French President Emmanuel Macron has drawn fire from both Muslims and the English-language press for his plans to combat “Islamist separatism” in France. While the divide between secular France and the conservative Muslim world is clear, the clash reveals how France’s unique history of secularization distinguishes its politics and policy to the present day. The U.S., with its own unique history, stresses freedom of religion. The divide between French and American policy, however, appears bigger than it is. It’s important for the world to not let semantics drive a wedge between allies.
In late October, Politico Europe published, and then quickly deleted, an opinion piece titled “The dangerous French religion of secularism,” that criticized France’s “fundamentalist secularism” and argued that its culture of “adherence to blasphemy” was at least partially responsible for Islamist radicalization in the country. Just a few days later, the Financial Times published a similarly argued piece titled “Macron’s war on Islamic separatism only divides France further”. After a complaint from President Emmanuel Macron’s office over errors in the article, including a mistranslation of “Islamist” as “Islamic”, the Financial Times took down the article and, just the next day, published an open letter from Macron attacking and rebutting the now-deleted op-ed. It was the first time in recent memory that either outlet had removed an opinion piece due to complaints from the subject of the article.
These retractions were not isolated events, but rather an escalation in a brewing spat between Macron’s administration and what the French call “the Anglo-American press” over the French government’s response to a recent spate of Islamist terrorist attacks in the country. Invoking the anti-clerical French Third Republic, which established secularism in the traditionally and deeply Catholic country in the late 19th century, Macron has vowed to solve France’s Islamist radicalization problem with a grand campaign to strengthen France’s “republican presence” and integrate France’s Muslim communities into the secular French mainstream.
Rather than laud this sort of muscular liberalism, English-language media outlets have criticized Macron, interpreting his statements as a sudden shift to the political right and attacking him from within a social justice framework.
An examination of France’s history of secularism, however, shows that Macron’s proposals are well within France’s tradition of state-oriented republicanism. Macron is not only aware of this, but is explicitly acting within that tradition to secure the legitimacy he needs to solve what he sees as France’s most pressing social problems. The U.S.’s foundational freedom of religion may seem antithetical to the French approach, but it’s just the other side of the coin: everybody is free to participate in society and politics. This incident and its roots and implications are important because exploiting a non-existent divide is harmful to alliances and global solidarity.
Islamist Attacks in France
In September 2020, the iconoclastic French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published controversial cartoons of the Islamic prophet Muhammad on the front cover. This special issue of Charlie Hebdo with the headline “Tout ça pour ça” (“All of that for this”) coincided with the trial of accomplices in a series of 2015 terror attacks that began with an attack on Charlie Hebdo. Two French Muslim brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi had attacked the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, killing twelve people. The shooting marked the beginning of a wave of Islamist terror attacks in France during 2015. Two days later Amedy Coulibaly, a friend of the Kouachi brothers, killed four Jews and held fourteen others hostage at a kosher supermarket in Paris.
Publishing the Muhammad cartoons had always taken place against a conscious wider debate about freedom of expression and self-censorship in Western Europe. The same cartoons of Muhammad were first published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005 and then again republished by Charlie Hebdo between 2006 and 2012. Flemming Rose, Jyllands-Posten’s culture editor, who originally commissioned the cartoons, wrote in a 2006 Washington Post op-ed that “our goal was simply to push back self-imposed limits on expression that seemed to be closing in tighter.”
In November of 2015, Islamists killed 130 people and injured hundreds more in a series of suicide bombings and mass shooting attacks at the Stade de France and the Bataclan Theater. France has been in varying states of emergency since 2015, during which there have been many smaller Islamist attacks. In a three-month period in late 2020, Islamist radicals separately beheaded a schoolteacher in a Paris suburb, wounded two people in central Paris near the former offices of Charlie Hebdo, killed three people at a church in the southern French city of Nice, and then detonated an improvised explosive device (IED) at a ceremony organized by the French consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
In response to the recent attacks, the French government carried out dozens of raids and arrests on known and suspected extremists, and it announced its intention to expel 231 foreign citizens identified as radicals and to dissolve some 51 Islamic organizations. Justified as necessary for maintaining a secular republic, this response is wide ranging enough that it certainly interferes with religious and civil life. In early October, Macron gave a 90-minute speech vowing to fight “Islamist separatism” in France and, as promised, unveiled two proposed bills to do so in November. The first would restrict the right of the public to film police officers. The second would restrict homeschooling, flag individuals deemed to “excuse” terrorist acts, require organizations that receive public subsidies to swear allegiance to “the values of the republic,” and increase restrictions on polygamy.
While the recent deadly terrorist attacks were universally condemned, Macron’s response to them was not universally praised. Interpreting the French government’s actions as anti-Muslim, protests were held in several majority Muslim countries including Turkey, Bangladesh, and Saudi Arabia. In Kuwait and Qatar, supermarkets pulled French-made products from their shelves. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan questioned Macron’s mental health and called for a boycott of French goods. In recent years, Erdogan has increasingly styled Turkey as something of a resurgent Islamic power, in addition to clashing with France over the ongoing civil war in Libya, humanitarian assistance and political influence in Lebanon, and energy exploration rights in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. At home, Erdogan has repressed free speech of more secular and liberal opponents while consolidating power. The rising hostility between Erdogan and Macron reflects both a clash of ideological perspectives (secularism vs. Islamism) as well as fundamental geopolitical interests.
Le Président vs. the American Media
While one might expect that secular France and the largely conservative and religious Muslim world do not see eye-to-eye on the best strategies to combat Islamist radicalism, the French government has also increasingly come under fire from Western, English-language media outlets.
The New York Times described Macron’s new policies as a “rightward push,” claiming he was signaling a “shift from the center” in order to fend off an electoral challenge from the far right in France’s next election cycle. The Washington Post’s Paris correspondent published an op-ed titled “Instead of fighting systemic racism, France wants to ‘reform Islam’.” The Associated Press published an explainer citing France’s “brutal colonial past” and “tough-talking president” as reasons that the country was so often targeted by Islamist attacks. And, of course, there were the two aforementioned op-eds in Politico Europe and the Financial Times, which angered Macron so much they were retracted, likely under threat of losing journalistic access to the French government as a whole.
Describing a phone call with President Macron in an article entitled “The President vs. the American Media,” Ben Smith of The New York Times wrote that Macron (who speaks impeccable English) complained that the “Anglo-American press” had “blamed France” for recent terrorist attacks and accused the media of “legitimizing this violence.” Defending Macron, the French journalist Caroline Fourest blasted American media for presenting “simplistic woke morality plays,” accusing the Times, for example, of being “guilty of incredible violence” against Charlie Hebdo and of being “unable to view France except through American glasses.”
English-language outlets are ascribing Macron’s new outlook and policies to a shift to the right, even far right, of French politics, with the Times even calling him a “shape-shift[er].” For such a characterization to be true would be surprising: Macron is a former member of the French Socialist Party and won his election to the presidency in 2017 as part of a broad coalition against France’s far right National Front, defeating his opponent Marine Le Pen nearly 2-1. Macron was elected as a mainstream, centrist antidote to right-wing populism and the French public and media have been broadly supportive of his plans. When the populist “yellow vests” movement began mass protests against Macron in 2018, Macron proved his anti-populist credentials by unleashing what one commentator called a “year of cracking heads” against protesters. Caroline Fourest, for her part, is a noted feminist in France who wrote a biography about the leaders of the far right National Front that was so critical she was fined for libel over it. According to The New York Times, Macron “recoiled” at a comparison of himself to Trump. By all accounts, he is firmly in the liberal center, according to American standards, if not the left, of the political spectrum. Evaluations of what is right-wing and what is left-wing depend on the reference point of a country’s politics. When thinking internationally, analogous policies might easily signify opposite conclusions for whether a country’s politics is moving “right” or “left.”
As a young man, Macron was a close student of the French philosopher and socialist Paul Ricœur, even going so far as to say that his experience with Ricœur was “life-changing,” and that it was the philosopher who pushed him to enter politics. Ricœur’s work, like that of many prolific French philosophers, may be difficult to summarize succinctly, but he is recognized mainly for his studies of mythology, psychoanalysis, biblical exegesis, existentialism, and more. While Ricœur evidently tried to avoid getting personally involved in partisan politics, his work had a particular interest in reconciling paradoxical viewpoints and he regarded political ideology as a distorting force, but necessary for social reform.
According to Macron, he still reads Ricœur and tries to act according to his thoughts. While the real extent to which Macron is a philosopher-president is certainly questionable in a country where intellectualism is a source of both legitimacy and prestige—and many French intellectuals have questioned that extent—there are some resemblances between Ricœur’s oeuvre and Macron’s governing philosophy. Most importantly, Macron’s centrist balancing act may be based, at least in part, in Ricœur’s thoughts on paradox and ideology. Macron frequently announces his intentions to follow through on seemingly incompatible policies simultaneously—such as making the labor market more competitive while also protecting those with job insecurity—and has made more-than-symbolic gestures to his centrism, such as selecting cabinet ministers from across the political spectrum.
Rather than as a sudden pivot to the far right, the origin of Macron’s strategy to counter Islamism can best be understood as a consequence of the related, but separate tradition of liberal democracy that developed in France, as compared to Anglophone countries such as the United States, in particular, the tradition of secularism which, in France, is called laïcité.
Broadly speaking, French secularism was implemented largely at the expense of the Roman Catholic Church, forcibly transferring control of educational institutions, financial privileges, and social life from the Church to the secular French state, with the goal of creating a unified French culture, based on universal Enlightenment principles rather than particular religious affinity. This is a stark contrast to secularism in the United States—which was also, notably, firmly established over a century before secularism in France—which was implemented at a federal level as a compromise between the widely diverse religious groups that populated the early United States with the goal of ensuring the religious neutrality of the federal government after independence from Great Britain, which had an established church.
In short, whereas secularism in the United States is best thought of as freedom of religion, laïcité is best thought of as freedom from religion. Nonetheless, both approaches keep religion out of policy-making while allowing people to worship however they wish, or not at all. The breakdown in communication between Macron and the Anglophone media is rooted in this divide, but has only now erupted into a spat because of the recent rise of social justice language in elite Anglophone media circles. Without an appreciation for France’s culture of secularism, much of the English-language media’s reporting, then, uses language and framing familiar to the American social justice framework, while often eliding context particular to France but less relevant to the American experience. As a result, French and American liberalism now find each other out of step on the right ways to deal with these issues. What are considered strictly non-partisan, anti-populist, and centrist measures to uphold French liberalism, in particular its secular idealism, are interpreted by the American media as overtures to the illiberal right.
It would be difficult to distinguish between French and American secularism in terms of abstract ideals. Both are philosophical and legal principles that aim to create a “wall of separation between church and state,” to quote Thomas Jefferson, such that private citizens may enjoy freedom of conscience and worship without interference from the state in religious matters. But in terms of implementation, there are great differences in actual practice originating in the very different religious histories of France and the United States prior to the introduction of secular principles in government.
Secularism in France and America
French secularism dates back to the French Revolution of the late 18th century that displaced France’s long-standing ancien régime—the monarchical political system prior to the French Revolution. The Church had great power in pre-revolutionary France going back nearly 1300 years. Many French clergymen came from noble families and served in important administrative or diplomatic government positions. The famous Cardinal Richelieu, for example, was King Louis XIII’s chief minister for over twenty years, and he wielded tremendous power over a consolidating French state. The Church was the primary provider of lower and higher education, hospitals, and charity for the poor. Roman Catholicism was the official state religion in law and in practice, with absenteeism from church services not rising above 1% according to contemporary records. On top of collecting tithes from its vast number of parishioners, the Church’s income was exempt from direct taxation and, on the eve of the French Revolution, it owned about 6% of all land in France.
The Catholic Church’s privileged position came to an abrupt end with the French Revolution of 1789, when the revolutionary government abolished the old privileges of the Church, confiscated church property, banned monastic vows, massacred and exiled clergymen, and eventually passed a law turning the Church into a department of the secular government. When Napoleon Bonaparte took power shortly after, he reversed this situation to a great degree, reconciling with the Church and reinstating some of its privileges through the Concordat of 1801.
This quasi-secular state of affairs lasted until approximately 1871, when the Second French Empire disastrously lost the Franco-Prussian War, Emperor Napoleon III was captured by the Germans, Paris was occupied by the radical socialist Paris Commune, and the French government effectively collapsed. A provisional republican government, now called the French Third Republic, was formed by then-Minister of War and future Prime Minister Léon Gambetta, who was highly ideologically secular, famously declaring that “clericalism is the enemy” and viewing France’s political situation as a battle between “those who pretend to know everything through revelation, in an immutable manner, and those who march, thinking and progressing, to the suggestions of science, which every day accomplishes progress and which pushes back the boundaries of human knowledge.”
The Third Republic was initially intended to be temporary but French monarchists failed to agree to a new king. Eventually a series of republican, left-wing French administrations made the republic permanent. They embarked on a decades-long program of secularization to build a new, unified, secular France, untainted by the failures of the previous monarchy. The new vision of a republican state derived its legitimacy not from God but from democratic government based on Enlightenment principles. To achieve this, French society had to be thoroughly secularized, mainly through education, and the ability of the Church to act as a competing center of power had to be severely restricted.
Between 1877 and 1904, the French government removed clergy from administrative and clerical positions in hospitals, legalized work on Sundays, mandated civil marriages, introduced divorce, made seminarians subject to conscription, removed religious symbology from legislative sessions and the judicial system, forbade the armed forces from participating in Catholic clubs or religious processions, established universal mandatory secular education (from which clergy were banned from teaching), confiscated the property of religious orders such as the Jesuits, and even severed diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1904, which were not re-established until 1921. This campaign of secularization culminated in France’s 1905 Law on the Separation of the Churches and State, which formally abrogated the Concordat of 1801 and established the legal basis for secularism in France that persists to the present day. The 1905 Law also finally ended the practice of state subsidization of the Catholic Church and even declared all religious buildings to be the property of the state. It is worth noting how many of these measures, in an American context, would be perceived as unimaginably malicious infringements of religious freedom.
When the French Revolution began in 1789, the Roman Catholic Church was one of the singularly most powerful institutions in the entire country, regulating almost all aspects of the lives of almost all French people. Despite a short and bloody attempt at subjugating the Church, France remained very Catholic until nearly a hundred years later, small minorities of Protestants and Jews notwithstanding. The United States, in contrast, launched its own revolution in the late 18th century as a largely Protestant but nevertheless confessionally diverse nation. This diversity can be seen in, for example, the signers of the Declaration of Independence, who were mostly Episcopalian, but also included Deists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Unitarians, and one Roman Catholic. The American colonies were also already home to communities of Baptists, Methodists, Dutch Calvinists, Lutherans, German Pietists, French Huguenots, and Jews besides.
Nationally, none of these faiths had the kind of vast and long-standing institutional power or privileges accorded to the Catholic Church in France or the Anglican Church in England at the time. At the state level, however, policies on secularism varied widely. Several states had “established” churches that the state government provided direct aid to, such as in the case of Massachusetts, which required every man to belong to a church—in practice, the dominant Congregational church. North Carolina allowed only Protestants to hold public office. Delaware required office holders to swear belief in the Trinity. New York banned Catholics from public office, whereas Catholics had full civil rights in Maryland—but Jews did not. In Rhode Island, total religious freedom was available to all citizens.
As a result, when the United States Constitution was being drafted, the founding fathers sought to maintain the neutrality of the federal government in religious issues, cognizant of the many sectarian divides in the new nation that might threaten its stability. The U.S. constitution originally made no reference to religious issues except to prohibit religious tests for national office and, when the Bill of Rights was added a few years later, to prohibit Congress from either “respecting” a religion or “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This strictly minimalist and calculated neutrality formed the basis for American secularism, intended not to build up the power of a secular state contra a pre-existing and very powerful religious establishment as in France, but rather to limit the secular state’s involvement in religious concerns at all, in order to avoid igniting any conflicts between a number of smaller constituent states that ranged from totally secular to de facto religious states.
Moreover, whereas secular French governments were concerned with an element of foreign subversion within France, as the Vatican was an important political player in 18th and 19th century Europe, this was not a major concern in the United States, removed as it was from European power politics. The United States government never had a need to undertake the kind of direct and relatively extreme measures that the French government did to establish a functionally secular society. There was no need to forcibly remove and replace clergymen in hospitals or schools, seize church properties, regulate religious associations, and so on. Whereas governance norms regarding secularism took on a necessarily interventionist character in France, American norms were starkly non-interventionist.
There is nonetheless an ongoing debate among French intellectuals on the implications of laïcité. Partisans of “open laïcité,” who are closer to the American understanding secularism, argue that the law of 1905 was fundamentally a liberal law that protects religions from state interference. This movement had become particularly influential in French intellectual circles in the early 2000s, but its clout has waned in recent years. Partisans of a more interventionist laïcité will argue that laïcité is not limited to the law of 1905, but is the result of France’s particular history. Traditionally, the partisans of this more interventionist form of laïcité leaned to the left, but have found supporters across all sides of the political spectrum in recent years. To its critics, this movement constitutes an illiberal turn of laïcité.
There has been some calls from political leaders to enshrining a definition of laïcité in the Constitution (according to its first article, France is a “République laïque” but no definition of laïcité is provided). Over the past few years the Constitutional Council has defined laïcité as a principle that “forbids citizens to take advantage of his or her religious beliefs to flout himself or herself from the common rules that underpin relations between public authorities and individuals.” This definition would be a useful tool for judges and policymakers alike, as judicial skirmishes on the question of religious freedom and laïcité have multiplied over the past decades, but there has not been much traction for a constitutional amendment.
Macron Invokes the Third Republic
In his call with The New York Times, Emmanuel Macron argued that, in the United States, there was “a sort of misunderstanding about what the [French] model is” and that the French model was “universalist, not multiculturalist.” Understanding the French history of secularization allows us to understand what exactly he meant by that, or what Caroline Fourest meant by saying the Anglophone press was “unable to view France except through American glasses.” This history also shows how Macron’s recent push against “Islamist separatism” directly parallels France’s history of buttressing the secular state by reducing the influence of the Catholic Church.
This is plain to see, for example, in the provisions of one of Macron’s proposed legislative bills. The ban on homeschooling—implicitly targeting Islamist homeschooling, though later revised to allow exemptions—evokes the 19th century campaign to ensure all French pupils would receive a secular, rather than Catholic, education, and the ban on clergy teaching in schools. The provision to subject organizations that receive government subsidies to a test of allegiance to “the values of the republic” is a legal mechanism identical to Napoleon’s oath of allegiance required for state payment of clerical salaries in 1801. Even the proposal to flag individuals deemed to “excuse” terrorist acts evokes an incident from the Third Republic era called the Affaire des Fiches, when the anti-clerical War Minister was using a complex system of index cards—a sort of early 20th-century database—to secretly track which military officers were devout Catholics and prevent their promotion through the ranks accordingly.
Macron is, moreover, not just being passively influenced by France’s unique culture of secularism, but clearly taking particular inspiration from the French Third Republic. In early September, he gave a speech commemorating the 150th anniversary of continuous French republicanism—starting with the Third Republic in 1870—and, even had a young woman read out the original proclamation of the Third Republic, delivered by none other than Léon Gambetta.
Even more instructive is Macron’s October speech in which he laid out his strategy to counter “Islamist separatism.” Not only did he repeatedly invoke the 1905 Law on Separation of the Churches and State, he announced he would present his bill to strengthen laïcité to the French Council of Ministers specifically on the 115th anniversary of the 1905 law. Announcing his intention to restrict homeschooling, he referenced the 1882 laws that established universal secular education. Discussing his thoughts on regulating Islamic organizations, he referenced the 1901 Law of Associations that was then used to suppress Catholic religious orders. Interestingly, Macron even mentioned that part of his plan would be to end government contracts with foreign countries that provide native language instruction for French pupils of immigrant background, such as Algeria, Morocco, and, of course, Turkey, because those teachers “incorporated curricula that were not in compliance with French law or the fundamental principles of our programs.” Where French secularists once contended with the Vatican over French classrooms, now they contend with Erdogan’s Turkey.
In his speech, Macron declared that “the Republic is back” and that the “ultimate goal” is to “ensure a republican presence at the base of every high-rise block, at the base of every building.” Such rhetoric hardly would have raised hackles in the English-language media on its own, but without a thorough appreciation for France’s history of secularization, it is easy to see why the strategy to bring the Republic back is, instead, interpreted as a pivot to the right—missing the fact that the French Third Republic’s secularization campaigns were spearheaded by France’s left wing. In the United States, which does not have a comparable history of powerful institutionalized religion, such active intervention is, ironically, seen as a dictatorial infringement on the free exercise of religion, if not illiberal, discriminatory sentiment.
Given Macron’s emulation of the Third Republic, his intention to counter a rising Turkey, his desire to achieve “strategic autonomy” for Europe independently of the United States, and his demonstrated willingness not to shy away from criticism in the foreign press, this long-standing divide between two secularisms will likely be a relevant factor in French relations with both the United States and the Muslim world for a while to come.
To Think About:
- How should we measure “integration” of immigrants into a society? Language? Food preferences? Religion?
- Is it possible to fully understand French politics from the U.S., or vice versa? Consider the difficulty of finding a great hamburger in Paris or a sublime baguette in New York.
- Do left-right political distinctions still make sense, given political fractures?
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Philippe Portier, “The Illiberal Turn of French Laïcité,” Reset DOC, December 22, 2020, https://www.resetdoc.org/story/the-illiberal-turn-of-french-laicite/ ↩
Ferdinand Mélin-Soucramanien, “Définir La Laïcité Dans La Constitution? C'est D'une Grande Importance Pratique!” LEFIGARO, accessed January 29, 2021, https://www.lefigaro.fr/vox/politique/ferdinand-melin-soucramanien-definir-la-laicite-dans-la-constitution-c-est-d-une-grande-importance-pratique-20201126 ↩
Smith, “The President.” For a more detailed understanding of French universalism see: Dieckhoff, Alain, and Pierre Birnbaum. La Constellation Des Appartenances: Nationalisme, libéralisme Et Pluralisme, Presses De Sciences Po, 2004, pp. 255–280. ↩
Ollia Horton, “Macron urges French to protect 'La République' in the face of 'separatists'” RFI, September 4, 2020, https://www.rfi.fr/en/france/20200904-macron-urges-french-to-protect-la-republique-in-the-face-of-separatists-150-anniversary-immigration-charlie-hebdo-terrorist ↩
Transcript of speech by President Emmanuel Macron, “Fight against separatism – the Republic in action” provided by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, October 2, 2020, https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/coming-to-france/france-facts/secularism-and-religious-freedom-in-france-63815/article/fight-against-separatism-the-republic-in-action-speech-by-emmanuel-macron ↩
David Rigoulet-Roze, “The Geopolitics of Laïcité: Making Sense of the Franco-Turkish Dispute” Reset DOC, December 23, 2020, https://www.resetdoc.org/story/the-geopolitics-of-laicite-making-sense-of-the-franco-turkish-dispute/ ↩
Michele Barbero,“Europe May Cheer Biden’s Win—But It Threatens Macron’s Grand Project” Foreign Policy, November 27, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/11/27/biden-win-macron-independent-europe/ ↩