This concept of French secularism evolved over the 20th century, giving French citizens “freedom to believe or not to believe, to practice a religion, to be atheist, agnostic or to be an adept of humanist philosophies, to change religion or to cease to have any religion”. But while French secularism guaranteed freedom of religion, it also conferred freedom vis-à-vis religions. Freedom of thought, which derived from the freedom of conscience, gave the freedom to criticise any idea, belief or opinion, subject to the only condition that it did not incite hatred or violence.
French state school today is an incarnation of this secular tradition, which was further fortified in the face of new challenges posed by immigration, largely from former French colonies. In 2004, another law was promulgated, banning schoolchildren from wearing any overt signs or clothes that would betray their religious affiliation. This was an effort to create a unique school space, where everyone would look equal and “religiously anonymous” — no crosses, no headscarves or burqas, no turbans, no Jewish kippahs (skullcaps). (The Sikh boys come with hair-nets now.) The message was clear: School was meant to be a temple of learning, where reason and rationality reigned.
Freedom of expression is a precious human right, and it must particularly be protected today in the face of several democracies showing dangerous authoritarian trends and democracy being a distant dream in several countries. In France, there are ominous internal realities, too. Demographics have changed. Ten per cent of the population is Muslim. Amongst the school-going population, this percentage, and the percentage of “believers”, is much greater. A majority of Muslims less than 25 years place Islam before the Republic. Reportedly, many schoolteachers are “Islamo-radicalised”. Several schoolchildren have refused to observe a one-minute silence to mourn terrorism-related tragedies. Recent showing of the caricatures, which seem to have become coterminous with the French republic, have divided people into pro or anti-caricature. Schoolteachers are at a loss of words to teach freedom of expression. Under these conditions and in the interest of promoting social harmony, would it not be wise, therefore, to re-read these precious lines?: “Before putting forward any precept or maxim to your pupils, ask yourself if there is, to the best of your knowledge, anyone who could be offended by your words. Ask yourself if there is a single head of family of a pupil present in your class, be it only one, who could refuse to give consent to what you are about to say.