Rachel Donadio for theatlantic.com, | November 22, 2021

Why Is France So Afraid of God?

How the country came to view religion as a threat to national identity

Read at theatlantic.com

What forces hold a liberal democracy together? What forces can tear a liberal democracy apart? These were some of the questions on my mind as I listened earlier this year to the French education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, defend a proposal that had been placed before the nation.

The setting was grand: the French Senate, a chamber as elegant as an opera house. The bill he was presenting was equally grand, at least in name: Principles of the Republic and the Fight Against Separatism. Blanquer spoke under the marble gaze of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the architect of early modern France, who stood high in an alcove behind him. Colbert’s shoulder-length curls made for a contrast with Blanquer’s polished crown. Now enshrined in law, the anti-separatism bill is the latest salvo in a centuries-old battle between the French state and organized religion. Pushed through by the government of President Emmanuel Macron, it was designed to put even more official weight behind the idea of laïcité, a term that loosely translates as “secularism” but is significantly more complicated and politically charged.

Everyone knows about “Liberté, egalité, fraternité.” But it is laïcité that defines the most ferociously contested battle lines in contemporary France. The term has come to express a uniquely French insistence that religion, along with religious symbols and dress, should be absent from the public sphere. No other country in Europe has followed this path. The word itself derives from the ancient Greek term for “the people,” or “the laity,” as opposed to the priestly class. Laïcité is not the same thing as freedom of religion (the free exercise of religion is guaranteed by the French constitution). What it sometimes means is freedom from religion. At a time when religion-fueled terrorist attacks continue to traumatize France, laïcité has become inextricably tangled with questions of national identity and national security.

The bill that Blanquer was discussing in the French Senate that day represented a multifront political maneuver—a classic example of triangulation by Macron, a centrist who founded a new political party and has been trying to draw votes from the right. It was, first, part of France’s efforts to combat Islamist fundamentalism after years of violence. Second, it implicitly pushed back against Turkey, a main supporter of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which is influential in some French mosques. And finally, because it appeals to the lofty notion of “republican values,” it was also a way to deprive the right and the far right of oxygen ahead of national elections next spring. Macron will likely face off once more against Marine Le Pen and her National Rally party, which thrives on fear of immigrants and Islam in a country where Muslims now make up 8 percent of the population.

In September, a network of jihadists went on trial for the 2015 attacks in Paris that killed 130 people, including 90 inside the Bataclan concert hall. Those attacks occurred only months after the slaughter by Islamic terrorists of staff members at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. For those who lived through that terrible time in the capital, as I did, the trial has brought back grim memories. It is the biggest trial in French history, with more than 1,000 plaintiffs, and is expected to last for nine months. A more recent tragedy has also darkened the mood: the October 2020 beheading outside Paris of a high-school teacher, Samuel Paty. Paty had shown his class offensive cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in order to explain the principle of freedom of speech; he did so after reportedly urging anyone who might be disturbed—who might think the images blasphemous—to leave the room. Paty paid with his life at the hands of an 18-year-old terrorist, an immigrant from Chechnya who was soon cornered and killed by the police. The murder, provoked by Paty’s defense of a fundamental French value, freedom of speech, did not precipitate the anti-separatism bill, but it has haunted the country and weighed heavily on the government. “He wanted to strike the republic and its values,” Macron said of the killer. “This is our battle. And it is an existential one.”

The anti-separatism bill became law in July under the name Confirming Respect for the Principles of the Republic. It places stricter controls on religious associations (many mosques in France are funded from abroad) and gives the state broad authority to temporarily shut down any house of worship if there is a suspicion that it is inciting hatred or violence. It puts tighter restrictions on asylum seekers. It denies residency permits for men who practice polygamy and gives state officials more power to block a marriage if they believe a woman is being coerced into it. It also bans doctors from providing women with virginity certificates, a practice linked to some religious marriages. The Senate, with its right-wing majority, had proposed further amendments, later dropped, that would have banned women from wearing burkinis (a garment that allows women to swim while dressing modestly) in public pools, and from wearing headscarves when accompanying students on school trips. French law already forbids the wearing of what it calls “ostentatious” religious symbols in public primary and secondary schools, including headscarves, yarmulkes, and large crosses.

Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christian leaders have denounced the new legislation, saying that it restricts freedom of association. (France’s Jewish community, traumatized by hate crimes and anti-Semitism, has largely kept its head down, though some of the organized leadership has supported the legislation.) Scholars and historians generally condemned the measure as a needless overhaul of existing laws and a muscular encroachment of state power into matters of religion.

On that afternoon in the Senate, Blanquer was railing against homeschooling, a form of education sometimes embraced by religious minorities, although more often by families of children with health issues or special needs. The cultivation of such “parallel spaces,” Blanquer told the senators, represented “the negation of the common space”—a space where individual talents are recognized, “which is the république.” The new law requires a special authorization from the government for homeschooling, and none of the allowable circumstances involves religion.

Here was France in its philosophical essence. In the United States, the concept of E pluribus unum—“Out of many, one”—is a foundational ideal. At least in theory, unity can accommodate difference. In France, difference is seen as tantamount to fracture.

The contrast between France and the U.S. could hardly be sharper—but it conceals a common challenge. Whether the issue is religion, race, or region, both nations are trying to set the rules by which diverse groups exist and function within a unified whole. It is not an academic exercise. Liberal democratic states will not survive if they cannot strike a balance. Alternatives are lying in wait: chaotic fragmentation in one direction, and “blood and soil” nationalism in the other.

The histories of few countries are as deeply intertwined as those of France and the United States. Both nations are products of the Enlightenment, and each sees itself as a beacon among nations. Both embody a clear separation of Church and state. In the United States, the separation is defined by the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion” or obstructing the free exercise of religion. The First Amendment was inspired by the earlier Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, adopted in 1786, the work of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was ambassador to France when the French Revolution began, and the Marquis de Lafayette consulted him when drafting the revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, passed in 1789. Article 10 of that document states, “No one may be disquieted for his opinions, even religious ones, provided that their manifestation does not trouble the public order.”

Today, in France, separation of Church and state is largely defined by a 1905 law that emerged from a hard-fought battle to end the lingering temporal power of the Catholic Church. The law declares that “the republic guarantees freedom of conscience” as well as religious freedom, and stipulates that the state will not discriminate among religions. The 1905 law set the initial terms of laïcité; the word itself was introduced in France’s 1958 constitution.

The intentions in France and the United States seem similar, but they are not the same. The United States, in guaranteeing freedom of religion, sought to shield religion from state involvement. France, in guaranteeing freedom of religion, sought to shield the state from religious involvement. This distinction has consequences.

As an American who lives and works in Paris, I have become an insider-outsider in both places. Every time I return to America from France, I am startled to hear television hosts sign off with a “God bless” and to hear presidents quote the Bible or ask God to protect the United States and its troops. In the U.S., it is unusual—probably even impossible—for a candidate to run for president without invoking God. In France, bringing private beliefs into the public sphere would be seen as a violation of laïcité, and extremely gauche. In the United States, Representative Ilhan Omar can proudly wear her headscarf in the halls of Congress. In France, members of the French National Assembly or Senate are prohibited from wearing religious attire in state buildings, though not from wearing it in public spaces. Macron’s own party recently reprimanded a Muslim candidate for wearing a headscarf in campaign posters—while acknowledging that it was legal for her to do so—and withdrew its support for her candidacy in a local election. Each country is shaped by the wounds of its past. America fought a civil war over slavery. France’s civil wars were over religion.

The principle of laïcité is instilled early. Every public-school student is taught the same curriculum from first grade through high school. Schools are seen as a crucible where citizens are forged, a place that instills values—laïcité, freedom of expression, equality between men and women—along with reading, writing, and math. The watchword is universalism, referring to an abstract notion of citizenship to which all must subscribe. In a recent interview with the newspaper Le Parisien, the French feminist philosopher Elisabeth Badinter, who favors a forceful application of laïcité, was asked, “What can hold the nation together today?” She answered, “The schools!” She went on: “Laïcité and république, that is the heart of the French nation.” That the Macron government included measures about schools in its anti-separatism bill came as no surprise.

girl in red hijab writing with French Marianne statue behind her on cream background
Photo illustration by Cristiana Couceiro. Sources: Michel Setboun / Getty; Westend61 GmbH / Alamy

Americans often self-identify along ethnic, racial, and religious lines. The assumption is that we can embrace our hyphenated identities without disloyalty to a broader national project. France demands more in the way of public conformity. The notion of communautarisme, or defining yourself by your particular ethnic or religious identity group, is seen as corrosive to the polity. Whereas it is common in the United States to be asked one’s race on forms and surveys, the French state recognizes people as individuals, not as members of groups, and does not formally collect census data on race or ethnicity—that would be seen as a betrayal of universalism and a violation of privacy. (The dark cloud of the Second World War, when the Vichy regime identified and rounded up French Jews for deportation to Nazi death camps, also hangs over this kind of data collection.) The flip side is an expectation that people should be left alone to their beliefs and their private lives. France is not a nation of oversharers. There is a froideur, a coldness, in some interactions. But such distance can be a form of respect.

Laïcité, which makes international headlines with each new controversy over the wearing of headscarves by Muslim women, must be seen in the context of another tenet of French public life: assimilation. “It’s not really about religion,” the French writer Marc Weitzmann told me recently. “It’s much deeper than that. Americans are constantly publicizing who they are in every way possible. The French way is to show what you are instead of who you are—through manners. It’s all about conforming to a certain environment.” Weitzmann brought up characters in Honoré de Balzac’s 19th-century novels who arrive in Paris from the provinces, reinvent themselves, and achieve social, political, or literary success. Hakim El Karoui is a Franco-Tunisian writer and consultant who has informally advised Macron; he has advocated for (among other things) the development of French-trained imams who would foster an Islam that is compatible, as he sees it, with French republican values. When we spoke recently, he smiled as he explained the deal on offer: “France is open to anyone, but there’s only one path, and that’s universalism,” he said. “That’s the French paradox. It’s very open and very closed.” In your private life, you can cultivate your culture, your language, your religion; in public, you assimilate.

American politicians develop an iron stomach as they celebrate the cuisines of many cultures—tamales, pierogi, cannolis, ribs. In France, it often seems as if a single type of cuisine is the true carrier of national identity, and food can be a flash point. Macron’s hard-line interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, perhaps the second-most-powerful man in France, said in a television interview last year that halal-food aisles in supermarkets represent a form of religious separatism. Those applying for French nationality are advised to learn not only about France’s history and geography but also about confit de canard and salade niçoise. There are occasional blowups about whether school cafeterias should serve vegetarian meals and halal and kosher meat, or whether this, too, would be a concession to separatism. I am always struck by the sense of national fragility that seems to inform these assertions—the idea that a cafeteria meal could somehow threaten the foundations of the republic.

Darmanin, a man of the right whose ministry controls the police, published a small book this year, Le Séparatisme Islamiste: Manifeste Pour la Laïcité, in which he declared that the republic was “losing its transcendence”—losing faith in its universalist ideals. The assumption was that France has, or ought to have, a fixed and settled idea of itself, and is not (unlike everywhere else in the world) caught up in a process of continual change. Marine Le Pen often says that if she were elected, France would “re-become itself.” Darmanin, the president’s chief weapon when it comes to co-opting the right, dedicated a chapter of his book to “the fight against Islamist separatism,” which he called “a Trojan horse that carries within it a bomb that will fragment our society.” French assimilationism at its most extreme can be distilled into the person of Éric Zemmour, a far-right journalist and radio and television commentator who is now flirting with a run for president. Zemmour, a son of Algerian Jewish immigrants, endorses the “Great Replacement Theory” popular among white supremacists. He tells parents that they should give their children only French names and argues that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with France. Zemmour’s books, including one called Le Suicide Français, have been instant best sellers.

In the history of laïcité, three dates stand apart from all others: 1789, 1905, and 1989. The French Revolution, in 1789, did away with aristocratic status inherited at birth; since then, France has recognized only two categories of person, citizens and immigrants—a bedrock of its universalist ideals. But despite the revolution, remnants of the ancien régime remained in place. Under a “concordat” system, established by Napoleon, the state paid the clergy and had a say in appointing Catholic bishops. After Napoleon’s defeat, France became a monarchy again; a durable democratic republic did not take hold until 1870. Throughout the 19th century, Catholic schools remained the only form of education for many French children, especially in rural areas. A fervent right-wing Catholicism, with royalist inflections and the blessing of the Vatican, remained influential. The chalky-white basilica of Sacré Coeur, the inescapable domed landmark atop Montmartre, is the handiwork of these right-wing Catholics. Until well into the 20th century, the Vatican advocated for a restoration of the monarchy in France.

A modern French republic eventually came into its own, at once centralizing and secular. New roads and railways bound the country together. Regional languages—Breton, Occitan—were quashed in favor of an officially constructed French. The government created and pushed a system of public schools and mandatory education. Catholic and other parochial schools still exist, of course—and many of them receive public funds. But they must teach the same national curriculum as any public school.

At the turn of the last century, the National Assembly began debating what would become the 1905 law on secularism. Islam was on no one’s mind; the target was the Catholic Church. A coalition of socialists and radicals was in power, with broad popular support and a platform of anticlericalism and labor protections. Few laws in French history have produced such thunderous debate. The unfinished work of the revolution clashed with France’s Catholic heart. In the end, the government prevailed. The 1905 law guarantees freedom of conscience and the free exercise of religion except when it interferes with public order. All religious buildings built before 1905—including the cathedral of Notre Dame—came under the ownership of the state. The concordat system was abolished.

The 1905 law put to rest the question of separation of Church and state for the better part of a century. What changed was politics and demographics. With the end of French colonial rule in North Africa, in the 1950s and ’60s, hundreds of thousands of people immigrated to France from Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. Jews from former French territories were automatically granted the right to French citizenship; Muslims were not, a lingering source of tension. But the former territories sent imams to France and helped build mosques there. Today, estimates place the Muslim population in France at more than 5 million. Many live in low-income quartiers outside the major cities. They may be generations removed from the countries their families left behind; at the same time, they often struggle to find social mobility as citizens of France.

The third date is 1989, the bicentennial of the French Revolution and a moment of intense national pride. In October of that year, three Muslim girls at a middle school in Creil, north of Paris, refused to take off their headscarves. The principal suspended the girls, saying that the headscarves violated the neutrality of public space, as represented by the school. For the first time, Islam entered the national conversation in a significant way. The headscarf became a visual shorthand for political Islam and remains so to this day. A 1989 cover story in Le Nouvel Observateur, an influential weekly magazine, carried the headline “Fanaticism: The Religious Threat” beneath a photo of a young girl in a black headscarf.

The government sought a ruling from the Conseil d’État, the country’s highest administrative court. The court decided that expressing one’s religious convictions in school through clothing should be allowed as long as it doesn’t constitute “an act of pressure, provocation, proselytism, or propaganda.” In short, it was the girls’ behavior, not their clothing, that should be judged. (In this case, the behavior was deemed problematic, and the girls were expelled.)

The issue faded for a while. Then came the outbreak of the second intifada in Israel and the occupied territories, in 2000, when Palestinians rose up in violent protest. Many French Muslims mobilized in solidarity. The 9/11 attacks came a year later, followed by the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. The spring of 2002 brought the surprise success of Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, who made it to the second round of the presidential election with his National Front, a party drenched in anti-Semitism and hatred of Muslim immigrants. Right and left united to block Le Pen and elect Jacques Chirac. A year later, the United States invaded Iraq, an invasion that France vehemently opposed. The consequences of that war, and of the broader violence and chaos that ensued, are still reshaping Europe. Years of Muslim migration from the Middle East to Europe have resulted in a rise in France and elsewhere of anti-immigrant sentiment and nativism.

In 2003, with the threat from Le Pen very much on his mind, Chirac appointed a 20-member commission, led by the government ombudsman, Bernard Stasi, to reconsider the requirements of laïcité. The Stasi Commission issued a report whose main recommendation was to ban “ostentatious” religious symbols in French schools. A piece of cloth—the headscarf—had become a redline. The historian Patrick Weil served on the Stasi Commission and spoke with me recently about some of its internal debates. At the time, he said, there were concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood promoting headscarves as part of its recruitment efforts in the quartiers. Asking individual school principals to adjudicate the headscarf issue—when did the coverings constitute political statements as opposed to merely religious observance?—was too much to expect. Hence the outright ban. The idea, Weil explained, was to declare the schools neutral in order to prevent school-age girls from being coerced into wearing a headscarf. “It was to protect those who didn’t wear it,” Weil told me. “It was not a law against the headscarf. It was a law against religious pressure.” Whatever the intention, the law, predictably, made many Muslims feel discriminated against.

The only member of the commission to abstain from the vote was the historian Jean Baubérot, the author of a multivolume study of France’s 1905 law. Baubérot told me that the commission had interviewed only a handful of observant Muslim women. He believed that the original Conseil d’État ruling—the one that said a student’s behavior, not her clothing, was the issue—should have been enshrined as law. But he knew he would be outvoted. It was “what Chirac wanted,” Baubérot said. Baubérot happens to be Protestant, in predominantly Catholic France. “I know what it’s like to be a religious minority,” he explained.

In the United States, banning an article of clothing associated with a religion would be an unambiguous violation of the First Amendment. The ban in France easily passed both houses of Parliament, though with continuing confusion over the rules for religious clothing outside school (not to mention over what, exactly, constitutes religious clothing in the first place). In 2011, the government went further, banning full-face coverings such as the niqab and the burqa. Few things hit more of a nerve in France than attire worn by observant Muslim women. In 2016, right-wing mayors on the French Riviera sought to ban the burkini. A French court reversed the ban, but not before images ricocheted around the internet of French police harassing Muslim women on the beach, drawing outrage in the Muslim community.

In 2018, the leader of a university student group set off alarms when she wore a headscarf in a television interview, even though no law prohibits wearing religious symbols on a university campus. (University students are seen as adults, able to make their own choices.) The following year, Decathlon, a sporting-goods chain, pulled a sports hijab from its shelves after a public outcry. Some public pools in France have banned burkinis, carefully citing public-safety concerns, such as hygiene, as justification.

In debating the anti-separatism law, the French Senate devoted long hours to the amendment that would have prohibited women from wearing headscarves while accompanying students on school trips—volunteer work that makes the trips possible. “We spent three hours discussing the headscarf, then three hours on the burkini,” one Socialist senator complained.

It is easier for people to react to a headscarf than to notice changes in the machinery of governance whose effects may be more far-reaching. The new law places greater restrictions on houses of worship; some must now reapply every five years to keep their status. To counter militant Islam, the law also places stricter controls on foreign funds sent to religious associations from abroad. And it compels religious organizations to sign a “charter of republican principles,” expressing a commitment to the equality of men and women and renouncing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. All of this is part of a government effort to create “an Islam of France,” as Hakim El Karoui and others have proposed.

Laïcité has become a campaign issue ahead of next year’s national elections. In February, Darmanin, the interior minister, debated Marine Le Pen and accused her of being soft on laïcité. Her far-right party had traditionally been critical of laïcité because it diminished the power of the Catholic Church. Le Pen’s father, the founder of her party, is a Holocaust denier who spoke of France as a Christian nation. Le Pen has now shifted her rhetoric, understanding that the term laïcité can be weaponized against Muslims and immigration. Éric Zemmour, meanwhile, has pushed the entire debate further to the right by asserting that there is no difference between Islam and Islamism.

But laïcité is an issue that cuts across any conventional right-left divide. Although many French feminists see the headscarf and other traditional dress as signs of submission, and laïcité therefore as a means of emancipation, it’s more complicated than that. I had a long conversation this spring with Yousra, a young woman who attends a university outside Paris (and who asked that I not reveal her last name so as to protect her privacy). Yousra represents a point of view that has been almost entirely absent from the laïcité debate in France. She is a Muslim woman who since the age of 16 has worn a headscarf outside school by choice. “I accepted not wearing it at school, because that’s the république,” she said. She told me that she didn’t like men looking her up and down when she walked along the street; wearing a headscarf and dressing modestly was a way of reclaiming her own power. “I didn’t submit,” she told me. “It was really an affirmation.” And yet, in a country where until recently there was no age of consent for sex (it is now 15), headscarves are banned in secondary school, which ends around age 18.

Yousra’s experience seems to me to embody many of the contradictions of modern France. The same headscarf she put on as a personal assertion, a form of self-protection, was seen by the state as a political provocation. The abstract battles over laïcité—“between the republic and religion, modernity and tradition, reason and superstition,” as the historian Joan Wallach Scott has written—are in a concrete way battles over women’s bodies.

Geopolitically, laïcité cuts yet another way. Macron and Darmanin have insisted that France does not conflate Islam and jihadist terrorism. But the anti-separatism law speaks directly to matters of national security and national values. Dominique Schnapper, a prominent sociologist, believes that France must assert its democratic convictions, including laïcité, in the face of rising autocracies such as Russia, Turkey, Iran, India, and China. Schnapper has an impressive pedigree—she is the daughter of Raymond Aron, the French philosopher, sparring partner of Jean-Paul Sartre, and scourge of French Marxist intellectuals. She wrote to me recently: “The experience of the 1930s shows that it is not in ceding to the demands of one’s enemies, and seeking compromise, that democracy has a chance to save itself, but rather in affirming its values and being ready to fight to defend them.”

It is one thing to make magisterial pronouncements about laïcité and another to deal with the implications on the ground. This spring, I watched a Zoom presentation by Jean-Louis Bianco, who at the time was the head of a government entity called the National Observatory on Secularism. The group was started under President François Hollande in 2013, ostensibly to help officials, businesses, and citizens make sense of how to apply separation of Church and state in practical situations. Do Sikhs need to wear hard hats on work sites even if the hard hats don’t fit over their turbans? (Yes.) Can a Muslim woman delivering prepared food refuse to serve pork? (She should respect the terms of her contract.) Can an evangelical Christian hand out pamphlets for his church at his place of work? (No. It would disturb the freedom of conscience of his colleagues.)

Bianco told me he had spent significant time last spring answering questions about how to apply laïcité at COVID-19 vaccination sites. The specific issue: Should Muslim women be allowed to wear their headscarves while giving vaccinations or being vaccinated? (It depends whether the vaccination is being done by a public or private entity.) France is facing a high death toll, significant vaccine skepticism among health-care workers, and immense economic damage, but its officials had the time to get tangled up in elaborate debates over laïcité.

The Macron government recently disbanded the Observatory on Secularism amid accusations that it was too “soft” on laïcité, replacing it with a new entity. Even so, enforcement by the government itself is sometimes less doctrinaire in practice than in theory. Universalism is not always universal. The French government does not formally collect racial, ethnic, or religious data, but French law does acknowledge the existence of hate crimes, which de facto requires official recognition of ethnic and religious difference. And because the 1905 law also guarantees freedom to exercise one’s religion, the state provides chaplains for citizens in certain institutional contexts: the military, hospitals, prisons. Soldiers in the French armed forces not only are permitted to make the hajj, if they are Muslim, or a pilgrimage to Lourdes, if they are Catholic; they also have those pilgrimages subsidized by the French government through associations of military chaplains.

In a speech earlier this year, President Macron’s minister for citizenship, Marlène Schiappa, launched a series of national meetings about laïcité. As if to offer a peremptory voilà, she delivered her speech at a site carefully chosen for the implicit message: a deconsecrated church in central Paris that is now a museum of the history of science. No one, it seems, can resist exploiting symbols in a way that gets under the skin.

The fear that France has lost its way pervades much of the current political discourse, on both the right and the left. In truth, France, like the United States, is one of the most sophisticated multiethnic and pluralistic polities on Earth, a country of immigration, a thriving democracy with freedom of religion and freedom of speech where 67 million people, including the largest Muslim and Jewish communities in Europe, live mostly in harmony. France has arguably the most secularized Muslim community in the world. But because the terrorist threat remains high, and France is heading toward an election, a variety of distinct matters—freedom of worship, freedom of expression, national identity, law enforcement—combine into a volatile and often toxic argument over the idea of Frenchness itself.

The French establishment sees laïcité as a core proposition of universalism and of the république—a way of preventing social fracture. Surveys find that most people in France regard laïcité as an important precept. (They also find a generational divide: Younger citizens of all faiths, more observant than their elders, demonstrate greater comfort with the idea of wearing religious symbols and clothing in public spaces and asserting their identities, American-style.) But French universalism has become its own very specific particularism. A hard commitment to laïcité may cause as many fissures as it heals. If the history of religion reveals anything, it is that attempts at suppression tend to strengthen the determination of believers.

A tension between diversity and unity lies at the heart of any democratic polity. The tension is not new, particularly when it comes to matters of religion. Autocratic states have faced it too—think of the Romans, the Ottomans, the Habsburgs. But the tension is especially hard to resolve in democratic states, where the people have power and often exercise it in blocs. The balancing act becomes a test of liberal democracy itself—of its legitimacy and its ability to function.

The tensions we see on a national scale play out within most of us as individuals. I’m aware of it in myself. When I return to America or view it from afar, I love the exuberant public expression of cultures and beliefs. But it’s hard to see what holds fragmentation in check over the long haul. By design, American government is decentralized. Schools no longer spend much time teaching civics. The loudest voices defining what is and isn’t (or shouldn’t be) “American” are often the ugly and nativist ones.

When I look at France, I have to admire an educational system that at least tries to give everyone a common grounding in the core principles of national life. At a time when everything is being privatized, from running elections to fighting wars, it’s useful to be reminded that there is something important called “public space,” beyond the market economy, and that we must protect it. In the Cartesian construct that is France, there’s a place in the garden for any flower that accepts the design. But as laïcité illustrates, the formal system can be rigid and unforgiving. Individuals and groups are constrained by law in ways that have no parallel in other democracies. The French may be more multicultural in practice than in theory, but theory carries weight. In France, individuals are expected to suppress fundamental parts of themselves in public life.

Emmanuel Macron was right that an existential battle is under way. But the larger war is about democracy itself, and it is being waged on a bigger field than France.


This article appears in the December 2021 print edition with the headline “France’s God Complex.”