Secularism and French Politics
Rethinking "laïcité" for the 21st Century
by Catherine Kintzler
En ligne le 13 décembre 2008
Mon séjour à l'Université de Princeton en tant que Short Term Visiting Fellow du Council of the
Humanities a été très rempli. Outre les recontres multiples, séances de travail avec les doctorants et dîners-débats avec étudiants et professeurs, trois moments forts : une conférence en
français sur "Théâtre et opéra à l'âge classique" organisée et présentée par Volker Schröder, une séance de trois heures en anglais sur l'opéra français dans le séminaire de musicologie de Wendy Heller, et une conférence en anglais à l'invitation conjointe du Council of the
Humanities et du Democracy on Human Values Project.
C'est le texte de cette conférence sur la laïcité du 18 novembre 08 que je propose ici.
Je remercie tout particulièrement les professeurs Volker Schröder - qui a préparé et piloté l'ensemble de mon séjour à Princeton
sous l'égide du Council of Humanities - et Philip Pettit - qui m'a aimablement reçue pour cette conférence de philosophie politique
et qui m'a suggéré son titre anglais.
Charles Conte, qui anime le site internet La Laïcité à l'usage des éducateurs, me faisait remarquer récemment qu'on
dispose de peu de textes en anglais sur l'évolution théorique récente du concept de "laïcité à la française". C'est pourquoi il m'a semblé intéressant de mettre en ligne ce texte tel qu'il a été
prononcé, bien que je sois une piètre angliciste, ayant appris l'anglais très tard. Merci au professeur Volker Schröder d'avoir bien voulu le revoir.
In English, the French word laïcité
is usually translated by the word secularism
. But such a translation is not accurate, because it is, in itself, an intellectual option saying
that this notion depends on the existence of religions. To avoid this option, I’ll use a neologism perfectly suitable in English : laicity. In the book What is laicity ?
(Qu'est-ce que la laïcité ?
Vrin, 2007), I tried to show an intellectual process to build philosophically the concept of laicity nowadays. Rethinking laicity seems important to me for the
21st century ; it is challenged and thus revived on several levels, especially 3 of them : by political purposes coming mainly from some Islamic claims, by the questioning of the political model by
which it is supported, and by a global and widespread way of thinking I’ll call the projection of religious formalism - in short the idea that if you don't believe in something, you are
I tried to see how laicity can be philosophically built, that is by a process where, as far as possible, thought has no other business than thought itself. In other words, I have worked from the
viewpoint of a beginning in the mind. This viewpoint explains why, in my book, I don’t speak very much of well-known authors who have launched laicity in political and legal terms in France,
especially Ferdinand Buisson and Jules Barni. Because I was more interested in the thought process, I have examined an earlier sequence belonging to classical philosophy: Locke - Bayle - Condorcet.
Although this trilogy did not know the word laicity yet, it seemed to me very rich in regard to the current concept of laicity.
Conceptually, this sequence is affected by the relationship between toleration and laicity: this will be the first point of my talk. It will lead me to consider the topic in terms of formalism.
Indeed, laicity differs philosophically from toleration by its intellectual form : it’s a matter of intellectual morphology. Laicity is not opposed to religions; it is opposed to using a religious
model to build the political association. I will conclude my talk by brief considerations on the current situation.
Toleration and laicity : two different ways of thinking
I am used to saying that toleration (as a way of political organization founded by Locke, still in force in the great tolerant countries such as UK, USA and the Netherlands) and laicity both tend
to achieve, each in its own way, a system of three statements:
1 – No one is obliged to have a particular religion rather than another one.
2 – No one is obliged to have a religion rather than no religion at all.
3 – No one is obliged to have no religion.
What is the difference then ? This is not the distinction between the field of civil authority and the private field, which both (toleration and laicity) recognize. It is an arrangement, a way of
The classical toleration (by Locke) does not admit the second statement : atheists and unbelievers can not be admitted in a political association. It seems rather tough, but the way this refusal is
backed makes me consider Locke as the first great thinker of laicity. Indeed, if we analyze the argument he uses to exclude unbelievers from political association, we can draw the main field
required by the concept of laicity. Let’s look closer at this argument.
Lastly, those who deny the existence of the Deity are not to be tolerated at all. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no
hold upon or sanctity for an atheist ; for the taking away of God, even only in thought, dissolves all. Furthermore, a man who by his atheism undermines and destroys all religion cannot in the
name of religion claim the privilege of toleration for himself. [John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration,Translation from Latin by J. W. Gough]
What does Locke say against atheists and unbelievers ? We can not admit them in any political association because they are unable to contract a deal with
others : we can not trust them. They are by definition untied, out of any bond. The hidden syllogism is easy to restore : since any political association requires a basic bond, and since the model
of any bond is the religious one, the consequence is clear : we must exclude atheists and unbelievers as not reliable. The point of virulence is perfectly highlighted : which model of bond can give
its basis to any political association ? Locke’s answer assumes that the fundamental model for a political bond is the religious one : every bond is modelled by some act of faith so that law and
belief are originally tied to each other.
This argument is very enlightening because Locke is not interested in the content of belief or unbelief. The matter is not in what you believe or not : the matter is the form of belief or
unbelief. According to Locke, the form of unbelief is a kind of no-form, and such an empty form makes unbelievers unable to enter any association.
From this reasoning, we can raise a fundamental question – of course Locke answers it negatively, but anyway he allows us to express it clearly : can we imagine a political bond which is neither
built nor conceived on the model of a religious bond ?
You already can predict what laicity is going to do : it is going to assert that the knot between religious and political bond can be broken, untied ; and therefore that raises the question of the
nature of a political bond disconnected from a religious one.
Another kind of toleration exists during the Enlightenment period – which I’ll call extended toleration (Pierre Bayle). It abolishes the exclusion of unbelievers, but it will not abolish the
problem raised by Locke: it will only give it an answer in the facts. According to Bayle, we can admit unbelievers in a political association because they are more sensitive than others in civil
law, and more exposed to civil constraints and punishments : they can not appeal to a higher authority for disobeying.
Of course, this is a progress concerning individual’s freedoms. But philosophically, the question of the bond is not raised as a fundamental principle. We only have a subjective concept of
An objective concept of laicity (even without the word itself, as I said earlier) will be built during the French Revolution. I mean an objective concept because, this time, the model of non-belief
is put at the very beginning of political association – that is the idea that in order to conceive a political bond there is no need to model it after a religious one, therefore that the knot
between religious and political bond can be untied. This was in particular the position of Condorcet. It was fiercely fought by Robespierre.
The model of non-belief (as you can see, this is not unbelief as a doctrine, but only as a form) becomes a fundamental political point. It is a minimalist position, and it is important to express
it in this way : thinking and making up the political bond does not need a reference to any preexisting religious one – and generally to another previous bond. In other words, politics begins with
itself, without borrowing its model from a previous area. The law does not need any kind of faith - the best-known consequence is the reciprocal statement : it is not up to faith to make law.
But that raises a massive question. Since the political bond is not shaped after the model of a faith, what does it consist of ? It does not consist of a kind of contract involving some confidence,
but by a reasoned approval made by every citizen who chooses to enter the association because he (or she) has good reasons for doing so, because he / she thinks that a citizen association will be
more sensible in its judgments than he / she would him / herself. That differs from the usual theory of the “general will”. Indeed, according to Condorcet, the political decisions consist
originally of statements, and not of wills. [Top]
Which model for a political association ? A kind of “experimental vacuum” sparing the notion of contract
If we only consider the way of thinking, the political association is set in what we could call a kind of Newton tube, an experimental vacuum. What was refused by Locke (but Locke is the first
thinker to have clearly pointed out the question) becomes the main thing. The political association is thinkable due to suspension of belief. This system allows a coexistence of freedoms larger
than does the system of toleration. The purpose is not to fit together existing freedoms or existing positions or existing communities : it is to fit together all possible freedoms. In a lay state,
all beliefs and unbeliefs are allowed, including those which do not exist yet !
The concept of laicity verifies the three statements listed above, not by a simple juxtaposition of existing freedoms, but by creating an a priori principle which works as their condition
of possibility. It ignores any belonging to a previous community before or other than the political association itself : of course such belongings are neither abolished nor impossible, but they are
not required to produce a political association. This achievement requires a kind of blindness which can be illustrated by the law of November 1791 on the Jews, anticipated by a famous formula
pronounced by Clermont-Tonnerre in the Constituent Assembly on December 1789:
We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation [i.e. as a group], we must give them everything as individuals, they must be
Quoted today as the peak of centralized abomination (and generally deprived of its final words), the formula is in fact liberating because it proclaims a
duty to blindness for the political authority. If each judge, each policeman had been blind to Jews as a group in France during the 1940’s, there would have been a lot of résistants…
As a result we have an interesting philosophical object: a paradoxical class in which each element belongs to the class precisely because of its possible distinction from every other. In such a
class, singularity works as a principle. Therefore, in a lay association, the statement “I’m not like the rest of human beings” is fundamental.
This approach leads to a series of consequences.
1 ° Strictly speaking, a social gathering can be tolerant, but only a political association can be lay.
2° Public authority and what depends on it (anything that deals with constitution, statement and maintenance of rights) is submitted to a strict abstention about beliefs and unbeliefs. Strictly
speaking this is the principle of laicity : the public authority remains silent about beliefs and unbeliefs. But the corollary is that civil society enjoys the greatest freedom in the same matters
: strictly speaking, this is the principle of toleration. Both principles are associated, but the second one depends on the first one.
3 ° Laicity is not opposed to religions as beliefs or thoughts ; it is opposed to them only when they claim to make or support civil law. Reciprocally, a civil religion would be totally opposed to
4° Such an association enables people to live in a community of course, but also to leave it and enter another one, or to escape any community. No compulsory membership can exist : thus the
political bond paradoxically involves a suspension of social link. But we must not confuse suspension with negation. Such a suspension is an intellectual operation – it is required to conceive the
5 ° Since laicity does not suppose any previous condition or status for a citizen, there is no lay agreement or contract. Every citizen begins with the association itself. Citizen and the
association of citizens are philosophically contemporaneous, at the same philosophical time.
6 ° Laicity is not a doctrine or an opinion in the ordinary meaning - we can not say “Lays” as we say “Catholics” or “Atheists” or “Muslims”, etc. A Catholic, a Muslim, and so on, can be lay at the
same time. Therefore, strictly speaking a “lay fundamentalism” is impossible. We nevertheless use these words to mean a position that claims to extend the principle of abstention (restrained to
public authority) to the whole civil society. In this case, the civil freedom disappears, since nobody can express a religious opinion, and it would be more accurate to speak of “ultra-laicism”
rather than of “laic fundamentalism” because such a position betrays the laicity principle by extending it too far, to a field where it is not relevant.
The consequences that I have just listed have as their focus of intelligibility what I referred to as “an experimental vacuum”, a vacuum that works as a political laboratory where singularities
gather together, which involves that they have no other reason to join the others than the preservation of their own singularity, whose motive for joining the political association is their own
independence regarding any form of engagement or bond, and that makes up their union (1).
How can we characterize a collection of elements that gather by a formula ensuring their maximal differentiation? We can speak of a paradoxical class. Jean-Claude Milner has given a convincing
theory of it in his book Les Noms indistincts (2).
Inclusion of a citizen in a paradoxical class can also be expressed by a paradoxical way: in a lay city, the statement “I am not like the rest of human beings” is not only possible, but we must see
this statement as a main goal for the association. When I enter the association, I ask it to make sure I can be different from the other, provided that I obey the laws, which may have no other
ultimate purpose than to ensure this very right.
The strength of this association is precisely based on its minimalism: it proposes to everyone, whatever his origins may be, to start as a citizen and to institute himself in this minimal bond. Of
course, nobody is required to cut off his or her roots: roots and belongings do not concern the political association which remains blind to them ; they can exist, develop and enjoy legal civil
rights, except for claiming political rights as such, or for imposing rules that are contrary to the rights of any citizen.
In addition, we must also think of those who have no roots or who do not want to have any : those whose pride is to stick to the rigour of the statement “I am not like the rest of human beings”. I
spoke earlier of the crucial role of non-belief. Something similar is in effect here: an uprooted person can be considered as a kind of minimalist paradigm for the citizen – someone who does not
want to be recognized otherwise than as a citizen. And such disconnected people can build a very strong association : we can think their union as “a people of demons”, borrowing a concept from
From the viewpoint of political philosophy, this minimalism can do without the concept of contract, taken in the conventional meaning. Of course, laicity was historically developed due to a series
of struggles and compromises, and that is why we ordinary speak of a “lay contract”, but its philosophical concept does not need any pact to be thought.
Contractualism is not an accurate model in this case, and that is the reason why I used in my book another model, borrowed from Condorcet. It is neither a contract nor a consent, but a reasoned
approval based on probability of decisions and avoidance of error. The political association is not sealed by a “give and take” act, but by a kind of ongoing production in which each citizen
appreciates and weighs his reasons for electing representatives and examines their policies (3).
I will not go into the details of this very subtle thought, but I want to emphasize its originality, often ignored or overlooked, and especially to present it as an example of thought for which the
political association is totally based on a critical (4) self-founded thought. That is why it is strongly related to knowledge and science, because the
knowledge process offers a model for critical thinking, and this perhaps explains the great importance of public education in the lay regime.
Is the model of toleration enough? Two misconceptions
After this philosophical examination, I would like to end with some considerations on the current situation.
I spoke of two political organizations, two regimes or systems : of toleration and of laicity. But I also spoke of “laicity principle” and of “toleration principle” : it is not the same thing and I
have to make the difference between regime and principle.
Roughly speaking, a regime is a set of principles. In the lay regime, the laicity principle does not exclude the toleration principle, but the toleration principle is deduced from the laicity
principle. Let’s remember that the laicity principle concerns only the area of public power and what depends on it, but the very result in civil society is toleration : abstention concerning
beliefs and unbeliefs is required in the area of public authority but it is not required in the field of civil society. Otherwise, the laicity principle loses its purpose and its meaning. In a lay
regime the principle of laicity installs the principle of toleration. If these two principles are not joined together so that the principle of toleration is produced by the principle of laicity, I
can’t speak of a lay regime.
This suggests two misconceptions, two ways of distorting laicity, and two symmetric ways of abolishing either the laicity principle or the toleration principle. Both misconceptions consider one of
the principles as unique ; both work in the same way, but have opposed results.
The first one consists of dissolving the principle of laicity in the principle of toleration, extending the rules of civil society to the area of public authority. In that case, a result is that
the production of law can be based on other gatherings than the political association itself, because these gatherings can be acknowledged as full political agents : communities have their say in
the political field as communities, they can impose their claims as laws for their members and become a state in the State. Furthermore, the public authority can speak of beliefs and unbeliefs; an
official religion is possible, provided that no one could be prosecuted because of his or her religious opinions. But the very limitation of such a regime is that every religious community can
impose its views – for example enforce laws against “blasphemies”, enforce polygamy, refuse birth control, deprive women of a part of their inheritance, etc. (5)
Dissolution of laicity into toleration – which the law prohibiting conspicuous religious signs in compulsory state schools has blocked in March 2004 - leads at best
to a juxtaposition of peaceful communities, at worst to clashes between them because some principle making possible their peaceful coexistence is missing. More than that : Such dissolution also
results in neglecting those who claim no affiliation. Why should I necessarily belong to a community to assert my rights ? I could also claim my own independence.
The second way of misconceiving and distorting laicity is the symmetric one. It consists of tightening the civil area, claiming to submit it to the principle that rules the area of public
authority. In this case the principle of laicity substitutes itself everywhere for the principle of toleration. In other words, the principle of toleration is abolished and civil society is obliged
to a strict abstention concerning beliefs and unbeliefs – which is nonsense. If we apply the principle of abstention (required in the public area) to civil society, we simply abolish the freedom of
expression, which the public authority has to insure. This inevitably leads, for example, to prohibit any religious demonstration in the streets or in places accessible to the public, and to
restrain religious freedom to strictly private rooms. Such a claim ruins not only toleration but also the laicity regime, meant to make possible a large enjoyment of freedoms.
In the first confusion we can identify a kind of communautarianism once encouraged in France by a “laïcité ouverte” – “open laicity”, or “laïcité nouvelle” – “new laicity” or, more recently a
“laïcité positive”, which proposed, in the name of the “right to difference”, to endorse differences of rights.
In the second one we can identify an anti-religious dogmatism claiming prohibition to wear a cassock, a cross, a kippa or an Islamic veil, etc., in any place accessible to the public. This is what
I have called ultra-laicism. [Top]
Therefore, the political model of laicity does not disregard the toleration principle existing in great democratic countries (for ex. UK, USA or Netherlands). On the contrary, a lay regime combines
the two principles.
In the end, I would like to ask why such a regime could be preferred to the regime of toleration. Indeed, for a very long time both regimes could be regarded as equivalent in terms of civil
liberties. I think today the question is raised precisely by discussions taking place in some of these great countries, mainly after some events like the assassination of Theo Van Gogh.
I have given on page 28 of my book a tabular summary summarizing how I see the characteristics of these models. See below an english simplified version :
The philosophical focus of differences between the two regimes is the question of the model for the political bond; it was the main
topic in the first part of my speech. The political focus is the question of an access for the communities as such to political authority.
Strict toleration, extended toleration, laicity
(from C. Kintzler Qu'est-ce que la laïcité ? (Vrin, 2008, p. 28)
Is an official religion
(or an official civil dogma)
Can communities be
acknowledged as legal
political agents ?
No. Only individuals
and their elected
Is it possible to conceive
a political association
without a religious reference?
It is impossible
It is possible
It is necessary
Contingency of belief as a form
No : unbelief ruins
any possible bond.
unbelievers are abiding
by the laws.
the political bond does
not need any other
I have to correct a widespread prejudice concerning the rights of communities in the French Republic – it is frequently said that France does not admit any other community than the “nation”. The
regime of laicity gives large rights to any community, provided, of course, that it does not break the common law. In France you can gather with other people as you like, in order to do what you
like – sport, music, games, prayers, philosophy, worship... - and you can be given some public money to support your association, except for a religious one. But if your association is classified
as a religion, it escapes taxes! In France religions don’t pay taxes... (6)
But these are legal rights, they are not civic rights : no community as such can be given a political status. Political sovereignty belongs to citizens and their elected representatives, and rights
are the same for everyone. You can not imagine for ex. that the government could be composed, as it is in Lebanon, by ethnic or religious quotas. You can not imagine ex officio representatives of
some communities sitting in Parliament - which does not prevent them from doing politics, or entering the political debate to support their point of view ; of course they can also be elected, but
not as leaders of a community (7). You can not imagine that citizens must use spokespersons of a community to assert their rights. No community is allowed to
enforce its particular rules on any portion of the territory and nobody can be forced to obey particular rules of “his” or “her” community.
Of course, in a toleration regime (as it appears in my own summary), individual's rights are also preserved by the law, even if communities are given political acknowledgment, but an isolated
person is more fragile if he or she wants to escape his or her community, or if he or she is fighting against some particular rules imposed by a community. That is precisely the point where we can
locate the difficulty today. [Top]
As it happens, the regime of toleration has been working very well during a very long time, but it is not working so efficiently now. To work well indeed, it requires a political consensus in
which communities accept not to impose their own rules as exclusive and agree to allow their members to say and to do what is forbidden by the community but permitted by the law - for example to
marry whom they want, to eat what they want, or to say that God does not exist or that God is stupid. This works only if they agree to consider as totally free the people who are not members of the
community and, first of all, if they agree to consider as free the people who are part of it, but who want to be freed from it, or not to be totally submitted to all its rules - such as women, or
“renegades”. In other words, a dogmatism modified by enlightenment is compatible with a toleration regime (8). But a fundamentalist dogmatism is not (9). Moreover, a fundamentalist dogmatism will take advantage from the acknowledgment of communities to impose its claims further and further. It does not give up its
political claims and it is important to stop it early.
To cope with a fundamentalist dogmatism, a laicity regime seems better equipped because it is more protected since it does not accept any access to political authority for any group. Through its
silence and its abstention, it requires that every community must accept amputation of its political claims - the political body being made up only of individuals. In addition, it makes people very
sensitive to the matter of an access to political authority for communities as such : their sensitivity threshold to such a topic is very low. Unlike a widespread belief, such a low threshold is
not at all a sign of intolerance, but rather a sign of deep commitment to the freedom, equality and sovereignty of individuals.
We will probably come back to this topic during the following discussion. It is currently under questioning in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands or Denmark. I’m not a specialist in political
philosophy; I’m not here to deliver lessons. At least I hope to have shown the philosophical interest of “French secularism” and that it deserves more attention than simple curiosity for an exotic
© Catherine Kintzler, 2008
Notes [click here to close the notes-window]
1 - The question is similar to the way Rousseau once used to base the theory of the Social Contract, but it should be noted that the Social Contract is not a contract
strictly speaking, since it does not gather previous elements : it produces its contractors at the same time they enter into it. The possibility and strength of this association are based on the
certainty that each contractor can develop a maximum of singular properties. In other words, Social Contract makes the Solitary Walker possible.
2 - 2nd publ., Lagrasse : Verdier, 2007.
3 - In order to characterize the political model proposed by Condorcet, we could say that it is a logical conversion of a fundamental political question : how can we combine the subjective claim
for absolute freedom of conscience and the objective necessity of laws ? The classical aporia of an inalienable freedom preserved in a process of a total engagement (by which Rousseau had made the
"solution" of the Social Contract – see Part I, chapter 6), is converted into logical and critical terms excluding any association based on a mutual confidence. Condorcet also relies on a more
astonishing primary aporia: strictly speaking, nobody can trust anybody. The solution consists of elective offices formalized by explicit procedures, previously declared in a Bill of Rights.
4 - As for the use of the word "critical" I remain very traditional, I mean a position in which thought realizes that it can rely only on itself to establish its proposals.
5 - That's why "the problem of the Islamic veil" was so important in French public schools in the last decade : compulsory public elementary and secondary schools are included in the field of
public authority because pupils attend school not only to be educated, but also to build their rights and their own sovereignty (elementary and secondary schools differ from University, where
students are grown up and effective citizens – moreover University is not compulsory). In a class-room ruled by the State, there is no reason to acknowledge previous communities and no reason to
give them a political status enforcing their own rules in the academic field. When a child becomes a pupil attending school, and of course only during school time, he or she has to be considered as
an individual, and not as a member of a previous community. In other words, he or she can live at school another life than the life he or she lives at home or in the civil space.
6 - In short, and to paraphrase the famous law voted in 1905 : a regime of laicity knows the communities (giving them large rights) but does not acknowledge them as political agents.
7 - As says Amartya Sen in his book Identity and Violence : “- Why should a British citizen who happens to be Muslim have to rely on clerics and other leaders of the religious
community to communicate with the prime minister?”
8 - It was the case in great tolerant countries, where several religions had to live together since a long time ago.
9 - In France we have experienced a unique and exclusive religion, imposed by an absolute monarchy for a very long time. Maybe, because of that we know better how to deal with a fundamental
[click here to close the notes-window] [Top]