Re-examining French-style secularism - An interview with Catherine Kintzler

by Rachid Boutayeb
19 February 2008
Bonn, Germany - Responding to French President Nicolas Sarkozy's vigorous challenge to the principle of separation of religion and state, Catherine Kintzler, a professor of philosophy at the University of Lille and author of Qu'est-ce que la laïcité? (What is Laicism? ) defends French-style secularism as the only true protectorate of religious rights and individual freedom.

Is laicism, or French-style secularism, a dogma that needs to be revisited?

Kintzler: In my book, What is Laicism?, I explain that laicism is not a doctrine in which one believes or does not believe. One can be a Muslim, a Catholic or an atheist, and still be a laicist. Laicism is a philosophical concept which, unlike "tolerance", does not ask how antagonistic freedoms can coexist in a society where diverse communities live side by side. Laicism is about constructing a space a priori that will allow every individual to enjoy freedom of opinion.

This space is defined by the public authority. It produces and enforces the law. And the individual does not need to be a member of a specific group to enjoy freedom of opinion within civil society, because the public authority is entirely impervious in its approach to religious and non-religious forms of belief.

This principle is of enormous contemporary relevance, and is a response to the urgent questions of the day. In my view, any attempt to qualify or revise this principle, would be a political error.

Why isn't simple tolerance enough, as is the case in many liberal countries?

Kintzler: I could give historical reasons why France developed a laicist system in order to enforce tolerance. But I'd rather give a conceptual answer: tolerance is present in French civil society. To that extent, it is no different than other systems. But laicism allows for the establishment of a polity without reference to religion.

It is a system where there is no room for an official religion. This principle is blind to individual religious beliefs and practices (except where they run counter to the law). It is a principle that gives prominence to the individual. There is no requirement for people to belong to a religious group.

Do you believe that laicism is bound to remain a French idiosyncrasy, or do you think that the concept can be exported?

Kintzler: In recent years, those countries that have traditionally relied on the principle of tolerance – mainly the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and the United States – have been looking at the French model with interest, because a political system which relies solely on the merit of tolerance is too weak to compete with a hard-line, fundamentalist dogmatism with hegemonic ambitions.

Laicism is much better equipped for this because it establishes its polity on a basis which requires no profession of faith. In a laicist state, political commitment requires no act of faith.

Is laicism anti-religious?

Kintzler: French-style secularism has often been misrepresented. There have been attempts to show that it is a kind of anti-religious position. But the principle of laicism promotes the free expression of opinion in civil society.

In no way does laicism stand in opposition to religion. It only rejects the claim of religion as a basis for law or political membership. The opposite of laicism is "civic religion", i.e., turning faith into civil law, or conversely, turning civil law into an article of faith. An extreme anti-religious attitude would consist of imposing on civil society a non-committal stance that must prevail in the sphere of public authority. This would result in confining religious expression to the private sphere, which blatantly contradicts the aim of laicism – to uphold freedom of expression.


* Rachid Boutayeb is a freelance writer based in Berlin. Catherine Kintzler is a professor of philosophy and aesthetics at the University of Lille-III and author of Qu'est-ce que la laïcité? (What is Laicism?). This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source:, 12 February 2008,
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