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Reinforcing the teaching of secularism in France

For many years, the principle of secularism has not been taught in France, something that secularist associations have been deploring for years, without really being heard. While the French Constitution specifies that: “France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic” this principle of separation of Churches and State has become blurred in people’s minds, due to a lack of learning. The consequences of this negligence were not long in coming. It became clear that an increasing number of public service employees no longer respected the principle of neutrality that was incumbent upon them. Even the heads of departments could be unaware of what neutrality in the public service means and what they should demand of their employees. Requests of all kinds related to religious practices appeared in administrations and companies without any real knowledge of how to deal with them. Sincere citizens are convinced that any public expression of religion is forbidden. Xenophobic political parties use the principle of secularism, that they used to fight, to challenge the presence of Muslim immigrants. Religious fundamentalists take advantage of this confusion to discredit secularism and pass it off as an oppressive principle…

In schools, identity assertions based on religious affiliation have multiplied, leading to the contestation of the content of certain teachings or to the refusal to participate in certain activities like sport. This culminated in the murder of a teacher, Samuel Paty, on October 16, 2020 in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, by a religious fanatic who accused him of blasphemy during a class on freedom of expression in which he had shown caricatures as an example. This tragic event had the effect of an electroshock on political leaders, who then realized the danger of this lack of education for social cohesion and humanist and democratic values.

Since then, the government has taken a series of measures, including several of an educational nature, in order to reinforce the knowledge of secularism by all the actors in charge of respecting it or making it respected, but also by the citizens in the making, i.e. students in schools, colleges and high schools. Here are some examples.

1. Personnel in charge of public services

A new inter-ministerial committee in charge of secularism created in the summer of 2021 decided at its first meeting to set up training for all public agents on secularism within four years. Those targeted include in particular all national education personnel and health professionals. Also concerned are associations and sports federations as well as elected officials in the whole country.

In particular, in the National Education, 1000 additional trainers are in charge of reinforcing the academic teams already in place.

2. National Education students.

At the start of the 2021 school year, the Ministry of Education has set up a poster campaign entitled “C’est ça laïcité” (That’s secularism) to publicize the concrete positive effects of respecting secularism on freedom of conscience and equality. It has also published the fourth edition of the Vademecum de la laïcité, practical sheets on the application of secularism, as well as a Republican Guide including a collection of texts on the Republican idea and a pedagogical sum, “La république à l’école”(Republic in school), to support teachers of all subjects, beyond the simple moral and civic education existing since 2013.

It will be important to assess the effectiveness of these measures in the field.

Martine Cerf, EGALE

Yves Durand, PEP