from this is the French notion of Laïcité. But what is it that hides behind the word “Laïcité”? In law, Laïcité is always defined as the separation of church and state. Laïcité excludes religion and religions of the state; it prohibits the state from collaborating or cooperating with one religion, either in directing its organization or its functioning, or in allowing its clerics to meddle in public appointments or promotions.
Very few states are truly secular. Few states not only refuse to legally recognize one, some, or all religions present in the territory but also compel religion to exist purely in the private sphere and certainly not in schools. At the time of building QRC in Trinidad, Charles Warner and Governor Keate modelled the school to educate upper class boys in English modes of deportment and thought, much as the lycées of Martinique and Guadeloupe assimilated youth into French civilization. QRC still represents the model that prestige can be achieved without religion.
Teachers have an elevated status in public life in France. They cultivate the values of a secular Republic. The attack on Mr. Paty was an attack on the Republic itself. It impelled Mr. Macron to defend secularism. Although born out of anticlericalism, French secularism, enshrined in “Laïcité”, is not about battling faith but separating religion from state institutions. After the Paris attacks of November 13, 2015, Mr. Macron said: “Discrimination is not the main cause of jihadism – that is down to the madness of men…But it provides a fertile ground”. In Trinidad, the Muslims of Subrattee Trace Masjid were made to wait from 1845 to 2020 for a cemetery. Others were misguided and journeyed from Trinidad to join the ISIS caliphate waging war across a territory that was once called the “French Mandate for Syria and the Lebanon”. A territory created by partitioning the Ottoman Empire after WWI. Following the fall of ISIS, the survivors remain detained in Syria at the Jabal Baghuz encampment.
Today, Marseille’s ethnic bouillabaisse is an experiment in cultural métissage. A cultural kaleidoscope, in which comparable social conditions experienced by persons from different ethnic enclaves and styles of life puffs with intertextualities, interreflections and interweavings that the bourgeoisie find itchy. The 2006 Israeli incursion against Hezbollah in Lebanon produced anti-Israeli demonstrations in Marseille. At that time, the role of Islam in Western society divided Europe; but Marseille approved the construction of a grand masjid on a hill overlooking the harbour, setting aside a $2.6 million plot of city-owned land for the edifice.
The banlieues are a flash point of alienation among younger Muslims in France. Unemployment is about 40% among 15-to-24 year olds – four times the national average. Their alienation is partly economic but stems as well from a fractured franchised identity. Today, too many in France’s political elite are ill at ease with the private choices of a large minority. They are unwilling to reconcile their secularism with the sentiment of Muslims who see the denigration of Muhammad Ṣallā Allāhu ʿalayhi wa-sallam as an attack. Discrimination may not be the main cause of jihadism but colour-blindness aids in making the wretched of the earth invisible.