French Finance Minister dips a toe into Quebec’s charter debate

MIRABEL, Que. — The Canadian Press

France's Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici is pictured on Sept. 25, 2013. On Friday, he weighed into Quebec’s values debate, very tentatively, with praise Friday for the idea of a secular state. (CHRISTIAN HARTMANN/REUTERS)

A high-ranking French politician weighed into Quebec’s values debate, very tentatively, with praise Friday for the idea of a secular state.

France’s Finance Minister was asked about the values charter controversy during a news conference where he was standing beside Premier Pauline Marois.

Marois’ Parti Québécois wants to forbid religious headwear for public employees, and has cited France as one place where similar policies have been enacted.

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The French Finance Minister, Pierre Moscovici, said he didn’t want to be offering lessons to anyone, but then he proceeded to extol the general principle of a religion-free state.

He called secularism a “beautiful notion” that has long been at the heart of France’s vision of government and which actually creates unity – not division.

“This is a notion that lies at the heart of the French republican pact,” he said.

“Secularism also means tolerance. Everyone, in their private space, can practice or not practice [their faith]. Secularism is what preserves the public space.

“We believe it’s a beautiful notion, but to each his own.”

Numerous commentators have suggested the PQ’s notion of secularism is influenced by the French experience. Secularism is in Article 1 of the French constitution. The state was declared neutral in 1905, with religious symbols taken down and state funding stripped for religion.

France banned religious symbols in state schools a decade ago, and declared a complete ban on the face-covering burka in 2011.

The same commentators suggest Canada is shaped particularly by the British view of secularism, a more laissez-faire approach to expressions of faith.

But some have noted that there is a glaring difference between the French model and Quebec’s: the PQ model is a little more erratic in its application.

The PQ insists the crucifix must continue hanging above the national assembly; Christmas trees will continue to appear in government offices; and the giant cross atop Montreal’s Mount Royal isn’t going anywhere – because they all represent Quebec’s traditional heritage.

In the months leading to its presentation of the plan, the PQ changed its name from “Charter of Secularism” to “Charter of Quebec Values.”

That has led to opponents suggesting the idea is more about winning votes for the PQ, in ridings outside Montreal, than it is about actual secularism.

Marois declined to take a question on the values charter Friday.

She has adopted the custom lately of only answering questions on the chosen topic of a given news conference.

In this case, she and Moscovici were in Mirabel, Que., to announce a provincial loan for $10-million and grant for $5-million, and a $2.4-million federal contribution, to create a plant for assembling airplane fuselage for the French firm Aerolia.

The $82.4-million plant is expected to create 170 jobs.