A Crisis of Faith in Laïcité

A few weeks ago in late August, a woman was napping on a crowded beach in Nice when a group of police officers approached and ordered her to remove her shirt

By Madeleine Elfenbein|September 15, 2016

A few weeks ago in late August, a woman was napping on a crowded beach in Nice when a group of police officers approached and ordered her to remove her shirt. In a striking sequence of photos, a photographer for AFP captured the scene (see Gillman, et al., under Resources): first, we see the woman lying on the sand, eyes closed, apparently unaware that she is the target of police activity. She is barefoot and wearing black pants, a long-sleeved blue shirt, and a matching blue headwrap, while the officers around her are wearing badges, bulletproof vests, and belts laden with assorted lethal and non-lethal weaponry. (Two of them are also in long black pants, while the others have opted for shorts.) In the next shot, the woman is sitting up. She is holding the hem of her shirt and looking perplexedly at one of the officers, as though struggling to understand the order she's just been given. Next, the woman is captured extracting an arm from her blue shirt, while still maintaining eye contact with the officer. A later shot shows her with the shirt over her head, the officers’ gazes politely averted as she disrobes. In the final shot, she sits there in a sleeveless undershirt, contemplating the garment she has just removed, as one of the officers, kneeling, writes her a ticket.

What can her offense have been? A screenshot of another, similar ticket received by a woman on a beach in nearby Cannes records her offense as "lacking proper attire respectful of good morals and of laïcité" (see Thouny, under Resources).

Let us pause for a moment to consider this charge. Substitute "Islam" for "laïcité"—the French term for secularism—and you've got a rationale that would satisfy the members of Saudi Arabia's own reviled vice squad, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vices. Indecency may be in the eye of the beholder, but women are nearly always the main culprits, whether in Cannes or Riyadh. The acts of identifying and punishing such indecent women—clothed in too little or too much—are how these cultures remind themselves of what they stand for.

The symmetry between the French and Saudi vice squads would be comical if it weren’t such a problem for civilians trapped under the thumb of these regimes. In southern French cities, police harassment of Muslim women became both legal and routine this summer, as armed police squads patrolled the beaches in search of covered female heads, empowered by new laws mandating historically French standards of female flesh exposure. Incredibly, they had the vocal support of French politicians from across the ideological spectrum, from Socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls to National Front leader Marine Le Pen. It took a formal complaint from the League of the Rights of Man to prompt the French Council of State, the nation's highest court, to overturn the legality of these sumptuary laws.

Yet there is little sign that women in France will be left to dress in peace. The Prime Minister, for one, is determined to keep their state of dress at the center of French politics: in an August 30 speech, he celebrated the bare-breastedness of France's mascot, Marianne, declaring, "Marianne has a naked breast because she is feeding the people! She is not veiled, because she is free! That's the Republic!" All this in the name of laïcité.

Such stubborn vehemence suggests that the time has come to assess the damage that this sacred principle, baked into French self-regard since the eighteenth century, has wrought on the highest traditions of French liberty. In recent decades, much attention has been paid to Islam and whether its purportedly "exceptional" status among world religions justifies the extraordinary measures taken against its practitioners. But it should be clear that the persecution of Muslim women on French beaches isn’t about Islam; it’s about laïcité, and that’s where our attention needs to be.

In the wake of recent and terrifying outbursts of Islamist violence in France, laïcité has gained a proportionate ferocity. Its excesses resemble those of any other religious tradition that feels itself under siege: displays of internal incoherence, irrational cruelty, and the erosion of the once-sacred line between non-practitioners and enemies of the faith. In the words of the mayor of Cannes, the burkini is "the uniform of a movement against which we are at war." The women caught wearing it are treated not as rights-bearing civilians, but as soldiers who must be stripped of their uniforms. The humiliation of individual Muslims in the name of laïcité has been legally sanctioned since the passage of the 2004 law banning "conspicuously" religious symbols from state schools, but never has it been carried out with such a broad mandate from the non-Muslim French majority.

France may well dig itself deeper into this pit and continue to target Muslim women for harassment, but it should remember that it doesn't have to. Instead, it might consider taking a page from its semblable, the Saudi government, which recently opted to remove the power of arrest from its Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vices.

But that is only a half-measure. What's needed in the case of French secularism is a full-blown Reformation: a movement to reconcile the French practice of laïcité with its own national conscience. A new generation, more zealous defenders of liberty than their parents, must be the ones to lead these reforms. It falls to them to reject the excesses of a power-drunk clerical class and the hollow pomp of a cultural chauvinism that have debased the French national religion for far too long. Let them lead the striving for a simpler, purer laïcité, untainted by racism, informed by the historical realities of French colonialism, driven by the desire to make room for France's millions of Muslim citizens and their claims to a religious and cultural life on equal footing with Catholics, Jews, and the rest of France. In a nod to their forebears, these reformers can start by returning to the letter of their sacred texts, the Constitution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. It is time to defy the traditionalists and translate these texts into a postcolonial vernacular. A new secular canon is needed, new guides to interpreting the scripture and living out the faith of laïcité in its purest, highest form. As more than one Muslim Frenchwoman has pointed out, it should be possible to do so with a covered head.


- Boy, Louis. "La mairie de Cannes interdit le burkini sur ses plages: "C'est l'uniforme d'un mouvement contre lequel nous sommes en guerre." franceinfo. August 15, 2016.

- "France burkini: Highest court suspends ban." BBC. August 26, 2016.

- Gillman, Ollie, et al. "Turn your headscarf into a headband: What armed police told Muslim woman on French beach as they fined her for 'inappropriate' clothing as minister warns against creating 'stigma' with burkini ban." The Daily Mail. August 24, 2016.

- Hamid, Shadi. "Is Islam Exceptional?The Atlantic. June 6, 2016.

- "Marianne, le voile et les droits des femmes : les propos de Valls agacent une historienne." Le Monde. August 30, 2016.

- "Saudi Arabia: A Move to Curb Religious Police Abuses." Human Rights Watch. April 18, 2016

- Thouny, Laura. "Siam, verbalisée sur une plage de Cannes pour port d'un simple voile." Nouvel Observateur. August 23, 2016.

Image: Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789) | Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier

Author, Madeleine Elfenbein, is a PhD candidate in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. She was a 2015-16 Martin Marty Center Junior Fellow. Her website is at maddyelfenbein.wordpress.com.

Edited by Brett Colasacco, PhD candidate in Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School.