The AtlanticThe Atlantic

Why Is France So Afraid of God?

By Rachel Donadio

22 Nov 2021 · 22 min read

hat forces hold a liberal democracy together? What forces can tear a liberal democracy apart? These were some of the questions on my mind as I listened earlier this year to the French education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, defend a proposal that had been placed before the nation.

The setting was grand: the French Senate, a chamber as elegant as an opera house. The bill he was presenting was equally grand, at least in name: Principles of the Republic and the Fight Against Separatism. Blanquer spoke under the marble gaze of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the architect of early modern France, who stood high in an alcove behind him. Colbert’s shoulder-length curls made for a contrast with Blanquer’s polished crown. Now enshrined in law, the anti-separatism bill is the latest salvo in a centuries-old battle between the French state and organized religion. Pushed through by the government of President Emmanuel Macron, it was designed to put even more official weight behind the idea of laïcité, a term that loosely translates as “secularism” but is significantly more complicated and politically charged.

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