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French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault greets Quebec Premier Pauline Marois at the Hotel Matignon in Paris on Dec. 13, 2013. (Jacques Brinon/Associated Press)
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault greets Quebec Premier Pauline Marois at the Hotel Matignon in Paris on Dec. 13, 2013. (Jacques Brinon/Associated Press)

EMILY LAXER

Linking Quebec's Values Charter to French secularism is a deception Add to ...

Pauline Marois has once again looked to France to bolster the legitimacy of her proposed Quebec Values Charter. Last Friday, the Premier was photographed standing next to the French Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, as he publically condemned the leaked contents of a report which proposed that France reconsider its 2004 ban on ostentatious religious signs in schools. After Mr. Ayrault’s statement, Ms. Marois offered her own comments to the media. She approved the Socialist government’s stance with great enthusiasm, claiming it exemplified Quebec’s and France’s shared commitment to secularism.

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This latest attempt to justify restrictions on religious freedom by drawing parallels with France is misleading, for two reasons. First, the ban on wearing religious symbols in schools – around which the debate over the French report focused – is not even currently part of Quebec’s secularism debate. The proposed Charter of Values itself makes no reference to it: the limits it would place on religious symbols would apply to teachers, but not students, in the public school system. Second, and more importantly, Ms. Marois’s portrayal of France’s current secular stance obscures a deep ambivalence within the governing Socialist party around questions of religious expression, which dates back to the country’s first Muslim headscarf controversy in the 1980s.

In 1989, following the highly publicized expulsion of three headscarf-wearing Muslim girls from school, Socialist minister of education Lionel Jospin rejected calls for a legal ban. It took until 2004, under Jacques Chirac’s conservative government, for this ban to be approved. Since 1989, the Socialists have been under pressure from the political right to prove that they are as concerned as their political foes about the impact of Islamic culture in France. Today, a significant contingent within the party supports the restriction of religious symbols like the headscarf and burqa in the public sphere. Manuel Valls, the prominent no-nonsense Minister of the Interior, whose tough stance on integration has earned him a reputation as France’s ‘top cop’, is a leading figure in the party to take this position.

However, many Socialist deputies in the National Assembly are uncomfortable with efforts to push forward an even more restrictive secular agenda. They fear that, in addition to alienating Muslim voters, this approach contradicts the original goal of secularism, which was to guarantee religious freedom by putting an end to state control of religion. Such concerns prompted a large majority of Socialist MPs – including Jean-Marc Ayrault and (current President) Francois Hollande – to boycott the 2010 parliamentary vote to legally ban religious face coverings in all of public space.

Far from seeking to expand the scope of legislation to enforce secularism, the current Socialist administration has sought to damp down conflict around this issue. The work of the Observatory of Secularism, a consultative body which Mr. Hollande appointed in 2012 to issue recommendations for secular policies, reflects this stance. Although some key figures in the group favour a deepening of restrictions on religious signs, even proposing a ban on headscarves in universities, the Observatory has mainly been a force for moderation in France’s secularism debate. When he gave the Observatory its mandate, Mr. Hollande asked that it work to reduce any remaining conflict around religious expression. So far, it has complied. In its most significant recommendation to date, the group rejected widespread calls to allow daycare centres receiving public funding to disallow the wearing of religious symbols by their employees.

Ms. Marois’s recent effort to appear allied with the French Prime Minister is indicative of her broader strategy: to convince voters that an authentic commitment to principles shared with France guides her own restrictive policy proposals. In truth, though, the recent French legislation on religious symbols is part and parcel of a high-stakes and ongoing political game, in which the Socialists’ are struggling to dispel claims that they are less committed to French values than their right wing compatriots.

In Quebec, Ms. Marois herself is on the offensive, driving forward a restrictive secular agenda. In France, the Socialist government is on the defensive, seeking to halt further steps in aid of such an agenda. Most of Ms. Marois’s genuine soulmates in France are in the right wing opposition parties, not in the party that currently governs the country.

Emily Laxer is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Toronto. Her research compares debates over minority religious integration in France and Quebec.

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