Laïcité from State Policy to the Classroom: Understanding French State Secularism Through Education Policy

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France’s long-held principle of state secularism, laïcité, is expressed through multiple areas of social service provision. At the same time, the French republican tradition envisions a relationship between the state and its citizens that is largely forged through contact with state institutions and unmediated by civil society. As a result, those who seek services are required to comply with norms of religious neutrality as defined by the state. I examine this phenomenon in the area of public education through a package of reforms enacted following the January 2015 attacks in and around Paris, most notably directed at the offices of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. These interventions, known collectively as the “Great Mobilization for the Republic’s Values” (La Grande Mobilisation), represent the latest in a string of educational attempts meant to reinvigorate a sense of national pride among immigrant-descended youth – especially Muslim –
in republican values and particularly in laïcité. While ostensibly meant to apply equally across the nationalized French school system, in practice La Grande Mobilisation has been largely enacted in schools located in urban spaces of racialized difference thought to be “at risk” of anti-republican behavior. At the same time, a wave of right-wing populist politics across France has elevated a particularly stringent brand of laïcité to the level of common political rhetoric.

In this paper, I show that while high-level discourses that argue for the need for enhancing laïcité have a considerable impact on the way in which secularism is thought of in the educational context, practitioners exercise their own interpretations of these discourses in carrying out their daily responsibilities. In particular, they interpret state educational directives, including the
Grande Mobilisation, in the light of their institutional knowledge and responsiveness to the social and economic profiles of their student populations. What emerges from my inquiry is the operation of a subtle form of power that is steeped in, but also subtly reworks, hegemonic narratives of how religious identity figures into national identity, state authority, and culture.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages14
Publication statusPublished - 2017
MoE publication typeNot Eligible
EventESPAnet 2017, Lissabon, Portugali -
Duration: 14 Sep 201716 Sep 2017


ConferenceESPAnet 2017, Lissabon, Portugali

Bibliographical note

Host publication: ESPANet Conference Proceedings

Fields of Science

  • 516 Educational sciences

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