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!
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