Secularism, School and Fundamentalism in France

 The assassination of a teacher was a blow to the French Republic.

Since 1905 the French Constitution guarantees freedom of conscience, by which the European constitutional tradition refers to the right to follow one's own beliefs in matters of religion and morality.The supreme law of the land also explicitly provides for non-discrimination, by the principle of “laicite,” that is, the separation of church and state : “The Republic doesn’t recognise, employ or subsidize any religion.”[1] However, secularism is not a principle that merely draws a line between religious belief and government.

The state is not neutral but has the duty of passing down republican political, moral, and philosophical values, first and foremost to schoolchildren.[2]

The School and Laicite

That is not a straightforward proposition. Dominique Schnapper[3] has reflected on the hiatus around school and secularism noting that the principle of laicite – an administrative space free of religious discourse – driving an endless debate for more than 30 years. At the heart of the debate is the Obin Report, released in 2004, that discusses matters of religious symbolism in schools and other academic institutions, inclusive of controversial issues such as food and dress code.

In some schools, pupils do not hesitate to show in which religious group they belong to, defying the principle. A number of French specialists have tried to understand this defiance and its motivation.

Three factors appear to correlate. The first are religious organisations found at the neighbourhood level that play a significant role in delineating identity barriers. The second is the proverbial will of pupils to defy management at school, which has to do less with management and more with youth. The only relevant question in that respect is whether the school can indeed teach and inspire republican values to students and their families, including secularism. Finally, there is the question of semantic competence, that is, the art of choosing the right terms, methods, and mediums to convey clear values without creating unnecessary offence and controversy.[4]

In public discourse, secularism becomes a subject of conversation after a number of terrorist attacks. In that context, Dominique Schnapper criticised the National Education Board for its failure to resist the growing influence of Islamic radicalism, which can justify violence.

Others are less polemical, emphasising laicite as the principle that guarantees freedom of expression.

To address the question of how secularism must be taught, the former Minister of National Education, Vincent Peillon,[5] frames the conversation as a discussion on roots. It should be possible to see secularism as an opportunity to engage with students in a safe space, in this case the school, which is the first public space in which citizens learn to publicly articulate opinion, using their sense of judgment and exercising their freedom of expression. Judgement and civic freedom are founded on norms, including the respect due to the authority of teachers and the need to lead evidence-based debates.

State, School and Society in The Republic

In 2015 schools introduced a new subject in their curriculum known as “Moral and Civil Principles,” reinforcing the transmission of the Republic’s values. According to Peillon, secularism is brought to the table only after a terrorist attack and only in reference to academic spaces, to denote a conflictual relation between state and society. But addressing that friction in not the sole role of the school, a space for learning whose purpose cannot revolve around security alone. The school needs to be protected, as Conflans-Saint-Honorine’s assassination reminds us.[6] The moment schools are unsafe, the French Republic is threatened.

Here, an essential point must that be clarified, according to Peillon: as an institution, the school is not responsible for the atrocities that take place.

The work of teachers includes honing republican ideals, raising republicans, applying what the National Education Board asks of them. That is what Samuel Paty was doing. In that respect, it is perhaps right to rethink a teacher’s intellectual training, not least by the National Education Board. Dominique Schnapper echoes Peillon’s ideas and suggests teaching the philosophy of secularism as a necessary extension of History and Geography. The sense of where and who we are must be infused with Republican values.

In actual fact, French society is not particularly preoccupied with this principle. When Vincent Peillon drafted and publicly presented the Public Charter on laicite on September 9 2013, the interest was minimal. Only four journalists were present at the event.

But French institutions are involved in a continuous process of self-reflection on the principle. For the Council of Wise[7] of the French State, a judicial institution founded by Napoleon to advise the government on legal and administrative matters, laicite is a long-term challenge that cuts across all public spaces, in the realms of politics, education and society at large. In that sense, republican values are more public than political: they form the stage on which democracy can be enacted and, therefore, they are everyone’s project.

Clearly, secularism isn’t an academic issue alone but encompasses French society at large, underpinning the relationships between French citizens irrespectively of how conscious they are of the underlying norms that bind them together, as a polity.[8] In fact, the senior civil servant Marlène Schiappa[9] makes the case that the legal principle established in 1905 needs to widen in scope, to become something more than a pretence of political neutrality and evolve into a self-conscious principle that guides public administration and services.

Public freedom before private values

The difficult question when discussing this subject is where does the public sphere end and the private begin. Surely, home is intrinsically private. But it is in the household that children will develop linguistically and learn how to position themselves vis-à-vis social norms and codes. Learning in formal institutions hones values. The question at hand is not uniformity or the control of private space. The issue is the security to live in a world of diverse values and diverse homes. That requires a minimum of common values, which in Republican tradition includes the principle of laicite.

Since 2017 no less than 240 Islamic prayer rooms suspected of radicalisation activity have been closed down. The question is whether that is a violation of the principle of “public neutrality” and an infringement of public consciousness.[10] The answer is that the Republic and its values have the right to defend themselves against private groups that seek to destroy the security of public spaces.

Terrorism assaulted the school and the Republic as a safe place and it is now essential to affirm this security and religious neutrality of every school. A school in which citizens can articulate free speech as citizens is essential to the Republic. Indeed, that space is the sole guarantee of religious freedom for the four-million strong French Islamic community, which cannot be held hostage to a small number of radicals. The National Education board needs to maintain the engagement of all citizens, but laicite in schools is a precondition to religious freedom; to the contrary, tolerance of fundamentalism suppresses freedom as a public good.




[1] : « Promulgation de la loi concernant la séparation des Eglises et de l’Etat » 9/12/1905,

[2] Olivia Gesbert, interview with Vincent Peillon and Dominique Schnapper: « faut-il repenser la laïcité ? » 2/11/2020,

[3] Sociologist, political scientist and Director of the School for Advanced Studies in Social Science (SASSS)

[4] Laicité-ré : « Rapport Obin, les signes et manifestations d’appartenance religieuse dans les établissements scolaires » 2/01/2006.

[5] Researcher for National Centre for Scientific Research (NCSR) philosopher and author.

[6] Olivia Gesbert, interview with Vincent Peillon and Dominique Schnapper: « faut-il repenser la laïcité ? » 2/11/2020,

[7] Composed of a panorama of expert whose the goal is to define the academic institution position when it comes to secularism. The Council belongs to the National Education.

[8] ivia Gesbert, interview with Vincent Peillon and Dominique Schnapper: « faut-il repenser la laïcité ? » 2/11/2020,

[9] Citizenship Officer attached to the Ministry of Home Affairs

[10] Olivia Gesbert, interview with Vincent Peillon and Dominique Schnapper : « faut-il repenser la laïcité ? » 2/11/2020,

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