Justifying the ban on religious symbols at school by the principle of secularism “was a political mistake”

A mission on the training of teachers in secularism was entrusted by the Minister of National Education to the academic Jean-Pierre Obin. Complexity of this teaching, student questions, “political fault” of the 2004 law …: insight into the subject with Frédéric Orobon, associate professor of philosophy at the Inspé de Dijon (Nevers site), responsible for the university degree secularism.

The teaching of secularism is one of the most complex subjects to tackle. How to explain it?
It’s more complex because, in French-style secularism, there is a tension between two things. On the one hand, freedom of conscience, freedom of worship. On the other, a secular school, which arises as an obligation to emancipate the mind through reason. In this context, it is sometimes uncomfortable, because we are under this kind of tension. It is not always easy to convey that the emancipation of the mind by reason does not necessarily imply the rejection of religion.

Do you observe, among the students preparing for the teaching competition, any new questions?
Yes, I realized that ten years ago already, when I said to myself that there was a generation break. Here is an example: I present secularism (the regime of freedom, freedom of conscience, freedom of worship, in short, all the notions it covers), when a student raises his hand to tell me that secularism, this is not that. Secularism, for him, is above all something “turned against Muslims”. Besides, he said to me: “Look at the 2004 law.”

We are at a turning point. Today it is necessary to clarify things. Because, what this student wanted to say, is that with the law of March 2004 (which prohibits the pupils of the signs by which they ostensibly manifest their religious affiliation), one missed something. Secularism has been used as a pretext to ban anything religious, while the law is based on a principle of public order – to avoid conflicts in schools. Consequence: today, it is not easy to make students understand that secularism is a principle of freedom.

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A recent Ifop poll, carried out for the Licra, says that high school students are mostly in favor of wearing conspicuous religious symbols at school. What do you think of this survey?
It didn’t surprise me. I believe that it was wrong to present secularism as a principle of prohibitions. To have justified the law of 2004 by the principle of secularism, in my opinion, that was a major political awkwardness. It would have been much simpler and much more just to justify the law by the need to maintain order in the establishments rather than by the principle of secularism. It was a political mistake that we are paying the price for today.

The Minister of National Education has entrusted Jean-Pierre Obin with a mission on the training of teachers in secularism. How did you receive this announcement?
Jean-Pierre Obin is the author of a report dating from 2004. It preceded the adoption of the law in March 2004. It is a report that has always left me perplexed. Jean-Pierre Obin compiles a lot of anecdotes, but he does not provide a work that shines by its rigor. His appointment, to lead a mission on the application of the principles of secularism at school, therefore leaves me a little skeptical. I’m afraid that all of this will only endorse a certain vision of secularism: a pile of prohibitions.

A “secularism” university degree open to all. Prevent, or even resolve, conflicts generated by rules that clash with religious prescriptions: this is one of the vocations of the university degree (DU) Laïcité, religions et République, for which Frédéric Orobon is, at the University of Burgundy, the person in charge pedagogic. The diploma is open to all as part of continuing education: socio-cultural facilitators, agents employed by a community, HR managers in companies, chaplains, etc.

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Alexandra Caccivio


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