Etienne Balibar: Laïcité or identity?

Verso Books.

The controversial banning of the “Burkini” by several French municipalities – and it’s overturning by the state council – has once again brought the question of what laïcité actually means, and who it works for, in contemporary France. In this short article, originally published in Libération and translated here by David Broder, Etienne Balibar traces the vicissitudes of the concept to show how we have ended up with the “monster of identitarian laïcité”.

Thanks to the state council’s ruling we will avoid seeing a morality police in France. This would have been a morality police charged not with forcing women to wear the veil, but forcing them to take it off. As far as possible, the exercise of liberties must be prioritised over the requirements of public order, which by definition restrict these freedoms. In a democracy women’s rights are a matter of their own decisions, not an interpretative framework imposed upon their behaviour, ‘forcing them to be free’. Laïcité is an obligation on the state to show its neutrality towards citizens, not an ideological obligation on citizens toward the state.

Like many others I consider these to be fundamental arguments. They strike a blow against the attempt to exploit the feelings aroused by the series of attacks perpetrated in the name of Islam, in the effort to combine a fundamentalist laïcisme [the imposition of non-religious behaviour]with a strategy for exacerbating nationalism. They instead call for a counter-offensive. The proposal for legislation – a fresh step in banning signs of religious belonging from the public sphere – would be more important than the guerrilla campaign against the judicial order currently being waged by certain elected officials. The stakes will be all the higher, since it is becoming clear that such legislation does not only require the revision of the constitution, but would mean that we are drifting from the state founded on the rule of law to the state of exception.

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