Paola Mattei is Associate Professor in Comparative Social Policy at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.

Both before and especially since the terrorist atrocities in Paris on November 13th, combative or enforced secularism has often been cited as one of the main reasons for the violent hatred manifested in the attacks.

Some observers identify the roots of Islamist extremism in France in the ban of the hijab (veil) in 2004, seeing this as an example of state repression. This argument is not only a simplistic take on French history and political traditions, it is also highly unfair to French Muslim communities. Academic studies (such as Brouard and Tiberj, 2005) show that the vast majority of French Muslims accepts laïcité.

When we think of French secularism, titanic struggles against the Catholic Church comes to mind, and rightly so. It has been combative in a sense that the history of anti-clericalism has been long and strong. But we need to clear some of the fog that the shocking and horrifying Paris terror attacks generate, not least in the minds of some commentators and scholars. Laïcité in France consists of three cardinal values: liberty of conscience, neutrality of the state, and freedom of religious expression. Its philosophy is not an ‘act of war’ against religion; any scholarly argument that French laicité is inherently illiberal, or racist, is unsustainable.

On the contrary, the battle for the Republic is better (and more recently) viewed as the battle for a model of integration inspired by the principle of vivre ensemble, living together, quite the opposite of traditional assimilationist approaches  (Schnapper 2007), a model based on tolerance and valuing diversity.

Certainly, on November 13th Islamist extremism struck at the heart of the most recent liberal and pluralist ramifications of laïcité. Young, educated and liberal people were the victims of such atrocious hatred.  An attack not against a repressive and illiberal state, this is an attack against liberalism at its core. Moreover, the timing coincided with the promotion by the current French government and the moderate Left that supports it of a new ramification of secularism  and vivre ensemble, one which goes beyond a legal definition of laïcité to include social inclusion and social justice. This social approach to secularism is now at risk of being withdrawn, and if so, the Paris attacks will hurt foremost those who are marginalised, and segregated in the Paris suburbs, pushing them even further to the margins.

My research shows that laïcité is an elastic idea. The balance in France among the three cardinal principles (freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, and neutrality) is a delicate relationship regulated by the state. The  exact weight given to each part determines both the policy and its implications (Mattei and Aguilar, 2016). The variety of permutations, ranging from neutrality to preference for non-religion, are seemingly contradictory with each other but often reflect the social context of the time. In my new book*, I propose to analyse secularism not as a rigid separation of State and Church, but as a wider approach to understand the relationships between state and society. Rather than being ossified at the time of the titanic struggles against the Catholic Church, laïcité is an elastic concept, malleable and interpreted in different ways by political actors. Through the neutrality of the state, laïcité is the principle authorizing all religious beliefs, allowing citizens to exhibit a freedom of conscience with respect to what they choose to believe autonomously (Observatoire de la Laïcité, 2013).

Laïcité is also strongly associated with French national values and a sense of French identity.  According to a 2015 poll by the Institute of French Public Opinion, 71% of respondents believe laïcité is the most important Republican principle, an increase of 41 points since 2008 (Institut français d’opinion publique, 2015).  The clear link with identity politics makes the upholding of laïcité a critical priority and a useful political tool for stoking up public sentiment.  Recent political dialogue has voiced an underlying need to ‘protect’ laïcité against the threat of religious fundamentalism. Another 2015 poll by Le Monde and Ipsos reveals that 74% believe laïcité is currently under threat, further underscoring the importance placed on preserving and protecting it. The worry over laïcité and the role it plays in public opinion result in mixed and uneven definitions. It does not help a measured and reasoned understanding of it.

Laïcité protects a core liberal idea that has remained steady over centuries: freedom of individual conscience. All religious groups, without exceptions, respect this. This is a sacrosanct freedom that states cannot infringe. Citizens have a right to make decisions based on their individual will and free from external pressures.  I firmly believe that any understanding of Islam and laïcité in the contemporary debates in France, and in Europe, would benefit from liberating the idea from any moral authoritative value, and framing the debate on integration on the basis of the distinction between liberal philosophies and instrumental politics and discursive metaphors.  Combative secularism is incompatible with all religions; and French secularism is fully compatible with Islam.

Prof Mattei’s new book, Secular Institutions, Islam and Education Policy, written with Andrew Aguilar, will be published in 2016 by Palgrave Macmillan.


Brouard, S., and Tiberj, V., (2005). Français comme les autres: enquête sur les citoyens d’origine maghrébine, africaine et turque, Nouveaux débats. Presses de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, Paris.

Mattei, P. (2012) “The French republican school under pressure: falling standards and rising inequalities”, French Politics, 10,1, 84-95

Schnapper, D., 2007. Qu’est-ce que l’intégration ? Gallimard, Paris.

From time to time we'll share exclusive interview clips (including never-seen-before footage), the most incisive blog posts and the most interesting dispatches from our event organisers as they take the europe debate to the furthest, biggest, smallest, weirdest, most unusual places around europe and beyond.

Sign up to the Newsletter

Share this

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.
Stay in touch Get our Newsletter


Free Word Centre
60 Farringdon Road
London EC1R 3GA


The Wake up Foundation is a registered charity no. 1152894

Donate now

Sign in with Facebook, Twitter or email.

Created with NationBuilder

X Close

Join Wake Up Europe!

Wake Up Europe is a campaign brought to you by the Wake Up Foundation. It was sparked by the themes explored in The Great European Disaster Movie by Annalisa Piras and Bill Emmott.

We believe in the values that inspired the European project but that this project isn't working. Europe is sleep-walking towards disaster. We must wake up Europe so that we can save Europe from itself.

This job is too important to be left to the elites, the media, the political parties alone: ordinary people must be encouraged to discuss what Europe they want to see.

Or support us another way

Donate Host an event