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.