Marine Le Pen has failed to understand what French secularism really means

Le Pen's success has been bought about by the failure of secularists to speak out against the hijacking of an ideology whose purpose is to achieve state neutrality on religious matters

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With only a few days left to the first round of the French presidential election, Marine Le Pen is in a buoyant mood, with her far right Front National Party one of two front runners in one of the tightest and unpredictable elections to date. The idea that a far right candidate could win in France is very real, recent events have taught us to expect the unexpected, made all the more frightening by the fact that up to a third of the electorate is still undecided, with polls changing daily.

The transformation of the Front National from a fringe group into a major force in French politics has been helped significantly by Le Pen portraying her party as being the only defender of secularism, or as the French would say Laïcité. Secularism is a particularly sensitive topic in France, woven into fabric of the country, enjoying support from all factions of the French political sphere, which is why it proved so easy for Le Pen to use it as a vehicle through which to increase her own popularity. In doing so she has managed to extend her appeal to voters who would otherwise have never considered voting for her.

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Yet it is a very broad term, allowing the far right to exploit it as a means of discriminating against minority communities, especially those from Muslim backgrounds. Le Pen has made it clear that she intends to ban the wearing of headscarves, turbans and skull caps in public. Though she kept silent when Catholic groups organised public protests against abortion and gay marriage.

In part, Le Pen's success has been bought about by the failure of secularists to speak out against the hijacking of an ideology whose purpose is to achieve the neutrality of the state on religious matters, but which is instead being used as an instrument to target immigrants and religious minorities. To secularists like myself it means campaigning for and ensuring a separation between the state and religious matters, as a means through which to ensure the equality of citizens, irrespective of their religious beliefs or background. For Le Pen it has meant the negation of religious sentiment in public. Affirming diversity in public is not something that is a threat to the ideals of secularism, but rather as something to be celebrated and as a source of strength.

Nor is secularism about passing value judgements that target and discriminate against particular populations through the pretence of neutrality. Where secularism is supposed to bring citizens together on the notion of shared citizenship, in Le Pen’s case it has polarised. Where the state was supposed to be neutral, it has clearly become associated with partiality. 

Le Pen’s secularism imposes ideologies of their own making upon citizens; ideologies that seek to exclude groups from the nation’s identity. For me secularism is about inclusiveness and equality for all, not about polarisation. It's about time some of my fellow secularists spoke out.