When France's laws on secularism don't apply to all

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The French constitution sets out that "France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic”, and the country’s strict laws upholding the secular nature of the state and its institutions, including a ban on the wearing of religious dress and symbols in state educational establishments or by public employees, have been at the centre of tensions with members of the Muslim community. But a recent incident involving members of the council of the south-west city of Toulouse demonstrate that for some politicians, the rules of secularity are bendable according to one’s religion. Emmanuel Riondé reports from Toulouse.  

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Under the French constitution, all are equal before the fundamental principle of secularism inscribed within it, the founding stone of which is the 1905 law separating religions and state. But an incident this month involving members of the municipal council of the city of Toulouse, in south-west France, suggested that some are less equal than others.       

Two conservative councillors took part on August 15th in Catholic ceremonies in Lourdes for the Assumption of Mary, a major date for French Catholics which celebrates when, according to the Church, the Virgin Mary was taken into heaven at the end of her life on earth.

Jean-Michel Lattes and Jean-Baptiste de Scorraille, members of the conservative Les Républicains party which rules the council, were among numerous other elected representatives from around France who had gathered that day in Lourdes, one of the world’s major pilgrimage sites situated in the foothills of the Pyrenees, when the traditional “prayer for France” was held. In itself, their presence was a banal event.

But Lattes, who is deputy-mayor of Toulouse in charge of cultural affairs and the Occitan language, and Scorraille, in charge of local democracy and citizenship, were among some of the politicians present who wore their official tricolour sashes (“écharpe tricolore”) which are usually worn only at formal events. To do so during a private participation in religious celebrations runs contrary to France’s secular laws.

Lattes and Scorraille were in Lourdes on a private visit, and wearing their sashes was a contravention of a December 23rd 2000 French law which sets out the strictly regulated conditions in which the sashes can be used by deputy-mayors and councillors. Scorraille, who is also a regional representative of a movement called Sens commun, a rightwing Catholic-leaning association which was created in 2013 in the wake of the same-sex marriage law, which it opposes, posted on his Facebook page a photo of him at the Lourdes event together with Lattes and a deputy to the conservative mayor of the 7th arrondissement (district) of Paris, all wearing their sashes.

The Facebook post showing Jean-Michel Lattes (centre) and Jean-Baptiste de Scorraille (right) in Lourdes with a conservative colleague and councillor for the Paris 7th arrondissement. The Facebook post showing Jean-Michel Lattes (centre) and Jean-Baptiste de Scorraille (right) in Lourdes with a conservative colleague and councillor for the Paris 7th arrondissement.

The Facebook post was just as soon denounced by EELV Green party member Régis Godec, who sits among the opposition ranks on the council, who fiercely objected to the two men “participating in a religious ceremony with their tricolour sashes”.

Scorraille dismissed the “ridiculous controversy” over the event, and paraphrased a citation from General Leclerc of the WWII Free French forces who, during the campaign to liberate occupied France: “We will not stop until the French flag floats above the cathedral in Strasbourg.” 

On August 17th, the conservative mayor of Toulouse, Jean-Luc Moudenc, stepped into the fray in support of Scorraille and Lattes with a series of messages on Twitter, slamming “anti-Catholic sectarianism” and the little knowledge demonstrated by opposition councillors about “religious and historic culture”.

“In the world and in France in 2018, the worrying attacks on secularism no longer concern the Catholic religion,” he added in another post. “Everyone knows the problems lie elsewhere! Some refuse to recognise that and remain with a vision from the end of the 19th century.”

The Twitter messages posted by Toulouse mayor Jean-Luc Moudenc. The Twitter messages posted by Toulouse mayor Jean-Luc Moudenc.

“Muslims were clearly those designated as where “the problems” lay. “To say that the Catholics are model pupils signifies there are bad pupils and we know very well who this refers to,” commented Jean-Michel Ducomte, a lecturer at the Toulouse Institute of Political Studies, and a member of an advisory body on the upholding of secular principles set up by the Toulouse council. “It is an essentializing argument, it is the concept of a Muslim who is supposedly affected by a form of handicap regarding secularity. It’s intolerable.”   

“We don’t care about knowing whether one particular religion has a problem or not with secularism, it’s for the [French] republic to make its position known, and it is extremely dangerous for an elected representative to hand out certificates for good or bad pupils regarding secularity,” he added. “All the more so in that I’m not sure that Islam is a worse pupil than the Catholics.”

Contacted by Mediapart, the office of the mayor of Toulouse issued the following statement: “The mayor of Toulouse will not make any further comment to the media on the subject. He does not approve the crude interpretations and deformations that have been made of his comments by various people, because they are foreign to his thoughts and his acts. He has always, in carrying out his responsibilities, respected the republican principle of secularism, to which he is very attached.”   

But mayor Jean-Luc Moudenc has found himself confronted by a number of local politicians, from the local MP for President Emmanuel Macron’s ruling LREM party Mickaël Nogal, to the national secretary of the radical-left France insoumise (France Unbowed) party, Manuel Bompard. Socialist Party member of the Toulouse council Joël Carreiras this week published an open letter on his blog in which he said that to imply Muslims mount the principal challenge to secularism you “as a result disqualify a necessary neutrality”.   

Green party councillor Régis Godec, who was the first to have brought to public attention the attendance in Lourdes of Scorraille and Lattes decked out in their official sashes, said he was “stunned” by the turn of events. “The mayor’s first Tweet is contemptuous and insulting,” he said. “The second leaves me stunned. How can the mayor of France’s fourth [largest] city think he can establish a hierarchy between religions?”  

Godec has taken the matter to the advisory body on the upholding of secular principles set up by the Toulouse council in 2013, the Toulouse Fraternité-Conseil de la laïcité, which brings together a cross-party panel of local politicians, academics and representatives from the different religions present in the region. Initiated by former mayor Pierre Cohen and re-confirmed in its role by Jean-Luc Moudenc, it was in part created in response to the public trauma caused by the 2012 shooting rampage of jihadist Mohammed Merah. It has become a debating chamber on issues of secularism and coexistence with religions, and also action to ease the relations between different communities in the city.

But the tensions resurfaced this year when, on April 25th, a conservative member of the Toulouse council, Aviv Zonabend, gave an interview to Israeli radio station Galatz in which he declared that there were “too many” Arabs in Toulouse. That was followed, in June, by the publication on social media of comments made six months earlier by Mohammed Tataï, the imam of the newly-opened main mosque in the city, in which he cited a hadith calling for the murders of Jews.

Both men backtracked but Jean-Luc Moudenc stripped Zonabend of his responsibilities and officially notified the public prosecution services of the inflammatory comments by Tataï.

On June 23rd, after taking part in the inauguration of a mosque in the Empalot district of Toulouse, Moudenc joined in a ceremony in front of the City Hall building celebrating the marriage, in the 8th century, between Lampégie, daughter of Odo the Great and princess of Aquitaine, with Uthman ibn Naissa, aka Munuza, the Berber governor of Narbonne, when the mayor used the occasion to vaunt the openness of local society.

Hence the surprise when he stepped into the row about the behaviour of Scorraille and Lattes in Lourdes with such divisive comments. For Jean-Michel Ducomte, the mayor should “rapidly propose an interpretation [of his statements] which allows for a clear denial of what has been perceived as mistrust towards Muslims”.

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  • The French version of this report can be found here.

 

 

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