The city of Nice is home to “a number of extremely serious facts, which took place in several buildings” (“plusieurs faits extrêmement graves qui se sont produits dans différents établissements”). This is what Christian Estrosi, mayor of the Côte d’Azur pearl, in Mediterranean France, wrote in a June 15, 2023, letter to French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne. What that “number of extremely serious facts,” worth a national alarm and the public denunciation by the authorities, was? A few children, aged 9 to 11, prayed.
Religious liberty is threatened all over the world in different ways, grades, and shapes. In democratic societies the persecution is often indirect. It may be of an administrative or fiscal kind, as the case of Tai Ji Men in Taiwan shows. Sometimes, it is cultural. Tolerant France may become intolerant, as the paradigmatic case of Nice proves.
In some schools some children “prayed according to the Muslim rituals in the courtyard” of the schools they attend(ed), “or managed to observe a minute of silence in memory of the prophet Muhammad” (“ont fait la prière musulmane dans la cour de leur établissement ou ont organisé une minute de silence à la mémoire du prophète Mahomet dans leur école”). In detail, on May 16, 10 pupils of Saint-Sylvestre elementary school in northern Nice and three on June 5 in Fuon Cauda elementary school, in the center of the city, prayed before lunch. On June 8, a child in a third elementary school, Bois de Boulogne in Nice’s Moulins neighborhood, organized a silent remembrance of Prophet Muhammad, as the French daily “Le Figaro” and state-owned Radio France reported. Moreover, also in Nice, three students prayed in a secondary school, the Collège Picasso de Vallauris-Golfe-Juan, and a girl wore the “abaya,” a traditional robe used my Muslims especially in the Arabian Peninsula, in the Estienne d’Orves high school. The three students were excluded permanently from the schools, and the girl suffered the same fate for five days.
As hard as this is to believe in the year 2023 in the heart of Europe, nowadays in France prayer seems to be an outrageous crime. A small group of kids praying amounts to (these are the words used by authorities) “a suspicion of radicalization” (“suspicion de radicalisation”). In fact, in his letter to French Prime Minister, the mayor of Nice spoke of an “attempt of intrusion by religion within those shrines of the Republic which are our schools” (“ces tentatives d’intrusion du religieux au sein des sanctuaires de la République que sont nos écoles”). He solicited the implementation of measures suitable for anti-terrorism: “our response must be firm, collective and resolute” (“notre réponse doit être ferme, collective et résolue”). He promised to take no prisoner: “our secular Republic is our collective rampart against the religious obscurantism which tries to destabilize us” (“la République laïque est notre rempart collectif contre l’obscurantisme religieux qui tente de nous déstabiliser”).
French media “alarmed” by the prayers.
Yet, it was not enough. The French Minister for National Education and Youth, Mr. Pap Ndiaye, labelled the children’s prayer as “intolerable […] facts” (“faits […] intolérables”), adding that he “immediately mobilized the Republic’s values team” (“Je mobilise immédiatement les équipes valeurs de la République”). In fact, in today’s France there are regional task forces established by the Ministry for National Education that intervene on demand and out of necessity to impose “republican values.”
Why am I insisting on the Nice case, several weeks after the facts? Because it is emblematic. And also because, after the daring words used by the French authorities, nothing followed to calm down or at least balance the reaction, as it would have been reasonable to expect.
The jargon used is astonishing. The notion of a “Republic’s value team” is staggering. But it stems from the fact that the French national education system is aimed at totally eradicating every single sign of religion or spirituality from any public school of the country, and to impose “les valeurs républicains,” or “republican values.” Yet this is the other name of the secular worldview which results from the French Enlightenment project, mixed with 19th-century Positivism, traditional fierce anti-Catholicism, the theoretical rationalistic free-thinking represented by some currents of Freemasonry, and practical irreligion. It fights religion with anti-religion, making anti-religion a secular religion, as it is shown by the tones and words (“those shrines of the Republic which are our schools”) that were used in the Nice case.
All is perfectly in line with the original meaning of the French word “idéologie,” “ideology.” Created by French philosopher Antoine-Louis-Claude Destutt de Tracy (1754–1836) in his 1796 “Mémoire sur la faculté de penser,” “Memories on the ability of thinking,” it meant to convey the idea of a “science of ideas” organically and logically opposed to religion.
David d’Angers (1788–1856), Bust of Destutt de Tracy. Credits.
Since Destutt de Tracy and other like-minded intellectuals of the time caressed the project of reducing the secularist heritage of the French Revolution (1789–1799) to a science, they cast their lots on Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821), considering him the apt technocrat for the job. Through Napoleon’s despotic power, ideology—they thought—could finally be imposed as the new national philosophical normal, and also exported abroad. But Napoleon revealed himself to be too clever to become the hostage of a single lobby, no matter how personally sympathetic he could have been to them, and ended up not fully satisfying the ideologues, who labeled him a traitor.
But the power of ideology was already marching. Larger and more effective than any single individual or group, it found its own way to cultural success, validating the spirit of the French Revolution as organized anti-religion throughout the world—or wherever it was materially able to arrive. Never afraid of tactical changes and updates, ideology was then ready for the next revolution, be it the Bolshevik or the Nazi.
As to France, public authorities in the Nice case didn’t target only Muslims. They hit all believers who dared to manifest their beliefs. It could happen to anyone, to any group or creed. It also reminded the Maoist tactic: “Punish one, teach a hundred.” This is possible because in France ideology as organized anti-religion gave birth to a whole legal apparatus substantiated by the concept of “laïcité”—which is one of the most difficult word to translate in the whole French vocabulary. It will in fact need the three next articles in this series to try to scrap its surface.