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French ambassador visits Cardiff University: changing perspectives on freedom of expression after Charlie Hebdo

French Flag In my last post, I talked about the importance of encouraging social dialogue and debate at university. Given my background in European Studies, I was delighted to hear that the School of Modern Languages would be hosting a visit from the French ambassador, Her Excellency Sylvie Bermann, who would lead a discussion on freedom of expression in France.

Last month, I was lucky enough to attend the lively discussion led by Her Excellency on a question which has haunted European consciousness since the Charlie Hebdo attack in January: what do secularism and freedom of expression mean in a changing cultural landscape?

Ambassador Bermann began with a talk entitled ‘Dieu et mon droit: freedom of expression and religion in the public space’ to a bustling auditorium, filled with both staff and students alike. The Ambassador offered a unique insight into the culturally anchored notion of ‘laïcité’ in France, which roughly translates as secularism. However, it is important to note that many of the varied implications and applications of laïcité are distinctive to France.

The term laïcité denotes the separation of religion and state, signalling the absence of religious intervention in governmental issues and vice versa. It is therefore a fundamental structuring principle for state institutions and is a vital part of the cultural furniture in France.

A central tenet of laïcité is religious freedom and tolerance, which means the ability to freely express and, consequently, criticise religious ideas. All religions should be treated equally, which means no special treatment in the public domain: ostensible religious signs and symbols are not permitted in certain social spaces, such as schools, with the aim of “uniting citizens” in Bermann’s words, rather than encouraging the formation of cultural and religious divisions.

The tragic events of Paris in January this year, however, have unsettled these social foundations, which had previously been put under considerable strain in debates regarding the banning of the burqa in France.

The satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo is a product of an entrenched and idiosyncratic French tradition of biting satire and critique of authority, religious or otherwise, encouraged by a shared history of revolution and protest. Its anarchic delight in tearing leaders from lofty pedestals has translated into a press unafraid of causing offense, and the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo paid with their lives for this right.

The global support for the publication, both politically and in sales (the readership of Charlie Hebdo rose from around 30,000 into the millions), indicates faith in freedom of expression and a widespread refusal of special treatment for religion. However, it has led to a re-examination of France’s methods of promoting unity in its increasingly multicultural society, in which 7.5% of the population identifies as Muslim.

Claims of alienation felt in its diverse Muslim population has led France to analyse its housing issues, which has left vast numbers of immigrants isolated in deprived ‘banlieues’ in the outskirts of cities. Crucially, it has also led French leaders to re-examine attitudes towards religious education in school, which has not been a priority in a system that detaches the question of religion from the educational sphere.

Ambassador Bermann argued that France and Britain have a shared challenge of fighting Jihadism and promoting social inclusion and cultural awareness, and could therefore learn from each other’s distinctive models in this period, which she describes as “a learning process” for multiculturalism.

Attending this illuminating talk impressed upon me the importance of the role of education, at both school and university, in promoting a sense of belonging in a culturally rich and diverse society which offers a multitude of benefits, rather than simply challenges. Ambassador Bermann concluded her talk with a view of education as the main arena for contributing to the eradication of extremism by inspiring debate, understanding and awareness.