Etienne Balibar – Laïcité or Identity – English Translation

by Ed Kazarian

Today in Liberation there appeared a short piece by Etienne Balibar devoted to the question of the principle of laïcité in contemporary French political life — most recently manifested in the ban imposed by several municipalities on the wearing of burkinis, which was overturned last week by the Council of State, which is the highest administrative court in France.

Balibar welcomes this ruling, but also argues that there is a more serious matter at stake, and worries that the principle of laïcité, historically vital to the preservation of civil and personal freedom in France, is — in the ‘identitarian’ version that is currently in the process of being articulated — coming more and more to serve exactly the opposite function. He traces a philosophical genealogy of the notion, and then shows how in the current conjuncture it is being deployed in a way that is profoundly dangerous and indeed both drifts in the direction of a legitimation of “States of exception” and tends to be drawn into what he calls a “mimetic rivalry with the totalitarian discourse against which, at the same time, French politics pretends to guard itself.”

Given the interest of this piece, and its short length, I took the liberty of translating it quickly for the benefit of non-French speaking readers. Below you can find my draft translation (corrections and suggestions are always welcome). Please note that I have left ‘laïcité’ and related terms untranslated, since the English equivalents ‘lay’ or ‘secular’ are either frequently awkward or confusing given Balibar’s use of ‘seculaire’ in several places in the article in a non-technical sense.



Laïcité or Identity
by Etienne Balibar

While the Council of State has just invalidated the prohibition on the burkini, it is necessary to put an end to the development of “identitarian laïcité.”  This conception, obsessed with communitarianism, has come to construct a “communitarianism of the State.”

Thanks to the ruling of the Council of State, we will avoid seeing in France a morality police, charged not with forcing women to wear the veil, but with forcing them to remove it.  The exercise of freedom must be primary as far as possible over the exigencies of public order, which by definition restrict it.  In democracy the rights of women are a matter of their decision, and not of a grid of interpretation plastered over their behavior in order to “force them to be free.” Laïcité is an obligation of neutrality of the State towards citizens and not an ideological obligation of citizens toward the state.

I consider, along with many others, these demonstrations as fundamental.  As they deliver a blow [coup d’arrêt] to the attempt to exploit the sentiments aroused by the series of attacks perpetrated in the name of Islam in order to combine a fundamentalist laïcisme with a strategy of the exacerbation of nationalism, they are going to arouse a counter-offensive.  More important than the guerilla campaign by certain elected officials against the judicial order will be proposals to legislate taking new steps in prohibiting signs of belonging to a certain religion from public space, but the stakes therein will be high, because it becomes clear that such legislation will not only require a constitutional revision, it signifies that we divert [derive de] the Sate of Law toward the State of Exception.

Just as important are the implications with regard to the conception and the institution of laïcité.  But here a difficulty begins to arise, which supposes a philosophical elucidation.  There must be a “genealogical” labor on what laïcité has been in France, and on what it is becoming in the present moment.  And, on this basis, it is necessary to discuss what must be conserved, prolonged, or restored, but also reformed in order that the signification of the principle does not find itself turned into its opposite.

Historically, the idea of laïcité in France is divided among two conceptions, both issuing from the secular confrontation between Catholicism and republicanism.  Régis Debray has baptized them “republican” and “democratic,” but this alternative is not satisfying because there are democratic elements on each side, and because both belong to the republican tradition.  I would say that the first, vaguely [lointainement] inspired by Hobbes, is statist and “authoritarian,’ while the second, in part derived from the conceptions of Locke, is liberal and even of a “libertarian” tendency.  The first includes laïcité as an essential piece of the “normative” primacy of public order over private activities and opinions, the second posits the autonomy of civil society, which brings up [relèvent] the liberties of conscience and of expression, as the norm of which the State must make itself the servant and the guarantor. The law of separation of 1905 did not so much mark the triumph of the second over the first as a correction of anticlerical projects of the “laïcisation of society” by means of guarantees of individual and collective liberties, which evidently allows for going back to it [s’en récalmer] every time the laïcité of the State is threatened in its existence, or in its democratic character.

Contrary to some excellent interpreters, I do not think that the “identitarian laïcité” the program of which we see today developing on the right and the left of the political spectrum represents a simple accentuation of the Hobbsian heritage or its revenge on the liberal interpretation, even if I can see which arguments have favored the orchestration of a juridical, moral, and pedagogical conception of public authority, its sliding toward the idea of an “order of values” baptized as republican and laïque, but in reality nationalist and islamophobic. I believe that something like a mutation has occurred.

The symbolic equation which subtends identitarian laïcité must in fact be reconstructed in its whole extension: what it posits is that the identity of the Republic resides in laïcité, and, correlatively, that laïcité must be useful for the assimilation of populations of foreign origin (which clearly means: colonial and postcolonial), always still liable, by their religious beliefs, to constitute a “foreign body” at the heart of the nation.  Obsessed by the necessity of standing in the way of “communitarianism,” it thus comes to construct (by means of “values,’ but also of norms and cultural prohibitions) a communitarianism of the State.  But there is worse, above all in the current conjuncture:  the symmetrical figure [le [sic] symétrique] or the inverse synonym of assimilation is acculturation. Now this notion is the spearhead of the ideological offensive of Islamic fundamentalism which denounces the influence of “Christian” and “secular” civilization on Muslim communities in Europe (and on “modernized” Arabo-Muslim societies), even drawing from it on occasion a legitimation of jihad, as one can read on various internet sites.  The construction of laïcité as collective, national identity, subtended by the idea that the Republic implies assimilation (and not only integration into social life and the fulfillment of civic obligations), is thus drawn into a scenario of mimetic rivalry with the totalitarian discourse against which, at the same time, French politics pretends to guard itself.  The least that one can say is that such a construction will serve neither for understanding the nature of the perils, nor, since “we are at war,” for forging solidarity among citizens.

Obviously, the emergence of this “monster” which is identitarian laïcité is not a phenomenon that can be isolated from [isolable des] multiple tendencies to the exacerbation of nationalisms and to the “clash of civilizations” which, in connection with extreme violence, occur in the world today.  Nevertheless the “French” form is specific.  It troubles us profoundly because it tends to reverse the political function of a principle which has played an essential role in our political history:  ultimately, a certain laïcisme takes the place formerly occupied by a certain clericism. It is vital to do something. But it is necessary to understand what is happening, to redraw the “fronts”, and not to replay the old battles in the same way.

—Translated by Edward Kazarian