Is Laïcité Deterring Terrorism Or Aiding France’s Fight Against It?



Another quarter, another Stanford class, and another short academic paper that is completely off-topic from this blog (and another A).

“Our country is at war.”

— President Francois Hollande[1]

  1. Introduction

France, from all outward appearances, appears to be a country under siege. Since the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015, there have been over 200 deaths attributed to extremist Islamic terrorism in France. There is little doubt that the Hyper Cacher, Charlie Hebdo, Bataclan, and Nice attacks caused understandable anxiety in an already anxious nation before even the latest brutal killing of an 85 year-old Catholic priest (before his congregation) in Normandy further shocked the country’s raw nerves. To many observers and commentators, terrorism has simply become a way of life in France as citizens come to realize that terrorism only achieves its barbaric intentions if they allow it to “terrorize our minds.”[2]

Despite this rise in terrorist-related deaths in the country, France, paradoxically, is also on the forefront of increased counter-terrorism efforts.[3] It is historically notable that “France was the first Western country struck on its soil from state-sponsored terrorism in the Middle East,” namely by Algerian nationals in the 1950s and Palestinians in the 1970s.[4] Consequently, its counter-terrorism activities while controversial – longtime domestic spying on citizens (that pre-dates the U.S. Bush Administration), aggressive prosecutions, dedicated investigators, and “intrusive” law enforcement – have “continuously adapted its judicial system and intelligence forces to the terrorist threat it faces”[5]

But there is a quieter, subtler weapon in France’s counter-terrorism arsenal that is no less sweeping in scope. It doesn’t require the sub-rosa intrusion and surveillance into the rights of its citizens, increased armed patrols, or activist judges to be effective. Rather, with a simple stroke of the pen, on December 9, 1905, France introduced laïcité into law via the Law of Separation of Churches and State (although the concept dates back to the French Revolution and its severance of ties between the monarchy and the Catholic Church). Roughly translated as “French secularity,” laïcité is “aimed at fostering a post-religious society.”[6]  As such, not only does this law forbid the practice of Islam in France today, it per se curtails the outward expression of ALL religions in the political and social institutions of the French state.  Clearly, as its history teaches, laïcité was never intentionally adopted to combat the very real threat of the Islamic State (“ISIS) of today.  Rather, the current crackdown on any forms of public practices of Islam (or Christianity, or Judaism, for that matter) would be a natural and “bonus” by-product of this secular ideal that so powerfully holds a grip on contemporary French society.

But how effective has laïcité specifically been in France’s war against ISIS’ Gaulic reign of terror?  Does it curtail the deadlier impulses of extremist religions (ideally Islam) by forbidding ALL such public displays of any religious expression or worship?  Or does laïcité foster repression, reveal long-held antagonisms, and unearth historical hatred toward Islam, in general?  Could laïcité force religious worship indoors, underground and into the shadows?  Does it foment budding terrorists’ own internal demons to lash-out at the West’s presumed secularization?

This paper will attempt to offer an answer to this conundrum. Part I has given us a brief introduction to the aim of laïcité. Part II will briefly examine the argument for laïcité vis-à-vis Islamic extremism as seen in the new wave of terrorism in ISIS. Part III will briefly delve into the case against it.  By examining this question, we hope to get a better understanding of laïcité and whether or not France’s rise in terrorism is an unintended consequence of this historic and uniquely French principle of free expression.

  1. II. The Case for Laïcité

Laïcité is a policy that is full of contradictions. It protects free expression by prohibiting free expression, at least in public. It attempts to be neutral as to religions but really was, at its inception, an agreement in a Christian country among mainly Christians.”[7] It “refers to the freedom of citizens and of public institutions from the influence of organized religions”,[8] that is, ALL religions, without (allegedly) concentrating on any one particular religion.

In short, “Laïcité has become the first religion of the Republic.”[9]  It’s based on lofty, egalitarian principles of freedom of conscience, strict separation between religion and state, the freedom to (privately) exercise any of the faiths one may choose, and banning ‘conspicuous religious symbols, such as crosses, stars of David, and yarmulkes.[10] To French President Hollande, it presents “a single, unified ‘peuple français’—a fraternité and an egalité that renders everyone the same.”[11] Ideally, by creating a society that is free of divisions it also deters its natural aggressions and strife.  To Hollande, “The concept of a secular state is ‘nonnegotiable,’ he said, calling laïcité ‘a guarantee for France ‘against threats both internal and external.’”[12]

Many commentators believe that laïcité has helped the nation face its distinct challenges of assimilating and/or integrating five million Muslims into the country.  Some of the data appear to bear this out.  In recent polls, 76% of the French have a favorable view of Muslims, which is higher than in both Germany (69%) and Britain (72%).[13] Laïcité, then, “has acquired so much mystique as to be practically an ideology, a timeless norm that defines Frenchness.”[14]

Some of France’s politicians, most notably on the right, are staunch supporters of laïcité and it is deep rootedness in France’s social, political and cultural fabric. Marion Marechal Le Pen’s National Front organization, which is against the current wave of immigration and allegedly linked to xenophobic issues, asserted that her party was, for all intents and purposes, secular in every way, even if Le Pen’s rhetoric leaned-forward into downright Islamophobia (and, undeniably pro-Christian).[15]

There is an almost idyllic vision to laïcité that attempts to unite what appears to be a rapidly-dividing country. Its quest?  “In public, you don’t have a religion. You’re just a citizen of the Republic.”[16]  At its highest, most idealistic level, its aim is that “secularism is a guarantee for France against internal and external threats and influences.” [17]

Such efforts can’t help but have a net positive, however small, in efforts to force a French identity. Indeed, after Charlie Hebdo, France announced new measures directed squarely at reinforcing these secular values in French schools after the attack “exposed serious cultural rifts between children in heavily immigrant communities and others in classrooms throughout the country.”[18]  Therefore, these renewed efforts to focus on the uniqueness of being French had some positive impact.  Teachers were getting new training, they increased lessons on morality and civics, and included the singing of the “La Marseillaise” in revamped classroom activities.[19]

Obviously, laïcité has done some good.  At least in the form of national unity.

III. The Case Against Laïcité

Despite the national appeal of laïcité, it also has its detractors.  Most of its criticisms derive from its apparent anachronisms. It’s a relic from a bygone era when France was predominately a monocultural nation that attempted to protect government from the influences of France’s once-dominant and untrustworthy Catholic Church.  What may have worked for a Catholic society to simply not allow Catholicism into the cultural and political realm of everyday French life is unsuited to a multicultural world where Muslim immigration to the European Union is rampant, especially in the new wave of immigration from the Middle East’s current sectarian and civil wars.  And if there was some practical need to stamp a burgeoning France with a national identity after historical events of the nineteenth century, that necessity seems ill-suited to European Union and other contemporary events today.

To Muslims who are practitioners of Sharia law, the notion of church and state separation is unfathomable. One critic pointed out that laïcité “is unintelligible and even shocking to Muslims, who view it as ‘an injunction to abandon their religion.’”[20]  Others go even further:  “Today, with the concept being used in the service of Islamophobia, it is especially important to knock laïcité down from its elevated status.”[21]

So laïcité has perhaps outlived its usefulness and become contemporarily abusive.  Instead of keeping France secular, it seems as if laïcité is being used as a sword against Islam, in particular, rather than a shield to (all) religious influence, in general.  This Islamophobia has become even more pronounced after the Charlie Hebdo and Nice attacks.  (Although there are some encouraging signs of national harmony in the rallies staged after the July 2016 Normandy Catholic priest killing.)

To some, laïcité largely prevents intensely religious people from practicing their sincerely-held religion in France.  To French Muslims in particular, “Today, laïcité is really, really dangerous for people who practicing [sic[ their religion.”[22]  Clearly, this cannot be good for the nation itself.  Unpleasant personal decisions need to be made that drive a wedge between religions and other societal institutions.  For instance, religious practitioners have to uncomfortably choose between workplace requirements (i.e., removing hijabs) and the free exercise of one’s beliefs.  This naturally forces some to either toe a moral/religious line at work or leave the country altogether in order to practice their faith.[23]  To go even further, laïcité, has become both de facto and de jure “secular totalitarianism.”[24]


  1. Laïcité is Hurting France’s Fight Against Terrorism

In a multi-cultural world, tolerance seems to be the axiom, not totalitarianism. And it’s not as if Muslim countries are sending Islamic warriors to France to fight Western secularism.  Rather, this latest wave of terrorists are from within; European home-grown “radicalized French youth, who…are already disaffected [, opportunistic] and are seeking a cause….”[25]  At the heart of this issue is a “cultural explanation,” that is, the “war of civilizations” theory, that, if implemented, is comparable to the medieval Crusades in its “us v. them” mentality.[26]  Suppressing an already disaffected segment of French society from their own religious expression will only yield yet more strife and discord.  If anything, the young terrorists are repulsed by the marginalization of their fiery brand Islam in everyday French life among already integrated or assimilated generations of Muslims.  “The key in this revolt is the absence of the transmission of a religion that is culturally integrated.”[27]  Accordingly, Like Oedipus’ own dynamic repression, rebellious, homegrown French terrorists “exhibit…desire for revenge for their suppressed frustrations.”[28]

George W. Bush, with characteristic simplicity, offered his official explanation for the rise in terrorism ushered in by the 9/11 attacks. He argued it was because “They hate our freedoms:  our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other”, and that, “This is the fight of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom.” [29]  But even without offering an answer to who “they” are, and just whom to attack, his minimalistic logic is flatly wrong, at least in France.  Perhaps one of the reasons the homegrown terrorists grow to hate “us” in the West is precisely because of their own lack of freedom of speech and religion; especially as that concept is practiced under laïcité in France.  Why add more fuel to the fire?  After all, “they are reclaiming on their own terms, an identity that, in their eyes their [assimilated/integrated] parents have debased.”[30]

But it’s a two-way street, as well. If France is to be open-minded and accepting of the differences between its myriad ethnicities, religions and cultures, those zealously-religious citizens too must be more open-minded, charitable and accepting to those that do not agree with them.  “[I]increased tolerance of difference would also help strengthen the notion that we must tolerate what some people find disagreeable, like the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.”[31]

If such a thawing in the multicultural war is to take place in France, let the government act first. Plainly, it’s not as if laïcité prevented Charlie Hebdo, Bataclan, or Nice in the first place.  Subsequently, It’s time to toss laïcité, for all its originally-intended national unity aspirations, into the proverbial dustbin of history, or at least reform it for a new age. By so doing, it would demonstrate to the doubters, right wingers, and even the budding, young terrorists themselves, that, with apologies to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, there’s nothing to fear but the fear of intolerance itself.  If a country as sophisticated, erudite and cosmopolitan as France can’t be tolerant of differences, what can be said of the U.S.?  Why not remove one philosophical weapon from the terrorists’ arsenal?  Because whatever’s going on now sadly is not working.


[1] July 26, 2016, commenting after the latest terrorist attack in his country, this time a priest murdered by two Islamist extremists serving the Islamic State.

[2] See, e.g., Gopnick, Adam, “A Real Wave of Terror in France,” THE NEW YORKER, July 27, 2016, available at:

[3] Alduy, Cecile, “France in a Time of War,” classroom lecture, July 25, 2016.

[4] Perelman, Marc, “How the French Fight Terror,” FOREIGN POLICY, January 6, 2006, available at:

[5] Ibid.

[6] Winkler, Elizabeth, “Is it Time for France to Abandon Laïcité?” THE NEW REPUBLIC, available at:

[7] Roger Cukierman, the director of the Representative Council of French Jewish Organizations, quoted in Erlanger, Steven, and Freytas-Gaburafeb, Kimoco, “Old Tradition of Secularism Clashes With France’s New Reality,’ NEW YORK TIMES, February 5, 2015, available at:

[8] Winkler, supra, note 6.

[9] French Political Scientist Dominique Moïsi, quoted in Erlanger, Steven, and Freytas-Gaburafeb, Kimoco, supra, note 7.

[10] Nougayrede, Natalie, “Now More Than Ever It’s Time to Stand up for France’s Brand of Secularism,” THE GUARDIAN, Dec. 12, 2015, available at:

[11] Winkler, supra, note 6.

[12] Erlanger and Freytas-Gaburafeb, supra, note 7.

[13] Cited in Nougayrede, supra, note 8.

[14] Ibid.

[15] See, e.g., id., Le-Pen said, “If French Muslims wish to practice their faith, they need to accept the fact that they are doing so on soil that is culturally Christian.  This means they cannot have the same rank as the Christian religion.”

[16] Beardsley, Eleanor, quoted on “All Things Considered, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO, March 4, 2015, available at:

[17] President Hollande, quoted in “François Hollande Vows to Defend France’s Republican Ideals,” THE NEW YORK TIMES, February 5, 2015, available at:

[18] de la Baume, Maia, “Paris Announces Plans To Promote Secular Values,” THE NEW YORK TIMES, January 22, 2015, available at:

[19] See id.

[20] Sansal, Boualem, “La France laique, adversaire majeur des islamistes,” LE FIGARO, November 15, 2015, quoted in Winkler, supra, note 6.

[21] Birchall, Ian, “The Wrong Kind of Secularism,” JACOBIN, November 19, 2015.available at:

[22] French-Algerian law student Anisa Enni quoted in ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, supra, note 16.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Benoist Apparu, a legislator and former secretary of state for housing, quoted in Winkler, supra, note 6.

[25] Roy, Olivier, “France’s Oedipal Islamist Complex,” FOREIGN AFFAIRS, January 7, 2016, available at:

[26] Ibid.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] George W. Bush, speech before a joint session of Congress to the U.S. nation, September 20, 2001, available at:

[30] Roy, supra, note 25.

[31] Winkler, supra, note 6.

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