Charlie Hebdo Aftermath: We French Must Find How To Keep This Spirit Of Unity | Rachida Dati
In the immediate aftermath of the terrible attacks that have shaken our country, the French came together last week in a rarely equalled demonstration of national unity. Standing behind leaders who had come from all over the world, the French were, last Sunday, one in their condemnation of these barbaric acts and in the defence of our freedoms.
Cynics will argue that national unity was wishful thinking, as reports emerged of young people in schools refusing to stand for a minute’s silence in remembrance of the victims. But they were a minority, and they must be disciplined. Those who, on social media, praised the attackers for their barbaric acts were also a minority: they will have to answer in court for their atrocious behaviour. But the unanimous condemnation these dissident voices received serves to confirm what will now come to be known as the “spirit of 11 January”.
The question on everyone’s lips since then has been: “How long will it last?” Is French society capable of building on this display of national unity to bridge the gaps that we have all too often experienced in the past years and decades?
I was last week asked to define what it is to be French. It’s a question to which the French last Sunday gave the best possible answer. It is upholding the rule of law, on which our republic is founded. It is reaffirming liberty, equality and fraternity as the values that bind us together. And in the light of what happened at Charlie Hebdo, it is standing up, in particular, for freedom of the press, and more generally freedom of expression. We pride ourselves – and perhaps in Britain you would argue that we do so with some patriotic exaggeration – as having a long tradition of standing as a beacon to the world on human rights and civil liberties.
Amid the horror and shock, we were able to reaffirm together what it means to be French. One week on, I must confess that I am somewhat concerned by some of the debates that have arisen since, some of which could harm national unity.
We have heard politicians, journalists, and other commentators start to analyse the consequences of these barbaric acts on “communities”, and discuss the “appropriate” responses and signals these “communities” should be giving.
Our history and our republican tradition have always warned us against dividing the French into categories, or “communities”. I am not saying that we are right and that other countries – such as the UK – with different traditions are wrong. I am saying this is what has always worked in France, and that a lot of the integration problems we have known in the past 30 years are due to our lack of perseverance in promoting one republican model for all.
In the past few days, there has been a particular focus on Muslims, some commentators going so far as to ask French Muslims – or the “Muslim community” – to take a clear stance against last week’s attacks or even to disassociate themselves from these attacks. What is being implied – consciously or unconsciously – in such an injunction is unacceptable.
If French Muslims want to voice their disgust over the attacks on Paris and on our freedoms, they should – and a lot of them have – be doing so as French citizens. They should not be doing so out of a sense of guilt, especially as none of the great religions of this world preach the killing of innocent people. The sanctity of life is at the heart of these religions.
This is not about religion. This is about a misuse of religion to try to justify what is unjustifiable. President Hollande has over the past few days repeatedly and very rightly warned against any such confusion. The fact remains that last Sunday, in Paris, I did not see “communities” marching separately. I saw French citizens everywhere of every religion, and of every ethnic and social background marching hand in hand.Mourners at the funeral of the police Ahmed Merabet, murdered in the Charlie Hebdo attack, in a Muslim cemetery in Bobigny, France, on 13 January. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
It is, in the same spirit, important to be reminded that in France we are committed to another core value, which we call laïcité: the separation between religions and the state. If we start to ask citizens to express themselves as a member of a particular religion, if we start telling them how they should act as a member of this religion, we are weakening this value that has been the cement of our nation for more than a century.
This is an issue we must address. Laïcité should be reaffirmed and possibly also redefined in how it can continue to be a value that brings us together as a nation in the 21st century. Not interfering in each other’s business does not mean that a strong dialogue should not exist between the state and religions. It does not mean, either, that practice of religions should be hidden, or that expressions of faith that do not contravene our republican values and laws should be silenced.
I believe that laïcité has all too often been misconstrued as a negation of faiths, leading to the integration problems France faces today. We need to be fostering a society in which religions can be practised in the most transparent way, and not hindering the construction of mosques or churches, where there is a need. Religions should be taught in schools, in the most neutral manner. French universities should be more open to theology courses to train imams, instead of having imams come from other countries to preach in French mosques. We should be encouraging the development of a structure that brings together French imams to discuss the evolution of their theology, on the model of the Roman Catholic church’s bishops’ conference. We must, more generally, understand our collective responsibility to stop unhelpful confusions that foster resentment and fracture French unity.A Muslim man holds a placard reading ‘Not in my name’ near the mosque of Saint-Étienne, eastern France, on 9 January. Photograph: Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP/Getty
This is how we can build on the spirit of 11 January. This is how we can come closer together as a nation. And it is in this powerful hope that we must rise stronger from the ordeal that we lived through this month.
Rachida Dati is a member of the European parliament. She is also mayor of the 7th arrondissement in Paris