Issue 281 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 2004 Copyright © Socialist Review
Unveiling the Myth of French Secularism
Last month the French president, Jacques Chirac, gave his go-ahead for a law banning all conspicuous religious and political signs at school and in public services.
This decision is the climax of an affair which has polarised French society for the last 15 years--the question of the Islamic veil. Even if Chirac tries to hide it by introducing a reference to political signs, it is clear for many that Islam is the real target of this attack. Since the beginning of Bush's 'war on terror' the whole Muslim community--religious and secular--is facing institutionalised racism.
The 'veil affair' has been mostly related to young children expelled from school because they refused to give up their veil. But in the last couple of months it has also occurred in many different parts of French society: a Muslim woman was barred from being a juror because she was wearing the veil; a social service worker was suspended for nine months because she was wearing the veil; a mother was barred from accompanying her children as a helper on a school trip because she was wearing the veil.
Many other examples of spreading discrimination can be found. But what is more disturbing around this issue is the support for a law coming from the left, both the mainstream and revolutionary socialists.
The main argument against religious signs at school is 'secularism'. But those who raise this forget to mention that in Alsace and part of Lorraine (two French regions), there are still weekly mandatory religious courses--mostly Christian, of course. They forget to mention that there are still some 1,500 chaplaincies in secondary schools, all of them state-funded and most of them voluntarily run by teachers.
Secondly, there is the role of school in state-run education. Jules Ferry, the founder of the secular school, made it clear in 1881: 'In religious schools, young children are receiving an education organised against modern institutions. If this situation continues, we can be sure that other schools will be organised, open to workers' and farmers' sons, where diametrically opposed principles will be taught, maybe even inspired by a socialist or communist ideal borrowed from more recent events, for example this violent and sinister period between 18 March and 24 May 1871 [referring to the Paris Commune].'
Thirdly, there is the way French society welcomes immigrants to its soil. Based on the 'republican model' which states that everybody living in France is a citizen of the French republic, regardless of their origin, this is not a bad theoretical and ethical statement. But everybody who has spent time in France knows that the reality is different. Racism and institutional discrimination is a common situation experienced by all the various waves of immigrants since the French Revolution. But Muslims have been particularly badly treated.
We can also ask why this question is raised to such a level just now. One can wonder whether there is a connection with the huge mobilisations last spring against Chirac's attack on pensions, especially if one remembers that teachers were central in building and sustaining these protests for months. It may not be a surprise for many that, after a strong struggle that united teachers, an issue which is likely to divide them has been put on the agenda.
The question of oppression is a very important and complex issue that socialists have to address. And we must have a non-ambiguous, non-conditional position of defending all oppressed groups.
Prejudices dividing the French and Arabs, Christians and Muslims, are some of the most important obstacles on the road toward the emancipation of the working class. To require that the struggle of the oppressed against the oppressor (in this case Muslims against institutionalised racism in France) has to be without any ambiguities and contradictions is to forget the role of oppression in the domination of the ruling class.
Racism against Muslims weakens the whole working class, it divides those who have a common interest. Solidarity with Muslims will strengthen unity among workers, whatever their race, culture and religion. This will have a bigger impact to fight against racism but also will reinforce the confidence of the working class for other struggles.
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By now Socialist Review readers will be aware of the furore ignited by letters to the Guardian by Jimmy Barnes, who preempted this release in a paper, 'Big Problems in the Peace Movement', to CND's National Council meeting in early December.
It was the first time since September's conference that the new leadership could attempt to grapple with Jimmy Barnes's claims of malign influence. Jimmy states in his paper that 'the SWP and some of the others involved in the Stop the War Coalition are not interested in CND'. Curious, because my letter is a direct result of contact with SWP activists at their stall during the brilliant anti-Bush demonstration last November and a conversation with Helen Shooter, who reminded me of the articles in Socialist Worker on the impact of depleted uranium in Iraq--an issue on which CND has campaigned for several years. Did we feel dominated or manipulated by such interest? Emphatically not!
I like Jimmy Barnes, his contribution to peace and trade unionism has gravity and intelligence, but sadly I feel you may have lost the plot of late Jim! The paper he promotes is sectarian in motivation towards the groups he criticises and therefore destructive of his own declared aim of widening the influence of the peace movement.
There are issues of ownership and authority in Jimmy's statement, and his views on CND's attitude to nuclear energy have never had any resonance in CND, let alone the wider constituency that Jimmy claims to represent. It is telling that the difficulty that Jimmy perceives is that the 'domination of the far left' is a gift to right wing critics. Whenever have we framed our arguments to be acceptable to right wing critics?
The regular, often massive protests against the war on Iraq were sustained and of course there were tensions, arguments and problems. Few outside the peace movement realise the exhaustive nature of organising this kind of mass action responsibly.
If there is one message I want this letter to convey it is for greater engagement with all elements of anti-war and anti-imperialist opinion. Sure, we may disagree vehemently, but in the process we will influence each other for the better and come up with real and popular strategies to defeat the catastrophic duplicity and hypocrisy that drives the Blair/Bush agenda.
It is said that the hardest things to change are minds. But that is where the real revolution starts.
East Midlands CND rep, CND National Council
In response to Neil Davidson ('They Took the High Road', December SR), it is as legitimate to feel that Scotland has been oppressed by England since 1296 as it is to believe that Ireland has been oppressed by England since Cromwell, or for that matter that Wales has. Any socialist who wants to understand the sour relationship between England and Scotland and the causes for the bitterness should read John Prebble's books Culloden (1961), The Highland Clearances (1963) and Glencoe (1966). They relate the crimes of the English gentry in collusion with the Scots gentry, which must not be underestimated: 'The Highland people were once the majority of Scotland's population. Within 150 years its people had been driven from the mountains.' Prebble accuses the English monarchy of genocidal policies, in particular as regards the MacDonalds: 'You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebels, the MacDonalds of Glencoe, and to put all to the sword under 70.' This event ushered in the beginning of the destruction of the Highlands.
Once the people had been forced off the land Prebble describes the conditions on the ships taking the emigrants from Scotland to Canada, the US and Australia. Men and women wept without restraint. They flung themselves on the earth they were leaving, clinging to it so fiercely that sailors had to prise them free and carry them bodily to the boats. The pipes played 'Cha till mi tuille' ('We shall return no more').
The conditions aboard were as bad or worse than on slave boats. When the little brig James reached Halifax in 1826 every person on board, crew or passenger, was ill with typhus. Reporting this to colonial secretary William Huskisson, a governor-general of British North America added, 'I really do believe that there are not many instances of slavetraders from Africa to America exhibiting so disgusting a picture... The most favourable account that reached me of one vessel admitted no sort of comparison between her and a French slaver brig captured by me four years ago when in command of a frigate on the Leeward Isles.' This emigration went on well into the Victorian era.
If you think that the Scots are free of the English or their law try this simple experiment: drive onto the bleakest moor in Scotland, take a fishing rod out of your car and start fishing in the smallest, most insignificant rivulet or stream you can find. In five to ten minutes you will be surrounded by large men with new Land Rovers and Tory checked country shirts, probably with ties on (ever tried to do physical work with a tie on?) and large green wellingtons. They will then explain that what you are doing is illegal because the land is privately owned, nine times out of ten by an Englishman. It is interesting to note that countries that were more successful at keeping at bay English depredations, such as the US, have laws against private individuals owning river banks.
The first thing to remember about recent Scottish history is that the Scots were definitively defeated at the battle of Culloden in 1745, the effects of which can be seen--particularly in the Highlands--to this day, after hundreds of years of battles for independence.
The divide and rule policy that the English have used so effectively over the centuries can be traced back to the times of the Picts and the Scots who occasionally ganged together to fight the Anglo-Saxons. Scots have had 40 kings during a 400-year period by my count--how independent do you have to be?
Scotland has all the prerequisites to be a nation again--different culture, language and resources. The English, whether socialist or not, have meddled enough. Independence must be a Scottish decision, if that is the road they choose.
A question for Neil: when the Union of 1707 was signed were the peasants and crofters consulted or was it drawn up by the lawyers of the gentry who knew which way the wind was blowing?
In his otherwise excellent article 'Beyond the Crossroads' (December SR), Paul Foot's characterisation of the Socialist Alliance is flawed. Sure, from the point of view of the founding organisations the Socialist Alliance may have been a 'united front of organisations', but from the point of view of many individual members it was a serious attempt to forge the sort of broad alliance that Paul is talking of--with the added advantage that it had 'socialist' in the title!
There must be many areas like ours where the 'founding organisations' themselves had as few as a dozen members. Yet we were able to mount a significant campaign against Barbara Roche, arguably contributing to the subsequent demise of her ministerial career. This was because many dozens of non-aligned comrades gave their time and commitment to Louise Christian's principled campaign centred on the defence of asylum seekers.
So a large number of Socialist Alliance members and supporters fall outside Paul's 'organisations'. These comrades are the heart of the SA and will be central to any new 'unity coalition'. For a start, they were committed to the idea of united front working before it was quite as popular. They also have experience of running an organisation and mounting an election campaign. Without them it will be much harder to run viable London and European election campaigns in 2004.
All SA comrades must be confident that they are a vital part of any future coalition and not simply 'extras' to be rolled out at election time. This means holding urgent discussions among SA comrades in every locality about the realities of the changed situation.
The Socialist Alliance is the backbone of the Stop the War Coalition--we must ensure that the commitment and experience of the comrades is also part of any wider political coalition.
Hornsey and Wood Green Socialist Alliance
As an activist in Connect, the telecoms union, I was one of those responsible for drawing up and pushing through the union's conference policy on the offshoring of jobs that the Walrus refers to (December SR).
The policy is a good one, but a policy is not a strategy. The idea of stopping redundancies in Britain and getting trade union terms for any work that goes to India or elsewhere is something that socialists can support. But it only needs to be tweaked a little to end up with the New Labour line that nothing can be done to stop jobs going, though of course it will be done with the best of intentions.
On the other hand, the policy of protecting British jobs, as the Walrus notes, comes complete with some very unhealthy political associations. However, if Amicus or the CWU organised industrial action to stop jobs being offshored, then I would support that, and argue against any Little Englandism or worse that might go with it.
Ultimately, policies are one thing, but a strategy that delivers on the ground is harder and more important to achieve.
Chair, London Region, Connect