09 November 2016

A year after last November's terror attacks in Paris, journalist Nick Fraser explores the deeper culture war taking place

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A year after last November’s terror attacks in Paris, journalist Nick Fraser explores the deeper culture war taking place between a new generation of French Muslims and the defenders of hard-line secular Republicanism in France.

As a country and a civilization, France prides itself on its own model of Frenchness – non-ethnic, republican, integrationist, based on legality and citizenship and, in cultural terms, emphatically secular. It’s based on a concept unique to France – laïcité.

But aversion to laïcité is now widespread among banlieue and Muslim young, and it would seem that integration on the scale advocated by its supporters hasn’t happened. By common consent, French secularism has hidden the country’s real and growing race and culture divisions – some argue it’s exacerbated them.

The government takes matters seriously enough to be spending millions on a new programme of civic education designed explicitly to counter apathy and hostility to republican values, and promote secularism. This summer, PM Manuel Valls called for a pact. “Our country must prove boldly to the world that Islam is compatible with democracy, he told the press. Meanwhile the hard right talk of the Grand Remplacement – effectively a cultural takeover and an “Islamisation” of France.

Even in mainstream cultural and political debate many Muslims feel laïcité and secularism are being targeted specifically against them – from the ban on the veil in public space to the burkini row earlier this summer. Secularism is being used as a weapon of anti-Islamic sentiment, they argue, even as a cover for racism. Liberal defenders of laïcité of point out that this is a political misuse of the idea but not its truth – arguing that separation of religion from the public space remains necessary and desirable in France.

Talking to writers and cultural activists, Muslim and secular, Nick Fraser asks if the French secular ideal can survive.

Producer: Simon Hollis. A Brook Lapping production for BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service