Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Carol Saba on Macron's Understanding of Laïcité

French original, from the Beirut newspaper l'Orient-le Jour, here. This essay is worth a read because of the importance that French models of secular society continue to have for Lebanese Orthodox concepts of Church-State relations.

Macron, or the Implementation of a Partnerial Concept of Laïcité

During the traditional ceremony of the president of the French Republic's greeting religious leaders (Buddhist, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant and Orthodox) on January 4 of this year at the Élysée, Emmanuel Macron gave a speech explaining his thinking on laïcité as well as the way in which he understands the spiritual and existential question, religions' role in society, and the relationship that he is calling for between the public authorities and religions in France.

President Macron revealed some aspects of his "on the move" thinking about the question of French-style laïcité, its joys and sorrows, and prospective elements of its renewal based on the challenges and questions of today's world. On this subject like so many others, Macron's strength is that he moves forward without revealing too much... And, when he reveals himself, he once more hides his thinking by an exercise of methodical balancing, using his formula "while at the same time..." which has become famous since his presidential campaign and which allows him to be heard by everyone, with each person thinking that they have understood the meaning. Once a position is taken, Macron removes the link and once more puts things into perspective by integrating the past, present and future into a narrative dynamic. Thus we detect the influence of Paul Ricoeur, the young head of state's mentor.

His speech to France's religious leaders fits perfectly into this dynamic of thought and style where has succeeded in telling these leaders where we are coming from and where we are probably going. It is worth highlighting one aspect, which falls under the category of a discourse on method and which runs through the president's entire speech: he desires to "dialogue" with religions, not on an episodic basis, but on a permanent and recurrent basis, on various social and political topics (laws on bioethics and the questions they raise, the reception of refugees and the impact of migration, chaplaincies, schools, international crises and the instrumentation of religion, etc.)

The term "dialogue" returns repeatedly to the president's tongue to suggest implicitly his desire to move methodically towards what I have described as being "the partnerial understanding of laïcité" at a lecture I gave in July 2013 at Notre-Dame de La Salette in the south of France entitled "The Ambivalence of Church-State Relations in our Modern Societies." During that talk, I was able to explain the parameters of this partenarial understanding of laïcité by saying that it was not "a history of texts, of laws and decrees, but of the development of a 'partnarial' understanding of laïcité through the search for innovative balances that win the support of all concerned parties."

This 'partnerial' understanding of laïcité implies bringing together three conditions. First, a renunciation of radical, authoritarian and dogmatic understandings of laïcité. Then, recognition of its evolutionary character. Finally, the rejection of both a 'permissive' laïcité that gently sails in the wake of short-term interests at the risk of jeopardizing the foundations of the republican agreement and of an 'identitarian' laïcité that creates useless fights, creating boundaries and divisions that do not need to exist.

'Partner' State
By recognizing diversity and the necessity of approaching particularities with pragmatism and intelligence, such a 'partnerial' understanding of laïcité is the best vector for the fight against communitarianism in France. The partnerial understanding of laïcité  thus implies an evolution of mentalities and methodological and relational approaches. It implies that the state in France accepts not to act as an 'authoritarian' state, but as a state that regulates, arbitrates and organizes the permanent dialogue that promotes the emergence of balances that win the support of the largest number of actors in society. In a word, it is the 'partner' state that sets common limits, taking into account what is essential for each of these actors. For their part, the religions must act as partners of this state by integrating the imperatives of the republican agreement and positioning themselves within society as a factor for cohesion, progress and peace, separating the religious factor from any political or identitarian instrumentalization. Thus the objective is to find balances without calling into question republican fundamentals.

This 'partnerial' concept of laïcité is fully reflected in the remarks made by President Macron: "Religious faith that is intimate does not disqualify someone from being a citizen: it would be crazy to think that the two do not dialogue constantly within the same person."

"The Republic," adds the president, "does not ask anyone to forget his faith, but to make a nation, one must also know how to overcome one's differences by putting them at the service of the community of citizens and working every day to avoid creating something irreconcilable in society. In any case, I will never ask some French citizens, whoever they may be, to belong moderately to their religion or to believe moderately or as they should in their god. It makes little sense. But I will constantly ask everyone to respect absolutely the rules of the Republic. It is in this balance, where the strength of two commitments can be fully compatible, that we will come out stronger."

Has he not thus acknowledged the necessity of taking into account the fact of religion in the life of the polis, thus breaking with the conceptions of a certain radical laïcité that wanted to delete the fact of religion in the private space by excluding it from the public space?

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