A Very Public Private Affair

by Raphaël Costambeys-Kempczynski

20 September 2004

December 2005 will mark the 100th anniversary of one of the fundamental principals of French republican ideology: the separation of Church and State. By way of preamble, and in conjunction with celebrations for the 60th anniversary of its liberation, Paris declared 2004 its "Year of Secularism". But one of France's paradoxes amongst its bourgeoisie seems to be that it is publicly a secular republic, but privately a Catholic state; simply professing the secularism of the Nation-State in no way guarantees religious tolerance. These are ideologically worrying times in France.
Town Hall
photo by
Raphaël Costambeys-Kempczynski 

Liberté. There are two reasons why I moved here. Firstly, because I was offered a job for life, a seemingly archaic concept in this globalised capitalist world but most definitely a comfortable position to be in. Secondly, because I had always wanted to live in Paris, the city of light. Who hasn’t? The architectural reality of Paris is seemingly born from the imagination of postcards. It is bustling with culturally activity; admittedly, much of it is mediocre, but even if you are not much good at what you do you will be given the freedom of a stage somewhere. And you will have an audience. Chances are you will have an audience whatever it is you might be doing, from simply walking down the street to kissing your loved one. And the Parisians do like their public displays of affection.

The ladies of rue St Denis may no longer take a break from plying their nightly trade by eating onion soup at Au Pied de Cochon, but they will happily show you a glimpse of what you are missing out on before returning to their conversation with a local shopkeeper. At times the proximity of the “legitimate traders” and les filles publiques can lead to confusing and embarrassing moments. And though London may have been swinging in the ‘60s, Paris is still swinging. Quite literally. L’échangisme is still very fashionable among bourgeois couples. And thanks to the PACS (the civil solidarity pact), couples in the whole of France can have their union legally recognised no matter their gender. From libertines to liberté. Up to a point. France’s first gay marriage has just been annulled.

The Eiffel Tower, the Sacre-Cœur, the Tour de Montparnasse, Notre-Dame, the Louvre, the quai d’Orsay, Père-Lachaise — hang on a minute this is not a tourist guide. Though Paris undoubtedly retains the timeless quality of a mythic past (most of which was put in place by François Mitterand who, whilst president during the ‘80s saw Paris as his private court), this only paints a restrictive picture of this place and these times.

Egalité. The 9th December 2005 will mark the 100th anniversary of one of the fundamental principals of French republican ideology: the separation of Church and State. Building up to this, the 20th Arrondissement of Paris, where I currently reside, declared 2004 the “Year of Secularism”. On 3rd December 2003, exactly 98 years after the publication of Lenin’s Socialism and Religion, in which he argues for the necessity of this separation, Bertrand Delanoë, the Socialist mayor of Paris, joined Michel Charzat, the Socialist mayor of the 20th Arrondissement, for an inauguration ceremony built around the necessity to “re-republicanise” l’esprit français. Standing in front of the town hall of Paris’ youngest district, a district traditionally seen as a place of refuge for minority communities, Delanoë said that the Republic was fragile, that it needed to affirm its secularism. Openly echoing Lenin’s own words, Delanoë stated that secularism would remain under threat “if religion is allowed to impose its rules on society or if the Republic interferes with the practice of religion”. Delanoë went on to add that “Paris is big, Paris is beautiful when Paris is open and does not withdraw into herself”.

Ironically, following on from the results of an opinion poll showing that 58 percent of French households owned a copy of the Bible and that only eight percent of the population read the Bible at least once a month, 2003 was declared the year of the Bible in France. Even more palpably ironic for me was to step out of the métro station at place Gambetta during December to see the town hall of the 20th Arrondissement draped in a bleu, blanc, rouge light effect, displaying a sign reading “2004 Année de la Laïcité”, whilst also covered in Christmas decorations including a large Santa. One of France’s paradoxes amongst its bourgeoisie seems to be that it is publicly a secular republic but privately a Catholic state. Indeed, in this year’s Top 50 Favourite French Personalities listing researched by the polling organisation IFOP (Institut Français d’Opinion Publique) for the newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, the highest-ranking woman was the 95-year-old nun, Sœur Emmanuelle. (Zinédine Zidane was the highest ranking man, but the footballer only managed to beat the 92-year-old priest, Abbé Pierre, after he withdrew from the competition, having already won it 17 times.)

This publicly secular/privately Catholic paradox may appear to be belied by the Catholic Church’s news that there is a shortage of priests in France. The current average age of a Catholic priest in France is 68, and some predictions claim that in eight years’ time, half of France’s priests will be dead. France now sees African missionaries arriving on its shores to spread the word originally given to them by French missionaries. This reversal of Catholic fortune may be a reflection of the success of the secular State: people rejecting the institution that is the Catholic Church in favour of the Republic. But a somewhat open rejection of the Church by the people does not automatically obliterate the face cachée of institutionalised Catholicism. Most of France’s national holidays are not secular, and the specifically Catholic Feast of the Assumption is still a major calendar event during the French summer. And even though all of the Catholic churches in France belong to the State, the Catholic Church rents them out for free: a status that some consider illegal as the law of 1905 prohibits the State from subsidising religion.

Celebrity Catholics aside, however, this is a serious matter. The 2004 solemn celebration of secularism is more of an inquest into how it is lived on a daily basis in this both densely cosmopolitan yet most village-like districts of Paris. Of course, it also takes place in the backdrop of the burning question of the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols. Since the beginning of the year these have been banned in both the workplace and in schools by a law that a few saw as aimed toward all symbols regardless of religion (kippots and crucifixes included), most saw as a ban directed solely at the hijab, or Islamic veil, and some saw as State-endorsed Islamophobia (independent of the French president Jacques Chirac’s strong opposition to Gulf War II).

Though these arguments held centre stage in France during the first half of this year, an event that took place on the RER D line of the Parisian suburban train network saw arguments flare up around another very touchy subject of religious intolerance: anti-Semitism. However, this story begins in Chambon-sur-Lignon, a little Protestant village in the Massif Central celebrated for having welcomed and protected those persecuted by the Nazis during World War II. It was here that on the eighth of this month, Jacques Chirac called for a “republican spur” against racial violence, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and homophobia. The central part of Chirac’s speech took us back to the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, marking as it did the beginning of a long struggle “culminating in the integration of religious tolerance in [France’s] Declaration of Human Rights”. He went on to say that Chambon-sur-Lignon’s active attempt to offer a place of refuge for both Jews and Maquisards from 1939-1944, reflected a France in which he believed, “open and welcoming, unified in its diversity, carrying with pride its ideal of justice and peace in Europe and the world”. Though Chambon-sur-Lignon may be exemplary in its history of tolerance, the same cannot be said of contemporary France: “Still today, hideous and despicable acts of hatred dirty our country… They attack our Jewish compatriots who have been in our country as far back as we can remember. They attack our Muslim compatriots who have chosen to live and work in our country.” Chirac’s main message was that once again only secularism can protect the right of us all to practice our religion in safety. If indeed we do practice one.

The point here is not for me to show how this republican call to ideological arms from the right-wing President of France appears to be but a reformulation of Delanoë‘s idea of re-republicanisation, and thus reflecting a left-leaning homogenous stance from France’s main political figures. However worthy of analysis this may be, what seems striking to me is that simply professing the secularism of the Nation-State in no way guarantees religious tolerance amongst the people. Almost 100 years ago Lenin himself realised that State propaganda could not dispel religious prejudice and therefore avoided declaring atheism as a central premise in his Party manifesto. In the first six months of this year, the number of racist and anti-Semitic acts in France had already outstripped those perpetrated during the whole of 2003 and most of these attacks had reportedly been carried out by disaffected Muslim youths.

Fraternité. The day following Chirac’s speech something was to happen in Paris that was to send the country into ideological turmoil. That evening I switched on France Info, a national news radio station, to hear about how a young woman and her 13-month-old baby had been attacked on the RER D line by six youths carrying knives; three of them were apparently black, the other three North African. Coming across the young woman’s identity card they saw her old address was in the 16th Arrondissement and accused her of being a Jew. The youths cut her clothes and hair to shreds, and with felt tip pens drew three swastikas on her stomach: acts of violence that are extremely symbolic. Before moving on the youths tipped the baby out of his pram onto the ground. The train the young woman was on was a double-decker and though alone downstairs, none of the passengers upstairs came to her help. So much for fraternity. The fact that this happened the day after Chirac’s speech left me shocked and somewhat perplexed about the country and city of my adoption. Great Britain, my country of origin, has always appeared to me as overtly conservative but secretly liberal, France could well turn out to be the opposite: a progressive monument built on reactionary sands.

The Jewish community of Paris can be traced back to the first century of our times. In the 6th century it made up 20 percent of l’île de la Cité, the biggest of Paris’ two islands. After numerous expulsions, the community starts to really take root in the 19th century and by the turn of the 20th century the Jewish population of the Marais in the 3rd and 4th Arrondissements reached 61 percent. But the ugly head of French anti-Semitism has continued to rear, from the Dreyfus Affair to the Vichy government, from the desecration of Jewish graves to the popularity of Jean-Marie LePen’s Front National. As I write, the 20th Arrondissement has one of the biggest Jewish communities of Paris and this may relate back to why the “Year of Secularism” was launched here. And talking of the Vichy regime, let us not forget that there are other celebrations taking place in the city this year. The 25th August marks the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Paris, a moment that marks the restoration of the revolutionary ideals of liberté, égalite, fraternité, over those of the fascist government of Maréchal Pétain, travail, famille, patrie (work, family, fatherland). Needless to say, this made the attack on the RER D even more poignant.

Three days later and still no witnesses had come forward. The closed circuit cameras proved useless. The media hype was not enough if action was to be taken. Circumstantial evidence would have to turn into hard proof. And that was the problem. As it turns out she is not a Jew. Neither was she attacked. By the 14th July, France’s national holiday commemorating the storming of the Bastille (yet another instance full of symbolism but lacking in any tangible political act of defiance, as only seven inmates were currently being held there), Marie, the young woman in question, suffering from the psychological affliction of mythomania, admitted that she had made it all up. Unfortunately, it was too late for the politicians in power, including the Head of State and his Prime Minister, both having jumped on the media bandwagon, too eager perhaps, to show themselves in a good light after their crushing defeat by the Socialists during this year’s regional elections.

The truth of the matter is that this act most probably born out of a collective neurosis has in turn fed that collective neurosis. Or perhaps I should say that it has fed a societal neurosis that, in the name of secularism, has historically failed to address belonging to other religious orders than that of the Catholic Church. It’s almost like being opaque in the name of transparency. Perhaps the most symptomatic evidence of this was Chirac’s linguistic mishap more expected of his nemesis George W. Bush, when he stated earlier this month that “our compatriots the Jews, Muslims or others, even sometimes simply the French, are victims of aggression just because they do not belong to or are not originally from one particular community or another”.

Some intellectuals were quick to underline here that Chirac was publicly voicing something that most French people privately believe: that on one side there are French citizens, on the other those who belong to minority groups or religions. Others have seen another perhaps just as obvious dichotomy in the RER D escapade: on one side a supposed Jew and on the other six Muslims. The media bandwagon that began rolling after the alleged aggression was not simply a manifestation of Islamophobia, but it may have allowed Islam to be turned into a scapegoat for all acts of anti-Semitism in France. No matter how many different events are taking place in the capital and around the country commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Normandy landing and the liberation of Paris, it now seems absurd to think that someone of Maghrebin origin, no matter how far removed, would borrow Nazi symbolism for such an attack. But this is hindsight. Many seemed quite happy to let themselves be trapped by the ultra-mediasation of the whole event: a reactionary reaction. The opinion-based French press was already drawing false conclusions from its moral inquiry, whilst the police inquiry was still making its way towards discovering the truth.

These are ideologically worrying times in France. Will these events see investigations into apparent acts of anti-Semitism automatically put on the backburner “just in case”? And if so, will this allow what some see as an inherent anti-Semitic undercurrent to develop? We will remember the reported comments of former socialist French ambassador to London, Daniel Bernard, at a party in December 2001, that the troubles in the world were down to “that shitty little country Israel”, adding “Why should the world be in danger of World War III because of those people?” Neither himself nor the Parti Socialist in power at the time, gave any formal excuses. When Chirac’s right-wing party won the general election in 2003, Bernard became French ambassador to Algiers, a difficult post that could be seen as punitive. Ironic, but punitive. Bernard died in April of this year having received France’s highest decoration, the Légion d’Honneur.

The fact that he was a socialist and apparently somewhat anti-Semitic should come as no real surprise, as there appears to be a left-wing reaction in France that is anti-Israel and pro-Palestine. Intellectuals may argue that their position is anti-Zionist and not anti-Semitic, but at times we must wonder if one is not used as an excuse for the other. As I walk around the grounds of Paris’ universities it is sometimes difficult to avoid the pro-Palestine stands, and the discourses coming from these student groups is often both confused and confusing. But then French students do not need much to go out in the streets and protest. As the French philosopher André Glucksmann pointed out this July, Palestinians and Islamists in general are seen in France today as the new disinherited proletariat and their “cause” has even been embraced by the altermondialists.

Things were not helped by Ariel Sharon’s statement on 18th July that French Jews should immediately flee France and its wild anti-Semitism by moving to Israel. He continued by saying that “In France today, about ten percent of the population are Muslims ... that gets a different kind of anti-Semitism, based on anti-Israeli feelings and propaganda.” Even the Jews of France see his comments as unhelpful and akin to scare mongering. Is Sharon really saying that all of France’s five million Muslims are anti-Semitic? or that French Jews are physically safer from attack if they live in Israel, instead of France? It took Sharon 12 days to apologise for his comments and he did so only when threatened with a refusal of his future state visit to France. However, the number of French Jews moving to Israel is rising and this year the figure is expected to be 25 percent higher than ever before. But when those leaving are asked why, none link it to the increasing number of anti-Semitic attacks. Their reasons for making aliyah (the immigraion, or rather “elevation” to Israel), vary from finding one’s roots to studying at an Israeli university to the promise of a job.

So where does all this leave the current ideological make-up of France? The end of July was in fact dominated by the current government’s snowballing decentralisation project. France has always been proud of its centralized, nationalised institutions, but things are changing. Decentralisation is something that the Socialists and the working classes are dead against in France but talk of bills, amendments, and laws does not sell newspapers as well as stories of babies being tipped out of their prams. Perhaps we can again hear Lenin’s words echoing: “Everywhere the reactionary bourgeoisie has concerned itself . . . with the fomenting of religious strife-in order thereby to divert the attention of the masses from the really important and fundamental economic and political problems” (“Socialism and Religion”). Add to this that between the 15th of July and the 15th of August, Paris and the rest of France were on holiday it was perhaps the ideal time for Parliament to discuss these reforms. Come la rentrée this September and I would not be surprised if we are in for another winter of strikes. But this is something that makes France so vibrant.

Yes it is a controversial place: progressive and reactionary, authoritarian and liberal, archaic and innovative. But this is because from the café philosophique to the market place, one is still given time to debate. In fact one is almost expected to debate. And at times the debating is expressed through demonstrating in the street. This is how the French have managed to preserve many of their social privileges. The trains run on time and they have the best health service in the world. These privileges may not be economically viable in today’s world but they do guarantee a high standard of living. And the political tensions that underlie French life are also linked to the fact that France appears so welcoming. It is, after all, at the crossroads of Europe and has the biggest Jewish and Muslim communities of Western Europe. There is no doubt that the ideological tectonics that dominate the French art de la polémique will take a long time before settling into a new landscape. And only time will tell what that new landscape will be.

For the time being, though, it is summer and currently 35°C outside. Come the time for an aperitif, I will go over the road and sit on the terrace of my local French café and have a beer. The café is owned by an Algerian man who once upon a time lived in the Sahara and so he will tell me how he thinks he may be catching a cold. The first time I sat down at his bar, he came over, shook my hand and we discussed my recent move to Paris. When I asked him where he goes on holidays he replied that living in Paris was holiday enough. I know what he means. He enjoys meeting étrangers and he is in luck. France is still the most visited country in the world, welcoming 75 million tourists, and Paris is the most visited city with 16 million. To put that into perspective, the population of Paris is just under 2.2 million. During this year’s UEFA European Championship, I went to watch the England-France game in his café. I was with some Irish friends who were, naturally, up for France, as was the café owner. When the final whistle blew confirming yet another French footballing triumph, the owner came over, gave me a pat on the back and offered me free drinks for the rest of the night. Perhaps this was our way of secretly celebrating l’Année de Laïcité; an English protestant with Catholic Irish friends enjoying drinks with a Muslim café owner. And even though England had once again let me down, I was glad to be in this place, during these times.

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