The political tempest spawned in France by Standard & Poor’s downgrade of the country’s credit rating has transfixed outside observers. They have thus paid little attention to a different storm now roiling the waters of French society: the question of whether or not French Jews can take the day off on Yom Kippur.
In early January, the Green Party’s candidate for president, Eva Joly, a naturalized French citizen raised in Norway, proposed that French Jews and Muslims should be given the right to take off from work or school on their holiest religious holidays. Observing that official holidays were accorded with Christian celebrations like Easter, Joly affirmed, “Each religion must benefit from equal treatment in the public realm.”
Joly made this declaration at an evening event called the “Night of Equality.” For critics on both the political right and left, “night” suddenly took on a deeper and more disturbing meaning than the soirée’s organizers had intended. Laurent Wauquiez, minister of higher education, took the opportunity to recall what any student of Western civilization already knew: “Our history and roots are Christian.” One of the consequences, he continued, was that this “led to a certain number of national holidays on our calendar.” Wagging his finger at Joly, he concluded, “Toleration in France cannot be built on the negation of our past.”
No less eager to slap down the proposal were the Socialists. Michel Sapin, a spokesman for presidential candidate Francois Hollande, also cited the imprint of the past, but unlike Wauquiez, he dwelt on the imperative of a fully secular society. “Eva Joly would do well to always recall this principle,” Sapin harrumphed.
No surprises here: The left has long emphasized the principle of laicism, the right has long praised the force of history and the two sides have long met somewhere in the middle. What might seem surprising, though, was the reaction of the very groups that Joly sought to rally to her cause. France’s head rabbi, Gilles Bernheim, was eager to disassociate his community from the proposal. Refusing to offer his own opinion, Bernheim quickly added that no Jewish institution played a role in Joly’s declaration. At the same time, Richard Prasquier, president of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, made a great show of indifference: “Our country has a Catholic calendar: So what?” As for French Muslims, the head of the Great Mosque in Paris was the only one to confess his admiration for the proposal, but in the same breath he added that the law could not be easily enacted or implemented.
When the proposal itself was not immediately attacked, it was instead dismissed as a transparent effort by Joly to resurrect a floundering campaign. But the speed with which her idea was mauled or mocked reflects a deep malaise among the French, one that suggests it is time to move beyond the revolutionary ideal of a society of free and equal individuals for whom religious practice and identification remains a private affair. This ideological variant of “the same size fits all” is both obsolete and an obstacle to better relations among France’s religious groups.
In the late 19th century, following a bitter and centuries-old struggle between republican governments and the Catholic Church, the French Third Republic embraced the notion of laicité. The English word laicism only begins to convey the emotional and ideological power of the original French term. Laicité was, quite simply, the religion of the republican state. In place of Christian saints, the Republic offered secular saints, ranging from Voltaire to Victor Hugo, whose mortal remains are entombed at the Panthéon.
Other efforts to blot out France’s Catholic past were less successful. For example, in 1793 the First Republic simply tossed out the Gregorian calendar, replacing it with a revolutionary calendar based on the decimal system, including 10-day weeks and 10-hour days. Moreover, the traditional names of the months were replaced with naturalistic ones — Pluviose for the rainy days of January, Germinal for the spring month of April — and the saints’ days were bagged and given instead to the names of plants, vegetables, farm animals and occasional revolutionary exhortation.
By 1805, when Napoleon tore the calendar off France’s walls, he made official what public opinion had long before made a fact: The calendar was a massive flop. Furthermore, the vast majority of the French were, if not believers, at least nominal Catholics. Whether or not they prayed to a particular saint, they all recognized a day by his or her name — a habit they did not want to give up.
Even the Third Republic, in its own battle with a hostile church, did not try to replace the calendar. Instead, the republicans, many of whom were agnostic or atheist, used the schools as their pulpits to broadcast the gospel of laicité. Tensions came to a head in 1905, when the national assembly passed the law establishing the full separation of church and state.
The law has not changed, but the country has. France has always been a nation of immigrants. A century ago they hailed from other European countries shaped by Christianity. As for the tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, they were eager to leave behind their traditions and language for a republican religion chanted in French. They embraced, as historian Philip Nord noted, “the republic as a secular incarnation of values embedded in Jewish tradition.”
But all this is history. The struggle between Catholics and secularists is over: The old ideological stakes have faded in France’s new demographic dispensation. The country has become home to Europe’s largest Muslim population, and even its Jewish community has tilted to Sephardic from Ashkenazi. These new generations of Frenchmen and women are proudly republican, but no less proudly members of vibrant religious communities.
The struggle is now over France’s future. The nation has become multicultural — a fact that even its religious representatives seem terrified to acknowledge, much less ask the French state to do so. Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme right-wing Front National, has transformed her party from a den for Catholic extremists into the defender of republican laicité. The move has poleaxed the mainstream parties and propelled Le Pen’s popularity: Polls reveal that she is now more or less tied with President Nicolas Sarkozy for second place.
Joly might be pleased to know that she is echoing a call made several years ago by the son of Polish Jews who immigrated to France. Jean-Marie Lustiger, who converted to Catholicism and became archbishop of Paris, asked: “Is there a republican religion that prohibits one from being a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, a Muslim — even a skeptic? The republican ideal of citizenship does not claim to be a substitute for religion.”
By following the lead of such citizens as Lustiger and Joly, perhaps France can regain its triple-A rating as a republic for the 21st century.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the Honors College at the University of Houston. His most recent book is “Albert Camus: Elements of a Life” (Cornell University Press, 2010).