France 2017: Le Pen’s Strange Definition of Secularism

I’ve written about the upcoming French presidential election in the past. Since then, free-market lunatic Francois Fillon has tanked following the revelations that he gave fake jobs to his family members. Benoit Hamon and the PS have slipped off the radar as a resurgent Jean-Luc Melenchon has just about drawn level with Fillon in polling in the high teens. Centrist Emmanuel Macron and extreme right-winger Marine Le Pen are level in the lead, both polling in the low to mid twenties. The trend as of mid-April shows Macron, Hamon and Le Pen losing support with big gains to Melenchon and a slight rise for Fillon.

Given the large number of undecided/abstaining voters and the rapidly changing trends, any two of the top four could succeed in the first round of voting on Sunday (French time). The situation in French politics is such that it was covered by British-American comedian John Oliver in Last Week Tonight. In general the segment was light on policy and highlighted the deep unpopularity of figures such as Valls, Fillon and Macron who were caught on camera getting hit with food items. Interestingly, there was no mention of Hamon which should be a signal to his voters to switch to Melenchon in order to see their interests represented.

Most of the segment covered Le Pen, who draws obvious parallels with Brexit, Trump, and now the outrageous Turkish constitutional referendum (although I can’t imagine she would like to be compared with the latter event).  Oliver pointed out that even though she has polished the FN from when her father was in charge, she still lets some unpleasant ideas slip through. One example of this was when interviewed, Le Pen stated that she would ban all religious clothing. Le Pen has also stated that she is attached to secularism. Her ban on religious clothing is no doubt inspired by her staunch secularism.

As the title alludes to, I think that a ban on religious clothing has nothing to do with secularism and in fact goes against secular principles. Firstly, let’s look at a definition of secularism from the National Secular Society (UK):

Secularism is a principle that involves two basic propositions. The first is the strict separation of the state from religious institutions. The second is that people of different religions and beliefs are equal before the law.

One of the misunderstandings about secularism (normally by religious fanatics) is that it is akin to compulsory atheism or involves preferential treatment for atheists. Not true, if anything the above definition is a statement of neutrality. This position of neutrality is beneficial to the most people as should be obvious to anyone capable of empathy. While a powerful group may be upset that it can’t do whatever it likes, less powerful groups do not experience oppression.

In terms of the second part of the NSS definition, I think that bans on clothing represent a deviation from neutrality and indicate a bias in favour of irreligion. While I think an irreligious society is generally better than a religious society, turning everyone into an atheist will not solve all the world’s problems (just read PZ Myers’ blog and consider some of the examples of asshole atheism that he has confronted). Bans on clothing push the widespread understanding of secularism towards the cartoon definition that religionists use to claim that secularism is persecuting them. Let’s avoid that and acknowledge that individuals should be free to wear the clothing of their choice.

It’s also interesting that in the West, non-religious and Christian people wear clothing which is generally not explicitly associated with religion. That’s probably due to privilege bias and thinking that their “normal” is the only “normal”. I can’t help but think secularism is being misappropriated by Le Pen as a tool to bash religious minorities in France. Bashing religious minorities is a godsend to terrorist organisations who will happily recruit those who have been persecuted. Terrorist organisations will find things a lot harder when the mainstream of their religion have secure comfortable lifestyles, individual rights and freedoms to participate in society and a sense of belonging. True secularism offers us all of those things. Le Pen’s policies only serve to enrage and endanger us.

My preference is Melenchon, whose concerns about economic insecurity are more credible than Le Pen’s. He recognises that neoliberal economics has underlined the noble vision of the European Union. Hamon also has some interesting policies such as a UBI, and investment in infrastructure and the environment. However he is a long shot on current polling. I was wrong to characterise Macron as a Bernie Sanders type figure in my last French post (well spotted Old Deuteronomy), it is clear now that Melenchon is deserving of this sobriquet. It’s now up to France to do what the US couldn’t: put a socialist voice in charge for constructive change.

*You may notice that I haven’t used any of the accented letters in the candidate names. That’s because I have a US English keyboard and I can’t be arsed remembering the ALT codes. This is Zeitung f­ür Katzen, not Journal pour les chats!

2 thoughts on “France 2017: Le Pen’s Strange Definition of Secularism

  1. Yay, I got cited! 😀 To me the selection of candidates available really exposes the major flaws of the French political system. In a proportional system where strategic voting is not required, I’d vote for Hamon. However, if I were French, I actually wouldn’t know who to vote for. With Hamon, my vote would most likely not count at all since it’s highly unlikely that he’ll make it to the second round. So Macron or Mélenchon? In terms of their ideas about France and the EU, there’s not much difference between Mélenchon and Le Pen, which is why I wouldn’t be overly keen on supporting Mélenchon. Macron’s pro-business policies are not that convincing either.

    Hamon certainly has some valuable ideas. Regarding a UBI, I’m more supportive of the ‘European New Deal’ with a Universal Basic Dividend put forward by the DiEM25 movement: I’m not an economic expert, but to me the UBD idea appears to share the benefits of a UBI while avoiding the risks and disadvantages of the latter.

    And another comment on the actual secularism topic: I think we have to be a bit careful with this word, as it has many different meanings in many different countries. In the former Soviet Union, secularism was practically understood as ‘state atheism’. The NSS definition is clearly distinct from this. The French ‘laïcité’, however, is different again and even tough an often debated topic, it’s traditionally understood in a pretty far-reaching sense: for all civil servants and other employees working for the French state it’s strictly prohibited to show any form of religious symbols, and the same is normally true for all pupils and students in public schools and universities. With that in mind, I totally agree with you that Le Pen’s (very selective) understanding of secularism is still nonsense and counterproductive in terms of social peace, but it’s not actually that far off the common French consensus on secularism.

    • While reading about the candidates, I was irritated by Melenchon’s pro-Putin attitude. Hamon had a more attractive set of policies, even if they are superficial compared to those from DiEM25.

      I sometimes think about a scenario where in an automated economy, each citizen owns an identical robot and claims the income derived from the use of the robot. DiEM25’s collectivised depository would likely give a similar outcome. A UBI fits within the framework of a highly unequal society, where one citizen already owns all of the robots and they have to be taxed in order to provide the other citizens with an income. As we know from real life, taxing the rich is difficult for many reasons. I tend to agree that a universal dividend from collectively owned capital and IP is a more sustainable and potentially more politically attractive strategy(?)

      Regarding secularism, I seem to have fallen into a trap of thinking that there was an absolute definition for it. However, I think secularists would do well to avoid advocating for what sounds like censorship in order to hold the moral high ground over their highly censorious religious opponents.

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