“Dramatic events often focus our minds on the dilemmas we would prefer to ignore,” begins Samuel Gregg in a recent article for the Library of Law and Liberty. He discuses France and Situation de la France, a new book by professor of political philosophy at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Pierre Manent.
In a nation’s life, there are moments that decisively change its trajectory. One such event was the fall of France in June 1940—a humiliation from which, suggests Manent, it has never really recovered. There is no guarantee that a nation’s leaders will lead the people well in these moments: most of France followed Marshal Philippe Pétain rather than General Charles de Gaulle in that crisis. Nor are today’s leaders, Manent maintains, responding adequately to the problems violently thrust into public view by what he unabashedly describes as les actes de guerres committed by an Al-Qaeda-affiliated group in early 2015.
The reaction of France’s leaders to the murder of cartoonists and Jews by three French-born Muslims in Paris, Manent observes, was to preside over mass street marches and outpourings of grief while repeating, mantra-like, the same easily disprovable bromides that follow every act of Islamist terrorism (“This has nothing to do with Islam”) and obstinately declining to consider what must be done politically if France is to defend itself against jihadism. Yet such a refusal, according to Manent, is logical because to act appropriately would mean admitting that France’s present political arrangements cannot address the new realities. The point of the book is to identify the nature of the danger, explain why France’s present political regime cannot address it, and then sketch a reasonable way forward.
Central to Manent’s analysis is his claim that the West today (“nous”) understands society to be a question of organizing and guaranteeing individual rights whereas Islam (“eux”) regards society as the ensemble of habits and customs that provide concrete rules for the good life. He points out the strengths and weaknesses of both stances. The Western results in weakened social cohesion; the Muslim produces decidedly frail conceptions of liberty. In France’s case, the situation is further complicated by the Republic’s official stance of what is called laïcité regarding religious questions
In legal terms, “Le Republic laïque” was given its most formal expression with the passing of the Loi du 9 décembre 1905 concernant la séparation des Églises et de l’État. This was enacted by an anticlerical government during the Third Republic following the Dreyfus Affair but also amidst escalating conflict between the Catholic hierarchy and the French Left.
In practice, laïcité in France has taken two forms. One is state enforcement of secularism as a distinct worldview, entailing efforts to eliminate religion’s influence from the public square. At its silliest, this manifests itself in efforts to ban crèches from town squares during Christmas. At its worst, it brought the expulsion of Catholic religious orders from France at the beginning of the 20th century and anticlerical governments spying on, and impeding the promotion of, army officers who were practicing Catholics (most of the officer corps). The second interpretation of laïcité involves the Republic protecting people’s right to live according to their religious principles consistent with everyone else’s rights. This version is far more amenable to Christians in terms of their ability to be fully Christian while acting as citizens in the public square because it is reconcilable with Christianity’s longstanding spiritual-ecclesial/temporal-secular distinction.