Laïcité and Notre Dame: France Mourns a Relic as It Quashes Religious Expression

(L) Smoke billows as flames burn through the roof of the Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral on April 15, 2019, in the French capital Paris. (Fabien Barrau / AFP) / (R) People sit near a French flag as they attend a ceremony for the victims of a series of deadly attacks at the Grande synagogue de la Victoire on November 15, 2015. (Loic Venance/AFP)
(L) Smoke billows as flames burn through the roof of the Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral on April 15, 2019, in the French capital Paris. (Fabien Barrau / AFP) / (R) People sit near a French flag as they attend a ceremony for the victims of a series of deadly attacks at the Grande synagogue de la Victoire on November 15, 2015. (Loic Venance/AFP)

Just to clarify because a lot of people seem not to have realized this judging by their statuses, but Notre Dame has not burnt down. The firefighters acted quickly and probably with some degree of a contingency plan and kept the entire structure standing. The only things at least on the outside completely destroyed were the largely wooden spire and roof, which are comparably a small portion of the building. From what I’ve heard only one firefighter was injured and no one else (I haven’t heard about his condition).

This is just a building, a historic one but still just a building. It’s a bit shocking that such a major landmark was nearly incinerated, but it’s still standing. Many other historic buildings we know today throughout the world have been rebuilt after fires or earthquakes — sometimes partially and sometimes virtually entirely — but because there has been significant time since those incidents we have forgotten them, even as footnotes.

The way people have talked about the building has been very, very strange. They have described it as a landmark for art, historic architecture (it’s actually a hodgepodge of architecture, but that probably adds to its uniqueness rather than takes away from it), and an indisputable image of France (not just Paris).

But you know, its first and foremost a church. A church with a very checkered history, but it’s a church. It’s still in use, though it’s made blatantly obvious by the reactions of the world and Frenchmen alike that they don’t see it so much as a church anymore. Its religious significance is something that is far less important to France these days. But there’s another reason noting its religious significance took a backseat over the last day or so: people don’t want to talk about the role of religion in France.

France has a similar concept to the American ‘separation of church and state’ enshrined in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the US Constitution. This is known as laïcité. Except the French version is the Establishment Clause on steroids. The simplest way to think of the prevalent interpretation in modern France is that rather than Freedom of Religion, laïcité demands freedom from religion.

This demands civil servants hide their religious affiliations at work: yarmulkes, hijabs, crosses. The law also bans kippahs and headscarves for students in public schools from wearing such things and many want to extend that ban to all public places. Several towns in France in 2016 passed ordinances trying to ban the burkini, the full-body conservative swimwear now popular in observant Muslim communities.

A woman wearing a burkini joins a demonstration outside the French Embassy in London on August 25, 2016, during a 'Wear what you want beach party' to protest the ban on the swimwear on French beaches, and to show solidarity with Muslim women. (AFP PHOTO / JUSTIN TALLIS)
A woman wearing a burkini joins a demonstration outside the French Embassy in London on August 25, 2016, during a ‘Wear what you want beach party’ to protest the ban on the swimwear on French beaches, and to show solidarity with Muslim women. (AFP PHOTO / JUSTIN TALLIS)

Politicians have proposed bans on kosher and halal slaughter, arguing (weakly) that it is inhumane. But with the exception of Christian paraphernalia, Catholicism usually gets an unwritten exemption from these rules, with French presidents talking up the country’s Catholic heritage and the president even having the authority to appoint bishops in certain French cities.

Illustrative: Boys study in a Jewish school in Sarcelles, France, on October 03, 2010. (Serge Attal/FLASH90)
Illustrative: Boys study in a Jewish school in Sarcelles, France, on October 03, 2010. (Serge Attal/FLASH90)

It doesn’t stop there though. Anyone who calls for more religion in public life is ridiculed in the media and treated as an irrational, subservient outlier. Allowing your religious beliefs to influence your social or political beliefs is considered an anathema to being French. It is a form of thought control: do not oppose something because it conflicts with an idea from your religion, oppose it for some other reason.

This form of political correctness restricts many people from expressing views that happen to be parallel with traditional or conservative religious ideas, even if they stand completely on their own.

https://twitter.com/JFXM/status/768777114111926272/

And with the majority being more lax about their own Catholic religious traditions and affiliations in public places, these ideas weigh far more heavily on Jews and Muslims than on most Frenchmen.

France is mourning over a building. A piece of art and architecture as Ilhan Omar of all people referred to it today. Noah Pollak tried to turn her words into something controversial, as something “disrespectful toward Catholics.” She clearly was referring to Notre Dame’s historical value, but that is the way most French, even if they come from a Catholic background, look at it. Notre Dame is a relic to be preserved. It’s a photo. It’s a memoir. It’s not something that is all that active in their minds. And they don’t want it to be. Acknowledging the religious value of Notre Dame interferes with France’s de facto state’ religion of laïcité, a farsical excuse to suppress the religious rights and rites of minorities in France.

About the Author
Gedalyah Reback is an experienced writer on technology, startups, the Middle East and Islam. He also focuses on issues of personal status in Judaism, namely conversion.
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