French President François Hollande has reaffirmed his commitment to the spirit of secularism and pledged to institutionalize the national unity displayed during the rallies across France that honored the victims of the Paris terror attacks that left 17 dead in January.
Speaking at a press conference on Thursday, Hollande vowed to devote extra resources to the country's educational system and increase state-sponsored public service employment opportunities for people under the age of 26.
Secularism, which has been enshrined in French law since 1905, has proved a divisive issue since two Islamic radicals attacked the headquarters of satirical French weekly Charlie Hebdo for printing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.
While some consider secularism a bulwark against religious extremism, others in France believe the authorities underestimate the effect it has on social exclusion. This holds particularly true among the country's Muslims, some of whom feel unfairly targeted by laws that ban the wearing of headscarves at schools or full-face veils in public.
Speaking on Thursday, Hollande defended secular values and argued that they provide the foundation on which religious freedom is based.
"Secularism is non-negotiable because it allows us to live together," he said. "It has to be understood for what it is: the freedom of thought — therefore, the freedom of religion. These are values and rules of law that aim to protect not only what we share, but also what is unique to each one of us. It is France's guarantee against intolerance."
Other French politicians have criticized secular values as outdated and undemocratic. Following the attacks, Benoist Apparu, a member of the right-wing UMP party, denounced what he termed "secularist totalitarianism." Apparu has also been frustrated by the debate over cultural and religious symbolism in French public institutions, which was reignited in December after courts banned the traditional Christmas nativity scene from several local council buildings.
Madani Cheurfa, a researcher with the think tank CEVIPOF, which is affiliated with a prestigious institute of political sciences known as Sciences Po, told VICE News that he was neither shocked nor surprised by Hollande's speech on secular values.
"Secularism in France was established at a time when all religions were seen to dictate an absolutist, and therefore intolerant, worldview," he said.
Cheurfa explained that France introduced the notion of "religious skepticism" to put an end to widespread religious intolerance.
"The state decided to not recognize or subsidize any religious cult," said Cheurfa. " French secularism is separate from religious freedom — it's all about the freedom of thought."
Back in 1905, when the concept of state secularism was introduced in the country, Islam was not yet present in metropolitan France, according to Cheurfa. Today France ishometo around 5 million Muslims.
"For the more radicalized believers there are competing agendas," he explained. "For them, their religious values are superior to the values of the home state."
Cheurfa believed that this tension, which has compounded due to the recent attacks, desperately needed to be addressed publicly.
In Thursday's remarks, Hollande described schools as a battleground of secularism and education as the nation's "best weapon" on behalf of democracy.
The school system has been a front line in the government's response to the Paris terror attacks ever since several establishments reported that students had refused to comply with a nationwide minute of silence for the victims. French public authorities and the media have made much of these isolated incidents, which, according to political analyst Thomas Guénolé, concern only 0.13% of students currently enrolled in the country.
Last week, police in the southern French city of Nice brought in an 8-year-old boy and his father for questioning, after the third-grader allegedly praised the Charlie Hebdo attackers, saying, "I am with the terrorists."
Hollande's new education measures echo plans unveiled on January 22 by Education Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem to promote secularism in the classroom by introducing new teacher training. Hollande promoted this initiative, stressing that secularism would be taught "throughout the mandatory schooling period," which in France lasts from the age of 6 to 16. Public resources would be directed into the educational system to assist struggling students, lower dropout rates, and ensure that all kindergarteners master basic French.
The French president also vowed to expand a public initiative guaranteeing paid civil service opportunities to people between the ages of 16 and 25. The current scheme involves 35,000 young people, a number Hollande has pledged to increase to 150,000 or 160,000 by June.
"I propose a new civic contract and the creation of a universal service for young people, the creation of a citizen reserve for all French people, and the strengthening of participatory democracy," he said.
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