With France on the verge of passing a law that would prevent Muslim girls from wearing their head scarves in class, Americans are asking why the French are so attached to secularism.
I always want to respond to this question by asking another, a version of one asked by Montesquieu nearly three centuries ago: How can one be French?
Our uneasiness about head scarves and other religious symbols in schools is a result of our long, often painful history. If we bow to demands to allow the practice of religion in state institutions, we will put France’s identity in peril.
The French word that is closest to secularism, laÃ¯citÃ©, was invented in the late 19th century to express several ideas. LaÃ¯citÃ© includes, foremost, tolerance.
Tolerance had actually been around for a while. It was first instituted in 1598 under the Edict of Nantes, which allowed Protestants to practice their faith and ended our Wars of Religion. But the state and the Roman Catholic Church were so intertwined that tolerance wasn’t enough. We had to take away the church’s power to oppress minorities and make law.0