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Denial of citizenship for Muslim woman violates neutrality of French secularism

Angela Wu [Acting Executive Director, International Law Director, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty]: "On June 27, the highest French administrative tribunal rejected a Muslim woman's application for citizenship. Reason: her religious practices and beliefs are not French enough. Faiza Mabchour has been living in France since 2000, she is married to a French citizen, and has three French-born children. What's more, she speaks French fluently, a skill in many countries, including France previously, that would have been a critical and sufficient evidence of assimilation for citizenship applications. The Conseil d'Etat (Council of State) disagreed, ruling instead that Ms. Mabchour should not receive citizenship because her religious practices are "not compatible with the essential values of the French community, notably the principle of gender equality."

The Council's decision disturbingly and ironically runs counter to France's long-cherished value of neutrality in the public sphere, one of the three main tenets of laïcité, the French embodiment of secularism. Besides neutrality in the public square, laïcité embraces the equality of religions (and non-religions). Yet conventionally, laïcité has been employed to justify policies aimed at dereligionising the public sphere rather than protecting the free peaceful expression of all religions. In that spirit, France banned the Muslim headscarf and other ostentatious religious symbols in state schools in 2004, forcing some students to choose between public education (in which, presumably, they would have been inculcated in French values) and their religious faith. One such case involving Sikhs who ended up in private Catholic schools as a result of the ban is now being heard by the European Court of Human Rights. Former French President Chirac defended the ban as "obviously necessary" to preserve neutrality in the public arena, which would permit various religions to coexist harmoniously.

The Council's June 2008 decision throws more starkly into question whether religious discrimination, and not merely neutrality, is really the reason for France's aggressive attempts to dereligionise the public square. In rejecting Ms. Mabchour's application, the Council adopts a substantive view of which peaceful religious practices are acceptable to French society. This necessarily would involve the state privileging some religious practices over others. Not only does this defeat any avowed claim to neutrality, the state intrudes upon the "forum internum" — interior realm of conscience — by deciding which theologies are acceptable for public expression and forcing religious believers to choose between a full public life and being true to their religious consciences. The decision's declaration that the citizenship decision has no effect on Ms. Mabchour's freedom of religion declares that freedom of religion in France is effective only behind closed doors.

This is the irony of a secularist state making theological choices. France is going to tell Muslims what to believe and to practice in order to be accepted as French. This coercion is reminiscent of religious persecution in the Middle Ages that stemmed from the desire for religious uniformity. The difference here is that now the demand is for commitment to the ideology of a state-sanctioned theology — one that in no way threatens the accepted script of muted religious expression.

The ruling plainly goes against conventional French commitment to absolute equality. France views religion as a private matter, and refuses to recognise, much less celebrate, religious (and ethnic) differences publicly. Thus, it has insisted on the international plane that there are no minorities in France, whether ethnic, religious or linguistic. Article 2 of the 1958 French Constitution declares France as "an indivisible, secular, democratic, and social Republic." This indivisibility clause was the basis for France's reservation to Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966, which guarantees protection to persons belonging to "ethnic, religious or linguistic minoritiea...to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language." France's clear inability to assimilate an increasingly disenchanted Muslim minority brings into question whether this approach of denial is working to neutralise conflict in its public square.

Furthermore, in denying Ms. Mabchour citizenship, the Council reinforces whatever state of submission it imputes on her wearing of the burqa by depriving her political status in her country of residence of the past 8 years, thus ensuring that she continues to remain dependent on her husband and other male relatives. The Council criticised Ms. Mabchour because she apparently "has no idea about the secular state or the right to vote" and does not "challenge" her "submission to her male relatives." It does not mention any evidence of what factors influenced Ms. Mabchour's wearing of the burqa.

French politicians have generally supported the Council's decision. None, as far as this commentator has seen, have come out to disclaim the underlying discrimination and duplicity in the reasoning. If anything, this is unlikely to be the last time France has to confront its commitment to secularism and equality, and what that means when confronted with the realities of an increasingly diverse Europe. As France continues to struggle to deal with the growing ethnic and religious plurality in its own country, it has to decide if its aspirations of liberty, equality, and fraternity, mean that the state should be determining affairs of the church."

Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.

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