In a highly controversial move aimed at reasserting the French republic's secular ideal, the French National Assembly voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to ban conspicuous religious symbols from public schools. Despite inviting international scrutiny and sowing the seeds for potential religious mutiny, the French public strongly favored the ban, which includes Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps, and large Christian crosses.

International media have mocked the proposal, arguing that schoolgirl wardrobes don't exactly threaten the essential nature of French republicanism. As a result, Muslims may face further marginalization within French culture and turn toward Islamic fundamentalists for acceptance. The French government hopes for the opposite result, believing it can quash radical Islam only by such contrived assimilation.

This notion may sound absurd to Americans, who so highly esteem individualistic notions of freedom in expression and conscience. Yet in France, there can be no other conclusion. To be French is to guard against the threat posed by public religiosity. Drawing upon their volatile and frequently bloody religious history for justification, proponents of the ban assert that liberty must be preserved through vigilant public secularism.

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

The storming of the Bastille in 1789 unleashed centuries of unrest. Encouraged by the unlikely success of their cross-Atlantic allies, the French people revolted against their rulers and ushered in a breathtaking new order founded on three principles-liberty, equality, and fraternity. Though the Revolution famously collapsed in the bloodbath of Robespierre's Reign of Terror, then morphed into Napoleonic monarchy and conquest, its essential aims earned international acclaim. Even some American Protestants applauded the developments in France. Like so many others riding the tidal wave of democratic sentiment, they rejoiced as France asserted popular rule. In 1793 Samuel Miller, who eventually became a conservative stalwart at Princeton Theological Seminary, optimistically and rhetorically asked if Americans and other observers could "view the interesting situation of our affectionate allies, without indulging the delightful hope, that the sparks, which are there seen rising toward heaven, though in tumultuous confusion, shall soon be the means of kindling a general flame, which shall illuminate the darkest and remotest corners of the earth, and pour upon them the effulgence of ten-fold glory?"

Observers like Miller initially brushed the Revolution's unsavory elements under the rug because few deemed the French monarchy an institution worth saving. Nor did they, for that matter, shed a tear for the toppled Roman Catholic Church. As the state-sponsored church, the Roman Catholic Church was inextricably linked with the monarchy, sharing culpability for the nation's ills.

This church-state alliance produced many problematic outcomes. Confessional unity couldn't prevent French kings during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries from allying with the Muslim Turks to check the Holy Roman Empire's power. This pact severely weakened Christendom both spiritually and militarily, and contributed to the shocking Turkish conquests that culminated in sieges of Vienna in 1529 and 1683.

Confessional hostility erupted in 1572 when the French Queen Catherine de' Medici endorsed a plan to kill Huguenot leader Admiral Coligny. The initial attempt failed, but days later sectarian mob violence resulted in the death of about 70,000 French Protestants. This Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre marked the most gruesome outbreak in a series of sixteenth-century conflicts that have become known as the Wars of Religion. (See Issue 71: Huguenots and the Wars of Religion.) This violence reached an apparent conclusion with the Edict of Nantes in 1598, but subsequent Catholic rulers first revoked the Protestants' political power and then their rights to freely worship.

Given this history of violent religious division, revolutionaries saw no suitable purpose for the church. They temporarily transformed the Cathedral of Notre Dame into the Temple of Reason to signify their new allegiances. They renamed 1,400 Paris streets to expunge the memory of monarchs and saints. And they stripped priests and bishops of their formerly state-funded positions. This program of dechristianization shocked even moderate French revolutionaries, but radical elements prevailed, along with the belief that the Roman Catholic Church would forever be an enemy of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Secularism Then and Now

Once the revolutionary coalition fell apart, however, the Roman Catholic Church managed to regain some of its earlier authority. In 1801 Napoleon brokered a deal with the papacy to grant the church favored-religion status, which allowed them to take responsibility for educating French youth. But for the radical remnant, this compromise undermined the revolution's legacy. Led by Prime Minister Jules Ferry, an ardent atheist and ancestor of current Education Minister Luc Ferry, this faction established the public school system in 1880 and barred priests from teaching. Ferry viewed the public schools as a primary vehicle for diffusing the revolution's values and giving the nation a unified sense of secular citizenship.

Finally in 1905 church and state broke for good in France. The last vestiges of Napoleon's post-revolutionary compromise with the Vatican were abolished. The government ordered schools to desist from all religious instruction, assumed much church property, and even banned many public displays of religiosity, such as gravestones. This brand of state-sponsored secularism has characterized France to this day.

New Crisis

France's latest tussle about the relationship between church and state has been sparked by a new threat to state secularism-the immigration of North African Muslims to France and other European nations. Lured by the employment void created by rapidly aging European populations, Muslims have sought economic refuge in Europe. Muslims now constitute about eight percent of France's population and promise to increase that proportion in the future.

For the French, this development poses nothing less that a threat to the essence of their proud nation. The French government is responding in alarm to reports that Muslim students have questioned the historic veracity of the Holocaust and demanded sex-segregated gym classes. French writer Guy Coq expressed the danger this way: "But the laïcité; (secularism) has been eroded by the intrusion of religious symbols, prompted by an excess of individualism, that philosophy so revered by Americans. … More than ever, in this time of political-religious tensions, school secularism is for us the foundation of both civil peace and the integration of all people of all beliefs into the Republic."

Ever mindful of the devastating religious conflicts that mar their history, the French fear public religion will slow this integration process and jeopardize the civil peace.