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The recent events in Paris and the subsequent debates about freedom of speech and the conflict of cultures between immigrants and their host societies have also raised historical questions about France, and how the particularities of the French past can help us to understand the latest conflicts. Ever since the 1789 Revolution, the relationship between religion and the state has been a subject of debate, and over the decades and multiple regime changes, a republican model of assimilation of immigrants was developed which forms an important part of French national identity. Both of these subjects constitute part of the background which has framed the debates of the past month.

The complicated relationship between religion and the French state goes back well beyond the Revolution to the wars of religion in the ancien régime. Then, the French Monarchy (for whom France was ‘the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church’) sought alternately to eradicate Protestantism (that had been quite popular amongst its elite in the 16th century), or to provide guarantees of freedom of religion (with the Edict of Nantes, for example) to its economically and culturally important Protestant minority.

The Revolutionaries, influenced by anticlerical doctrines from the 18th-century Enlightenment, both reduced the power and scope of the Catholic Church (seizing all church land, making priests swear loyalty to the republic) but also gave guarantees of religious freedom. They were among the first to give citizenship to Jews. These two traditions have co-existed ever since within Republican France: one anticlerical and as often as not antireligious, and another of religious freedom, though with the proviso that a certain secular minimum be accepted by all. In this way, despite regular setbacks, members of religious minorities (Protestants and Jews) were able to hold public office, often in key and important positions of authority, but did not bring their religious beliefs to the fore publicly.

One prominent feature of the French tradition of anticlericalism was its public expression. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, from the writings of Voltaire onwards, every generation had a number of mainstream writers and artists whose political position included a severe criticism of Catholicism and religion. Among such writing caricature always had its place. It became increasingly common after the founding of the Third Republic in 1870, such that by the eve of the First World War over 100 anticlerical caricature reviews were being published in France.

Much of this writing was quite extreme and violent by Anglo-Saxon standards, for the reason that many of the republican, anticlerical writers and artists felt (sometimes justly) that Catholics and the Church were out to overthrow the republic. The revolutionary and counter-revolutionary violence in the streets was paralleled by a high level of rhetorical and semantic violence in print. This long-standing tradition of open criticism of religion in France led several of the defenders of Charlie Hebdo to go so far as to claim that religious caricature is an essential part of the national culture, and therefore something that others coming to France need simply to accept.

Immigration is a hot issue in France as it is all around Europe, not simply because of the Paris attacks. Unlike many other European countries (like Britain), France has been a country which was a net receiver of immigrants over the last 200 years, rather than an exporter of population. A significant element in French national identity has been the ‘republican model of assimilation’. The idea is that anyone could join the French nation if they accepted its republican values (race or birth are irrelevant). While freedom of religion is one of these values, they also include acceptance of a secular space, the public and political realm, where religion has no place. The ‘success’ of the republican model is extremely well known in France, and a source of pride.

Jews and Protestants have historically been very loyal to this vision of the French republic, and the post-Vatican II French Catholic Church has finally accepted it wholeheartedly. Conflicts with Muslim immigrants from North Africa over the last few decades have lead to questions about a ‘crisis’ of the republican model of assimilation – why is it not working, why are these immigrants unable to receive freedom of religion in exchange for accepting a public and secular place, why are they unable to cope with anticlerical/antireligious criticism in the press, why should not they be made to accept it as the Catholics had been made to? French republicans themselves seem at times unable to realise how much more complicated it is to impose their ‘assimilationist’ model on populations coming from North Africa. As with other religious minorities, they have a heritage full of a bitterness, but not one fundamentally rooted in their resentment of the excesses and intolerance of the Catholic France of the ancien régime (as it was for the Jews and Protestants), but in the imperialism and cultural superiority of Republican anticlerical France.

Many foreign commentators have criticised the French for their policy of assimilation, which they see as a kind of cultural imperialism, but they often fail to take account of the historical roots and the depth of feeling behind this ‘republican model’ and how central it is to the identity – both the political and historical identity – of the French nation.

Timothy Baycroft is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Sheffield and the author of France: Inventing the Nation (London: Arnold, 2008).

Image by Pierre-Selim Huard at Wikimedia Commons, used under a CC-BY-4.0 Creative Commons licence.

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Timothy Baycroft

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