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Laïcité, Republic and Nation in Post-Colonial France


The question of ‘secularity’ (laïcité) has risen sharply up the French political agenda over the last twenty-five years. Ways in which it is defined and applied are hotly contested and lie at the nerve centre of wide debates about the nature of the Republic, French national identity and indeed of France's colonial past. According to an IFOP opinion poll in November 2015, 87 per cent of French people agreed that was important to respect laïcité at school, 84 per cent of respondents said that it was part of France's identity while 81 per cent thought that it was under threat in France. That said, they did not agree on what laïcité meant. For 32 per cent it meant separating religion from politics, for 27 per cent it meant ensuring liberty of conscience, while 17 per cent said it meant reducing the influence of religion in society. Historians, sociologists and political scientists as well as journalists and activists join battle on the question, and a selection of their recent contributions, from different angles and with different methodologies, are reviewed here.

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2 Gildea, Robert, Education in Provincial France, 1800–1914. A Study of Three Departments (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), 108–13.

3 Sieyès, Abbé, What is the Third Estate? (London: Pall Mall Press, 1963), 58 . See also Sewell, William H., A Rhetoric of Bourgeois Revolution. The Abbé Sieyès and What is the Third Estate (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994).

4 Renan, ‘Qu'est-ce que la Nation?’, in Hutchinson, John and Smith, Anthony D., eds., Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 17–8. See also Citron, Suzanne, Le Mythe national. L'Histoire de la France en Question (Paris: Les Éditions ouvrières, 1991).

6 Nora, Pierre, ed., Les Lieux de mémoire 7 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1984–92).

7 Anderson, Perry, ‘Union Sucrée’, London Review of Books, 26, 13 (23 Sept. 2004); Anderson, La Pensée tiède. Un regard critique sur la culture française (Paris: Seuil, 2005), 52, 121.

8 Scott, Joan, The Politics of the Veil (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 87.

9 Bruckner, Pascal, The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010).

10 On this see Kepel, Gilles, Terreur dans l'Hexagone. Genèse du Djihad Français (Paris: Gallimard, 2015), 3547 , and Kokoreff, Michel, ‘The Political Dimension of the 2005 Riots’, in Waddington, David, Jobard, Fabien and King, Mike, eds., Rioting in the UK and France. A Comparative Perspective (Cullumpton: Willan, 2009), 147–56.

11 See, for example, Debray, Régis, Ce que nous voile le voile : La République et le sacré (Paris: Gallimard, 2003); Finkielkraut, Alain, Qu'est-ce que la France (Paris: Stock, 2007).

12 See, for example, Touraine, Alain, Can We Live Together? Equality and Difference (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000); Wieviorka, Michel, L'avenir de l'Islam en France et en Europe (Paris: Balland, 2003).

13 Among his publications are Histoire de la Laïcité française (Paris: PUF, 2000) and Laïcité, 1905–2005. Entre passion et raison (Paris: Seuil, 2004).

14 Stoler, Ann Laura and Cooper, Frederick, ‘Between Metropole and Colony: Rethinking a Research Agenda’, in Cooper, and Stoler, , eds., Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 156.

15 Scott, Joan, The Politics of the Veil; Patricia Lorcin, ed., Algeria & France, 1800–2000: Identity, Memory, Nostalgia (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2006); Shepard, Todd, The Invention of Decolonization. The Algerian War and the Remaking of France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006); Marsh, Kate, ed., France's Lost Empires. Fragmentation, Nostalgia and la fracture colonial (Boulder: Lexington Books, 2011); Stovall, Tyler, Transnational France: The Modern History of a Universal Nation ( University of California: Santa Cruz, 2015).

16 Blanchard, Pascal, Bancel, Nicolas and Lemaire, Sandrine, La Fracture coloniale. La Societe francaise au prisme de l'héritage colonial (Paris: La Decouverte, 2005).

17 See, for example, Stora, Benjamin, Le Gangrène et l'oubli: la mémoire de la guerre d'Algérie (Paris: La Découverte, 1991) and Stora, Histoire de la guerre d'Algérie, 1954–1962 (Paris: La Découverte, 1993).

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Contemporary European History
  • ISSN: 0960-7773
  • EISSN: 1469-2171
  • URL: /core/journals/contemporary-european-history
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