Until recently, Emmanuel Macron has had little to say about laïcité, as the legal separation between religion and state as well as the broader culture of secularism and anticlericalism is known in France. Notoriously hard to pin down as a candidate in last year’s presidential election, he likely saw little benefit in stating a position on a subject that has been increasingly polemicized in recent years. Over the course of his presidency, Macron has mostly delegated speaking about laïcité to Marlène Schiappa, the state secretary in charge of issues of gender equality, as well as to his education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer. While these members of his government have more or less supported what some call a “strict” approach to secularism, Macron himself has occasionally hinted at a different approach, in one instance warning against a “radicalization of laïcité.” In his trademark spirit of sending contradictory messages “at the same time,” Macron’s early months in office gave both secularists and their critics something to hate.
This past April, however, Macron made the controversial move of accepting an invitation to speak at the annual conference of the bishops of France. In a country with a long tradition of militant anticlerical struggle, the fact that the president would even get in a room with the Catholic Church’s top clergymen was enough to rouse some secularists’ worries that Macron’s commitment to laïcité was less than solid. Minutes into his speech, the young president seemed to confirm these worries, announcing to the bishops that “the link between the church and the state has become strained, and it is up to us to repair it.”
Macron went on to suggest a role for religion — and the Catholic faith in particular — in his political program. One might have thought that a president so often portrayed as the champion of a progressive liberal center would have little use for the church. But a year into his presidency, as the French public has increasingly come to view him as a right-winger, Macron articulated a surprisingly explicit connection between his neoliberal reform agenda and Catholic religious identity.
Addressing the bishops only days after workers went on strike to contest his government’s liberalization of the national rail service, Macron took the opportunity to describe what he believed was the real challenge facing French society. “It is not only an economic crisis,” he insisted, “it is a relativism, even a nihilism, the idea that nothing is worth it: not worth learning, not worth working, and especially not worth lending a hand in service.” In our “postmodern era,” Macron continued, “our system traps people in a spirit of ‘What’s the point?’” by discouraging hard work and entrepreneurial initiative.
The message was clear to anyone familiar with Macron’s tendency to moralize economic activity. Throughout his short political career, he has cast himself as a champion of entrepreneurs and risk-takers against the “lazy.” For Macron, France is divided between those who want to set the country in motion — or as he named his campaign movement, En Marche! — and those who want to keep it stuck in place. In his speech to the bishops, Macron unsurprisingly insinuated that striking workers across the country are on the side of immobilism and laziness; choosing his words carefully, he referred to this moral crisis as “burdening our country,” the verb grever, “to burden,” being a homonym for the word for “strike.” More original was his suggestion that the church is on the side of dynamism and initiative. Throughout his speech, he praised the Catholic “energy” that he believed was the authentic source of French politics and culture, and called on Catholics to continue to “act politically” in this struggle.
Inverting the typical French understanding of progress, Macron has sought to cast organized religion as the agent of change, in opposition to movements for social equality. With Macron repeating his warnings about “nihilism” in recent weeks, this worldview appears to be either a sincere conviction or a calculated political message. In one particularly cynical exchange in early May, for example, Macron, a millionaire ex-banker, contrasted the values of the gendarme who had recently sacrificed himself to stop a terrorist attack — a practicing Catholic — with those of activists “who believe that the highest aim of political struggle is 50 euros in housing assistance.” Macron had, of course, imposed cuts on the aforementioned housing assistance some months prior.
Macron’s address was not merely a breach of protocol in a country where many believe politicians ought to refrain from speaking directly to religious communities. It was an expression of a deeply conservative political project, thinly masked with the language of “innovation.” As Macron has increasingly abandoned his center-left supporters — still waiting for his “pivot” to a supposed Scandinavian-style “flexible” social democracy — he has attempted to enlist both the church hierarchy and right-leaning Catholics as allies in a struggle against unions and the welfare state.
Mainstreaming the Far Right
Given the way talk of laïcité has frequently been used in French political discourse in recent years, some observers might be tempted to welcome Macron’s distance from a strict secularist position, whatever his political intentions. Though the concept of laïcité is a basic fixture of French constitutional law — guaranteeing both the religious neutrality of the state and individual freedom of conscience — it has undeniably been instrumentalized in alarming ways over the last several years on all sides of the political spectrum (much like “free speech” in American discourse). But Macron is less concerned with correcting these misuses of secular rhetoric than mobilizing the right-wing identity politics that motivated them in the first place.
This instrumentalization of laïcité has been most apparent on the far right. When Marine Le Pen took over the Front National from her father, Jean-Marie, in 2011, she set about attempting to cleanse the party of its associations with antisemitism and fascism, as part of a strategy known as “de-demonization.” Though the Front National had long opposed secular republicanism and maintained ties to the reactionary Christian right, a major component of her strategy was a rhetorical embrace of laïcité, which helped to put a respectable spin on Le Pen’s anti-immigrant platform. By equating Arab and African immigrants with an essentialized image of the Muslim religion, supposedly antithetical to secularism, the far right could enlist French democratic values in the service of xenophobia. Part of what explains the Front National’s historic electoral success in the 2017 presidential election — where Le Pen received over a fifth of the first-round votes before advancing to the final contest against Macron — was this ability to muddy the waters around the meaning of laïcité and other republican ideals. The “de-demonized” Front National made hard-line opposition to immigration acceptable to voters who might have otherwise rejected the elder Le Pen’s more traditional Pétainiste far-right politics.
Sensing the growing respectability and popularity of anti-immigrant rhetoric, many prominent figures of France’s mainstream right has been determined not to let the Front National reap all the benefit. As a result, its strategy in recent years has increasingly been to exacerbate the far right’s obfuscations by associating laïcité, paradoxically, with Catholic religious identity. The massive protests against the legalization of gay marriage in 2013 revealed the political engagement of Christian conservatives to be a much greater political force than many had previously acknowledged. Under the leadership of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, the Right began staking its future on concocting a mixture of anti-immigrant rhetoric and ethnicized Catholic identity politics that could compete with that of the Front National.
Sarkozy had already begun to appeal to Catholic values in the early weeks of his presidency. Soon after his election in 2007, for example, he declared in a controversial speech (which many have retrospectively compared to Macron’s this past April) that “France’s roots are essentially Christian.” But particularly in the aftermath of unprecedented terror attacks in 2015, he followed Le Pen in using laïcité as a shorthand for native Frenchness, essentially Catholic, in opposition to Muslim immigrants. The clearest example of this rhetoric was Sarkozy’s enthusiastic support in August 2016 for the handful of municipalities — generally controlled by conservative members of his party in southern France — that had banned full-body “burkini” swimsuits, often in the name of laïcité (France’s constitutional authority later struck down these bans, partially on the grounds that they violated freedom of conscience). Weeks later, as he began gearing up for his failed bid to return to the presidency, Sarkozy gave a speech on integration where he claimed that to be French is to share an ancestry tracing back to the Gauls. In other words, citizenship does not lie in embracing the ideals of France’s democratic tradition — whether liberté, égalité, fraternité, or laïcité. Rather, these ideals are descended from a primordial Frenchness, shaped over the centuries by Christianity. As Sarkozy began the Gaullist right’s turn towards Catholic ethno-nationalism, he preserved his party’s commitment to secular republicanism literally in name only — renaming it Les Républicains.
With this collaboration between right and far right helping to legitimize the Front National’s ideas on immigration and religious identity, it has become increasingly unnecessary to justify such ideas under the banner of laïcité. Sarkozy lost his party’s 2017 presidential nomination, but it went instead to his former prime minister François Fillon, who proudly proclaimed his Christian faith during the campaign and maintained ties to the hard-right Catholic organizations mobilized by the gay-marriage law. Meanwhile, though his platform on immigration was clearly designed to appeal to far-right voters — it included national-origin quotas and an overhaul of the asylum application process — he had comparatively little to say in its defense on the subject of laïcité.
After the scandal-ridden Fillon finished behind Le Pen in the 2017 election, the party’s leadership went to Sarkozy disciple Laurent Wauquiez. Though an inepter politician than his predecessors, Wauquiez has dutifully continued the push to blur the lines between the moderate and far right. But even as he too has doubled down on a hard-line anti-immigrant stance, his pandering to Catholic identitarian sentiment has done away with the façade of secular commitments, as has been evident in stunts such as his attempt to install — illegally — a nativity scene in front of his office. Meanwhile, as the Front National has attempted to recover from Marine Le Pen’s embarrassing showing in the campaign, it has shown signs of moving away from the “de-demonization” strategy, and back towards some of the more traditional symbols of the neofascist right.
The mainstreaming of the far right has opened up a large indeterminate space for French politicians offering various combinations of ethno-religious national identity and hostility to immigrants and refugees. In this context, Macron’s recent appeals to the virtues of the church appears as part of a strategy to claim a portion of this space for his center-right party La République en Marche — particularly when viewed alongside his repressive police actions against migrants across the country. Of course, Macron most likely does not believe he will be able to go as far as Sarkozy, Fillon, and Wauquiez in search of hard-right voters. Having suggested support for gay marriage and medically assisted procreation, he could hardly hope to capture the support of Catholic fundamentalists. But Macron has nonetheless sensed that the growing acceptability of ethno-religious identitarianism might create an opportunity for his fledgling majority party on the moderate right.
For the Left, in other words, the young president’s abandonment of laïcité is nothing to celebrate. The French left is of course far from having reached a consensus on the subject. Though a long tradition on the Left has seen emancipation from religious authority as a necessary step towards greater social equality, leftists disagree profoundly about what a concrete secularist politics ought to look like today. But recent media polemics over laïcité have greatly exaggerated the political significance of these disagreements and obscured what is actually one of the few points of unity among the various left movements in opposition to Macron’s agenda.
Over the past several months, much of the French media has embraced a narrative in which there are in fact “two lefts”: one that supports a traditional militant secularism, and another that supports revising or even replacing laïcité in the name of multiculturalism. One side accuses the other of complacency in the face of both Christian and Muslim identity politics, and the other fires back with the charge of bias against Muslims. But those with the most to gain from this narrative of “two lefts” have included figures such as former Socialist Manuel Valls — who is, by all evidence, no longer on any left at all. As prime minister, Valls oversaw the implementation of emergency measures in response to the 2015 terrorist attacks at the Bataclan theater, as well as a disastrous push to amend the constitution so as to allow stripping convicted terrorists of their citizenship, which François Hollande himself has acknowledged as a crucial blow to the Socialist Party’s legitimacy. Since then, Valls has attempted to create a new center-left base by combining “tough on terror” positions, an increasingly right-wing stance on immigration, and a combative rhetorical defense of laïcité — in other words, a left-wing version of the kind of instrumentalization we have seen on the Right.
Valls lost the Socialist Party’s 2017 presidential primary to Benoît Hamon, who at the time represented the party’s remaining left flank; Emmanuel Macron subsequently rejected Valls’s attempt to join La République en Marche. Though he managed to get elected to parliament and is a frequent presence in the media, his politics are increasingly marginal. He is reportedly considering leaving France altogether to run for office in his native Barcelona. The “two lefts” narrative, however, maintains the illusion that there is a real left constituency corresponding to Valls’s securitarian secularism. He has unsurprisingly seized on it, implausibly claiming that politicians to his left, such as Hamon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, are sympathetic to Islamism.
Though these disagreements can run deep on the Left — and can appear particularly nasty when intellectual egos get involved — it is crucial to observe that they have not actually translated into significant political oppositions. There are fundamental questions that divide the French left. During the 2017 election, for example, disagreements over how to balance support for the European project with resistance to the EU’s facilitation of neoliberal globalization proved fatal for an alliance between Mélenchon’s insurgent movement France Insoumise and Hamon’s left wing of the Socialist Party. Strategic and tactical questions on how to take advantage of strikes and social movements may pose similar challenges. But it is hard to imagine the question of laïcité causing a comparable divide, and the fact that someone like Danièle Obono — who in the past has publicly supported the fervently anti-secular Parti des Indigènes de la République — could enter parliament on Mélenchon’s militantly secularist ticket suggests that disagreements on this matter are not insurmountable.
As France Insoumise has sought to claim supremacy within the left opposition to Macron, relations with its rivals on the Left — such as the Communist Party, the various green and far-left parties, or Hamon’s independent movement Génération.s — have not always been warm. And after a humiliating result in last year’s presidential and legislative race, the Socialist Party is struggling to remain relevant as these movements to its left have increasingly shunned it. But questions of laïcité tend to provide rare moments of agreement among these otherwise divided left movements, which were nearly unanimous in condemning Macron’s remarks to the bishops.
This consensus on laïcité is partly a practical necessity of electoral politics — support for a secular state and society remains high across France’s political spectrum — and partly a legacy of the Left’s history. But it also reflects values that will be crucial to any left-wing challenge to both Macron and the far right. The Left’s understanding of laïcité refuses the essentialist view of religious communities, whether Muslim or Christian, that has helped politicians like Marine Le Pen capture public opinion. With her and others on the Right seeking to equate the notions of “Arabs,” “Muslims,” “immigrants,” and “terrorists” in the popular imagination, it is up to the Left to insist on the distinction between religious and ideological affiliation, on the one hand, and ethnic identity and legal status on the other.
Whatever his other flaws, Mélenchon has shown that it is possible to support both a firm secular program while defending the rights of immigrants and refugees and opposing bigotry. While denouncing the use of laïcité to justify discrimination against Muslims, France Insoumise’s program calls for a staunchly secularist curriculum in public schools and the extension of the 1905 Separation law to Alsace-Moselle (a region that had been annexed to Germany when the law was originally passed). This resistance to religious identity politics and support for laïcité does not appear to have deterred communities with large populations of Arab descent — which, as Olivier Roy reminds us, cannot be called the “Muslim vote” — from voting for the staunchly secular Mélenchon.
Macron is only the latest politician to build his politics on the wager that France is headed towards a long-term shift to the right on questions of religion and identity. By making this wager, he, like Marine Le Pen, Nicolas Sarkozy, and to an extent Manuel Valls, has helped bring it closer to coming true. Yet despite media narratives to the contrary, Macron’s opponents on the secular left, though they may not agree on much, are as of yet united by a belief that when it comes to ethno-religious identarianism — as with neoliberal globalization — there is in fact an alternative.