Menu JTA Search

French Jews: Keep church, state separate

PARIS, May 7 (JTA) — When French Chief Rabbi Joseph Sitruk wrote recently to President Jacques Chirac expressing his continued support for the secular values of the French Republic, he was doing no more than following a tradition his predecessors have practiced for the last 200 years. Going back to the French Revolution, those secular principles have been fiercely supported by the Jewish community. In more recent times, nothing has so embodied them as the country’s 1905 law guaranteeing the strict separation of church and state. Now some see the law as antiquated — because, they say, it has failed to meet the demands of faith groups whose history in France is somewhat more recent than that of the Jewish community. Many French Muslims, for example, believe the law does not meet their needs, while attempts by the government to adapt to the country’s new demographic realities have been regarded as undermining the foundations of the 1905 law. Controversial in its day, the law was passed during a period of conflict between the Catholic Church and the Third Republic, and since then has set the tone in firmly restricting religion to the private domain. Vigorously opposed at its inception by Pope Pius X and by the French Catholic episcopacy, the law was welcomed by the country’s minority Protestant and Jewish faiths, who saw it as the protector of their own freedom of conscience and religious practice. Such support from the Jewish community has continued until today, with French Jews regularly prefixing official statements with plaudits for the secular nature of the state. But while churches and synagogues — and their various secondary institutions such as schools — predate the law, some Muslims claim they lack many of the basic facilities to enable them to practice their faith. Moreover, they say, the French state should fill in the gap by providing and funding those facilities. Both the support and the funding of religious institutions strike at the heart of the 1905 law, however. There is a chronic shortage of mosques in inner city areas, the Muslim community says, leaving many Muslims to pray in rundown basements and garages. The question remains whether the state or local municipalities should fund the construction of mosques, a move which would be illegal under the 1905 law. In addition, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy is interested in involving the state in another area seen as problematic within French Islam — namely, the fact that around 80 percent of Muslim religious leaders in France do not speak French, and as many as two thirds of them are not citizens. This provides fertile ground for the growth of extremist views in the community, Sarkozy believes. Moreover, it has led him to call for some form of state backing for training imams, something clearly incompatible with the law. Sarkozy is still unsure exactly how to square the circle. “We don’t need a new law to create an institute for French imams,” Sarkozy said, while offering Muslims another alternative. “A rabbinical institute exists, and that is financed by the Jewish religious community,” he said. “The republic will not finance imams. As to financing mosques, there is a need to explore possible agreements between religious and cultural associations.” According to Rabbi Gilles Bernheim, who heads the Torah and Society department of the Paris Consistoire, the umbrella body for religious Jews, questioning the financing of mosques could threaten free religious expression. Bernheim, the rabbi of Paris’ central Synagogue de la Victoire, said placing the state in a position where it might fund religious institutions would make it difficult to prevent the state from influencing the religious direction of those bodies. Moreover, Bernheim asked, if the state began funding Muslim places of worship, “wouldn’t Islamists of a more extreme nature start financing other social and cultural activities?” In fact, he said, Sarkozy already has opened the door to Saudi funding of Muslim institutions in France. “Do we seriously believe that the Saudi fundamentalists will provide financial support without asking for anything in return?” he asked. Recognizing the need to better integrate France’s 5 million Muslims into the general society, Sarkozy recently set up the Council for French Muslims — with the implied quid pro quo that recognition and acceptance on the part of the Muslims would go hand in hand with state support for Muslim institutions. Sarkozy has denied that his support for the council threatens the 1958 secular constitution of the Fifth Republic, which built upon the principles of the 1905 law. “The 1905 law said that the republic guaranteed freedom for all religions, and there is no question of touching it,” Sarkozy told the popular daily, Le Parisien. “We must not have a sectarian vision of the secular nature of the state, which should not be seen as the enemy of religion. Rather, by working with leaders from all the religions, we can make those principles into a living reality,” he said. Conditioned by its own history, France has tended to interpret its secular constitution much more radically than countries such as the United States. For example, the 1905 law proscribes state funding and support for religion, but even outward displays of religious identification have been considered threatens to the values of the republic. Such ideas are shared by Jewish religious leaders. Sitruk explained in his letter to Chirac that while he didn’t consider the wearing of a yarmulke as an “ostentatious” religious sign, he accepted that Jewish children need not wear a yarmulke while attending state schools. Paradoxically, Sitruk is generally regarded as being on the conservative wing of Orthodox Judaism, though he did tell Chirac that he preferred to remove his own yarmulke while voting. However, Sitruk was critical of the tendency of state schools to ignore some of the more basic needs of Jewish students, for example by scheduling examinations on Jewish festivals. The chief rabbi’s view, accepted without a murmur by the Jewish community, has contrasted sharply with demands by certain Muslim leaders that state schools allow Muslim girls to wear head coverings in class. The law traditionally has accepted “nonostentatious” insignia in schools — such as crosses and Stars of David — which are used in a nonproselytizing manner. But many teachers and school directors have objected to Muslim girls arriving at school with their heads covered. Moreover, teachers at a school in Lyon recently went on strike when their school director allowed Muslim girls to cover their heads. The debate around the head covering also has led to claims that the 1905 law is insufficient to deal with a new situation in which the Islamic scarf is regarded as more “ostentatious” than the more traditional insignia worn in schools. France’s Constitutional Court ruled that head coverings could be allowed. But Education Minister Luc Ferry said he opposed it in state schools, while other leading politicians have called for legislation to formally ban it. Last week, former Education Minister Jack Lang of the Socialist Party said he would table legislation in the National Assembly to ban “all exterior signs of religious affiliation within the school framework.” The ban would affect all religions, Lang said, and would “explicitly target the kipah and the cross, as well as the Muslim scarf.” Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin would not say whether he would support the proposed bill, but he made his position clear during the parliamentary debate. “Teachers have no Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or Muslim students in their class. First and foremost, they have French youngsters who are all part of a republican school,” Raffarin said. Ultimately, according to Bernheim, those who believed the law should be amended were likely to achieve the opposite of what they intended. “Supporting religious freedom by financial contributions from the state” was impossible, since “it was precisely the constitution of the state which guaranteed that freedom by refusing to fund religious bodies,” Bernheim said.