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France’s ‘beautiful notion’ of secularism is not a model for Quebec

For a romantic getaway you can't beat France. It's a great place to visit, but as a member of a religious minority it doesn't appear these days to be the best place to live.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois recently pointed to France as a model for Quebec (and presumably for all of Canada) in its approach to diversity. The French national doctrine of secularism seems to be a source of inspiration for the Premier's proposed Charter of Values.

While cautiously acknowledging imperfection in the French system, Ms. Marois prefers it to the British approach to diversity which she recently characterized as a source of severe social unrest and violence. While presumably not wanting to comment on the Quebec debate during a visit to the province last week, French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici described French secularism as a "beautiful notion" that creates unity – not division. The terms he used resemble those being employed by the Quebec government to describe its Values Charter. The Quebec government conveniently chooses to ignore the deep inter-ethnic divisions around the Charter debate as reflected in public opinion surveys.

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Underlying the French secularist ideology is the notion that it is the visible public expression of religious differences that causes one to experience discrimination. Presumably in the absence of such display the tensions will magically disappear. In effect the victim of discrimination is to blame because the victimizer was provoked into such behaviour by the sight of someone wearing a hijab, turban or keepa in the public domain. If it were true that the so-called "beautiful notion" of secularism reduced religious discrimination you might think that the proud French government would generate some supportive empirical evidence to that effect. This could be helpful to Ms. Marois the next time she chooses to publicly share her insight and expertise on comparative policies and practices in the area of migration and identity.

Unfortunately for Ms. Marois and Mr. Moscovici, the evidence on the French model points to a very different conclusion. Surveys conducted in June, 2012, by Eurobarometer (the polling arm of the European Commission) put France on top of the list amongst the 27 countries of the European Union as regards the extent to which its own population feel there is discrimination in society based on religion or beliefs. Two in three French citizens surveyed see such discrimination as widespread compared with half of the U.K. population. As regards discrimination outside the workplace on the basis of religion or beliefs France (55 per cent) records the highest percentage in the EU of people feeling it is widespread. France doesn't do much better around the perception of ethnic discrimination outside the workplace with yet another EU record 76 per cent seeing it as widespread.

Yet more recent evidence further challenges Mr. Moscovici's observation about the success of secularism. A March, 2013, study from one of France's most reputable research firms (TNS-Sofres) conducted for the country's human rights commission offers a very gloomy portrait of a fractured society that is profoundly divided over issues of identity, immigration and diversity. As regards national identity the report concludes that "far from being a source of unity, French identity is one of the principal sources of division." The report does reveal that the majority of the French population is proud of its country's secularism policy. This is likely proof that if you repeat something often enough people believe even with a lack of supporting evidence about its merits. Constant repetition by French officials about the wonders of secularism has likely fostered such a relatively uncritical outlook. The French illusion of unity via secularism is not backed up by causal demonstrations of a salient effect on intercultural harmony and cohesion.

With its proposed Charter of Values, the Parti Québécois wishes to borrow something from the French experience and transfer it onto Quebec accompanied by some of the same rhetoric around the potential for social harmony. Underlying the rhetoric the debate in Quebec thus far suggests that the government proposal is motivated by the politics of division and not by a genuine desire to promote harmony.

Jack Jedwab is executive vice-president of the Canadian Institute for Identities and Migration

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