France has painted itself into a corner and is finding, as in the title of Jean-Paul Sartre's famous play, that there is "No Exit." With the "Declaration of Human Rights" to its back and a swelling tide of Islamic immigration at its front, the fiercely secular nation can be seen these days flailing desperately, her paintbrush still dripping with the blood of the 1789 Revolution.
Who would have thought it would finally come to blows over little girls' headscarves? President Jacques Chirac, stating that "secularism is not negotiable," appointed a blue-ribbon commission to draw up a law, now headed to the National Assembly, that will ban the wearing of the Muslim veil in public. The statute would also prohibit Jewish skull caps and "conspicuous" crosses, in the name of egality. (That rather leaves liberty out in the cold-and what will happen to fraternity?) To sweeten the deal, the report proposes creating two new holidays-Yom Kippur and Id al-Adha.
The hardest criticism to take is always criticism of what one considers one's strongest point. Who has been more proud of her experiment in nonsectarian society than France? Who if not France is the poster child of tolerance, equality, and ridding society of the nuisance of religion? Now the International Herald Tribune is accusing President Chirac of practicing "secular fundamentalism." Ouch.
Moreover, who has bent over backwards more to please Muslims? France sat out the Iraq war to enhance her image with the Islamic world, enduring months of American scorn (remember "freedom fries" and "freedom onion soup"?). Her borders are like a sieve for North African Arabs (do I sense a little guilt over l'affaire Algyrie in the 1950s?), who now comprise 10 percent of the population, the largest percentage in Europe. Is this the thanks she gets?
It wasn't supposed to happen this way. The confident scenario after that unceremonious dispatch of Marie Antoinette and monarchy's cozy relationship with the Catholic Church was that religion would die a quiet death as the Enlightenment finally trickled down to the dullest peasant. Every citizen would catch on to the tune called by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and G.W.F. Hegel. Just for good measure, a landmark law in 1905 emphasized France as a secular nation and erected a firewall between church and state, called laicity. (In America, church-state separation was conceived to protect the free exercise of religion from the state; laicity seeks to protect the political sphere from the church.)
A remark by Bernard Stasi, the head of President Chirac's commission, suggests that there is more to the hijab ban than a French headgear fetish: "We must be lucid-there are in France some behaviors which cannot be tolerated. There are without any doubt forces in France which are seeking to destabilize the republic, and it is time for the republic to act." What no one wants to say out loud is that the seeding of France with Arabs has brought with it crime in the streets and disturbances in the schools, the latter chronicled by sociologist Emmanuel Brenner in The Lost Territories of the Republic. All of this may play nicely into the hands of rightist National Front candidate Jean-Marie LePen in regional elections in the spring.
The problem is that Secularism is Nothingism. As a negation of all religion, it is a vacuum-and nature abhors a vacuum. Just as the house swept clean of a demon but not refilled with God will attract seven worse demons (Matthew 12:43-45), so too the slogans of liberty and tolerance cannot stand before the aggressive march of Islam. (May we Christians be so aggressive for the truth!) A clash of civilizations is underway. Push does come to shove, and then the nation that stands for nothing will have to stand for something or be swallowed up. The nation that has no absolutes except its commitment to nonabsolutes will have no chance against a nation that stands for absolutes-however terrible those absolutes. The civilization with a lie at its center-the creed that all religions and cultures are equally valuable-will collapse before the civilization that insists it is superior.
We have been saying all along that France has no religion. But that is not altogether fair. As she is increasingly backed to the wall, expect to find the true colors of tolerance revealed, and the velvet glove removed to bare an iron fist. As the striptease of liberties continues, it will become clear, for all the world to see, just how zealous a religion Secularism can be.