With his idea of a "positive laicism" the French president Nicolas Sarkozy has called into question his country's traditionally strict separation of religion and state. The philosopher Catherine Kintzler tells Rachid Boutayeb that she is critical of Sarkozy's position, and explains why she believes the principle of laicism ensures religious freedom
The president wants a "positive laicism" which will defend religious freedom, but which will not see religion as a threat. Is laicism "à la française" a dogma which needs to be put into a new context?
Catherine Kintzler: 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 one can allow antagonistic freedoms to coexist as they are reflected by the various groupings in society. Laicism asks how one can construct a space a priori which will allow every individual to enjoy freedom of opinion.
This space is defined by the public authority which passes and applies legislation. And the individual only enjoys freedom of opinion within civil society because the public authority is entirely blind 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. And the attempt to put this principle into a new context would be, in my view, a political error.
Why isn't simple tolerance enough, as is the case in many liberal countries?
Kintzler: There are historical reasons which have pushed France to develop its laicist system. Tolerance is present in French civil society, and in that sense there's no difference. But laicism allows one to establish a polity without reference to religion.
Laicism is incompatible with the existence of a state religion. It's a principle which is blind with regard to religious tendencies and individual religious practice. It's a principle which encourages individualism. There is no requirement for people to belong to some religious organisation.
Do you believe that laicism is bound to remain a French "speciality", or do you think that the concept can be exported?
Kintzler: Laicism "à la française" has often been misrepresented. There have been attempts to show that it is a kind of anti-religious position. But, in fact, it's the exact opposite. The principle of laicism promotes the free expression of opinion in civil society.
In the last few years, those countries which have traditionally relied on the principle of tolerance – above all, England, the Netherlands and the USA – have been looking with interest at the French model. Why? Because a regime which relies solely on the value of tolerance is too weak to confront a fundamentalist dogmatism which makes claims to hegemony.
Laicism is much better equipped to deal with such developments. It establishes its polity on a basis which is free from any religious commitment.
Laicism does not stand in opposition to religion. It only rejects the claim of religion to make law. Extreme anti-religious forces try to tear the principle away from public authority and to grant it instead to civil society, but such a step would lead to a restriction on freedom of expression. And that is exactly not what laicism is about. If there is one premise which is fundamental to laicism, it's this: the upholding of freedom.
Interview Rachid Boutayeb
© Qantara 2008
Catherine Kintzler is professor of philosophy and aesthetics at the University of Lille-III. She was head of the Collège international de philosophie. Among her publications are: La République en questions (The Republic in Questions), Tolérance et laϊcité (Tolerance and Laicism), and most recently: Qu'est-ce que la laϊcité: (What is Laicism?)
Translated from the German by Michael Lawton