France is a determinedly secular (laïque) society. Those of us who weren’t in the country at the time probably became aware of this during the ‘foulard’ controversy of the 1990’s, during which there was a series of strikes and other actions both for and against the right of Muslim girls to be veiled. This culminated, in 2004, in a law banning the wearing of ‘conspicuous’ religious symbols: the reality was that it was the Muslim headscarf that seemed to be the target.
The law is widely seen as intended to discriminate against non-Christian faiths. It’s hard not to agree. Here in France, as in England, there are state schools and private schools. But there’s a third category too. In some circumstances, private faith schools have access to state and local funding which means pupils attending them benefit from very low fees. 95% of such schools are Catholic.
It’s worth mentioning too that local authorities are responsible for the cost of maintaining places of worship built before 1905. It’s doubtful if any mosques fall into this category, and it’s certainly true that the burden of keeping often historic buildings in a state of good repair is a crippling burden for many small communes, and much resented by laïque members of that community.
And what about public holidays? Quite a few are holy days, and retain their Christian names: Ascension Day, Whit Monday, Assumption of the Virgin Mary, All Saints’ Day, Christmas Day….
Nevertheless, Laïcité cuts pretty deep. I’m currently involved in helping the librarian in Lavelanet mount an exhibition and series of children’s events in early December about English Children’s Literature. Because of the timing, there’ll be displays about a typical British Christmas, and Christmas-themed books will play their part.
Despite this, interpretations of the nativity story, by wonderful authors such as Geraldine McCaughrean, Jane Ray, Jan Pienkowski and Nicholas Allen (Not read ‘Round the Back!’? You’ve missed a treat) will not be represented. Why not? Because telling the Christmas story might give offence.
Religious instruction is not part of the school curriculum, nor is any kind of act of worship – anything but. This latter is, I think, not controversial. It feels an increasingly uncomfortable and ignored part of the British school day. But though I no longer count myself a believer, I’m very grateful that I and all my children had from school a good knowledge of the bible, and an understanding not only of Christianity, but all the major belief-systems of the world. Without this grounding, so much literature, painting, sculpture and music remains only partly accessible. Nobody has to proselytise. If it’s OK to tell a good rollicking Greek myth, why not the stories from the Old and New Testaments, and even the Apocrypha?
I sat talking with friends about this the other day. ‘Some of the English Christmas cards we’ve seen’ they said, ‘have religious imagery. Wouldn’t that be offensive to non-believers? And didn’t you say that lots of people, whether or not practising Christians, go to carol concerts and services and sing about the nativity?’ They found this astonishing. Surprising too that one’s little daughter might come home from school proudly brandishing the cardboard angel she’d made for the top of the Christmas tree.
One friend, an ex-teacher, told me how she’d once done a piece of work with her students about the pagan origins of many Christian traditions. She was hauled over the coals for promoting Catholicism.
This same friend told me that she would never send a postcard of a religious building to a friend unless she were sure that friend were a practising Christian. It might give offence. Well, let me tell you right now that if you go to Chartres to visit what is among the most beautiful cathedrals in Europe, I shan’t be a bit happy if you send me one of those jokey wholly black cards that reads ‘The town by night’.