What Does Laïcité Mean to You? Identity and Antisemitism in France

The holiday season is here and families across the world are gathering in celebration, and we hope that it will be a season of peace. In France, these festivities take place against the backdrop of the terrorist violence of the November 13th attacks. Though under this dark cloud, we wish for this to be a brighter time of coming together, respect, and tolerance for all people in France, regardless of race, ethnicity, country of origin, or religion.

Complicating that hope is the contentious debate on laïcité (secularism) in France. How this debate unfolds will fundamentally influence whether the resurgence of antisemitism and extremist violence in the country continues unabated. In the past year, 51 percent of all violent hate crimes in France were directed at Jews, who account for only one percent of the population.

While Americans are generally familiar with the notion of separation of church and state, though the extent of it is still debated, in France there are diverse and conflicting interpretations of this concept. In principle, laïcité includes three elements: (1) freedom of religion or belief, (2) the neutrality of the state, and (3) respect for religious pluralism.

Some view laïcité as a bedrock principle of French society, which is necessary in order to successfully manage a diverse population and create a national French identity. Others view the government’s approach as overly aggressive, confining religious expression to the private sphere. Restrictions on the hijab and the burqa in public spaces, as well as religious symbols in schools, are seen as limiting the acceptance of differences and promoting unattainable conformity.

Debates about “French identity,” multiculturalism, and pluralism have fueled anti-Muslim sentiment and nurtured perceptions of discrimination within Muslim communities—which are diverse, including those who have a long history in France as well as recent immigrants. With the rising influence of the far-right National Front, France is incubating a toxic mix of factors that can marginalize young people, create an environment that fosters antisemitism and xenophobia, and set the stage for attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions, as well as broader hate-based violence.

Propagators of antisemitic rhetoric take advantage of this contentious environment. Young people are bombarded with antisemitic content on social media. French comedian Dieudonné was sentenced to two months in prison in November for inciting hatred and denying the Holocaust, yet he retains a significant following online. Far-right novelist Alain Soral also disseminates virulent antisemitic views online.

Human Rights First will launch a new report on January 7, Breaking the Cycle of Violence: Countering Antisemitism and Extremism in France. The report will analyze the nature and extent of antisemitism and extremism in France and present recommendations for combating it. Our research finds that French Jews confront multiple forms of antisemitic violence, including attacks by perpetrators who subscribe to the stereotype that Jews have a privileged association with the French political establishment. Jews are “in the front line” by proxy, and muted governmental efforts to combat discrimination against other marginalized groups in France fuels this hostile situation.

One of the report’s core findings is that polarized interpretations of laïcité are among the root causes of antisemitism and the perception of marginalization of immigrants and Muslims. Along with the rise of the National Front and other factors, the polarizing debate on laïcité exacerbates an environment in which antisemitic, racist, and xenophobic discourse is on the rise.

France is a vital American ally, and the United States and France share a strong interest in combating antisemitism as a serious human rights problem. Our report will outline pragmatic steps to create a stronger, more inclusive France. The U.S. government should work with France to help build a more peaceful, tolerant society and hopefully prevent more hate-motivated violence.

Please join us for the launch of our report, Breaking the Cycle of Violence: Countering Antisemitism and Extremism in France, on Thursday, January 7 at 9–11 AM at the National Press Club, 529 14th Street NW, 13th Floor, Washington DC. Refreshments will be provided. Please RSVP to Rebecca Sheff at [email protected].


Published on December 23, 2015


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