AUGUSTUS YOUNG        light verse, poetry and prose

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Pride of Place


Higher Things


The Street My Garden Opens On

My garden opens on the street named after René Waldeck-Rousseau (1846-1904), and in his honour I wear a veil over my face when the sirocco blows. The gendarmes look askance as though it is a balaclava, but do nothing. Officer Delphine Joyeux says ‘Je le connais, le con’. I know him. He’s a half-wit.                                           

Waldeck-Rousseau was a Minister of the Interior who legalised trade unions in 1884, and fathered the laicity law (1905). Secular France, shocked by the Church’s behaviour during the Dreyfus affair, saw the separation of the Church and State as a national emergency. ‘All over the world religious wars rage. Religion rots the world’, was the slogan paraded through Paris by Sorbonne students. He set about designing a law which would take the politics out of religion. But as the Presidential pardon he gained for Dreyfus was not to include a verdict of innocence, the law to secularise France was also to carry the donkey of compromise. Waldeck-Rousseau resigned before it was presented to Parliament, quoting Delacroix. ‘You can’t hold the stirrups and show your posterior at the same time.’ Brokering principles damages a decent man’s health, and he died before laicity became law.

French secularism had its staunchest representatives amongst school-teachers like Marcel Pagnol’s father (Le Gloire de Mon Père, 1957), who believed education was the key to a thoughtful revolution, so France could confront its daemons and embrace the possibility of some sort of individual conscience and engagement with the man on the street. A return to the barricades of ideas was what they had in mind. In general the Pagnols were not anti-clerical. Neither were they naïve. ‘There is no justice, only limits’ was taken for granted. Camus, I think,  borrowed the phrase from an aside of Joseph Pagnol. They influenced Waldeck-Rousseau to make Les droits des enfants, children’s rights, the underpinning of the proposed law. This emphasis, no doubt, contributed to the popular wariness of  institutions, religious or otherwise, in twentieth century France. 

The 1905 law excluded not only the Catholic Church but all religions. Even-handedness weakens the wrists in a strangling match. Much better to stick out your tongue and twist. But for the Pagnols fairness was all, and they accepted that opennesses in the law would be exploited by racist reactionaries (who still survive a hundred years later, like the plague in Oran, though more active).

The law was flawed because it lacked a definition of religion. If it could have been as clear as road markings, laicity would not even have caused an extra French shrug. But since religion is a tabula rasa, laid to feed principles to prejudices, and prejudices to principles back again, no legal oracle presented itself, and the national shoulders were raised so high that the country could have been peopled by a race of Eiffel Towers. As soon as the law was passed, France divided itself into a crisscross of conflicting convictions, a tangle that is still unraveling with enough rope to hang a good idea ten times over.

What would Waldeck-Rousseau and Pagnol père make of laicity now? In effect, the law has been reduced to the question whether Arab girls should be allowed to wear the veil, le voile, in school. They did not believe in repressing religious groups, only in integrating them. The racist abuse of the law they would see as the usual opportunism of the extreme Right, and its way of discrediting an idea by supporting it. If you restrict the voile to the home and mosque you insult the Muslim five percent of the population, who already feel poorly represented by the State and discriminated against.

A neo-Pagnol père might well earnestly suggests that all schoolgirls be allowed to wear the voile, justifying it as a matter of hygiene (less head lice) and aesthetics (chose your own). In order that the boys don’t feel excluded they should be encouraged to wear skullcaps. It would protect them from brain damage in the playground. Most Jews in France would be happy with that. They could don theirs without drawing undue attention. And so Christians don’t feel left out, crosses on chains can then be promoted as a fashion accessory for children by a celebrity of their own choice. Zidane, the Arab footballer, and most popular man in France by a long shot, already wears one. I doubt if schools or parents would be able to object.

Alternatively, the French Government could be taken to court for breaking the laicity law by making the voile a religious issue. But there would be no end to that, with the legal system’s capacity to procrastinate. Sartre’s ‘Appearances are more important than disappearances. Though neither is quite what they seem. So it’s possible a disappearance is the ultimate appearance and the converse also holds’ is French law in a nutshell.

René Waldeck-Rousseau’s contribution was brief, pragmatic and on the side of the angels (which he did not believe in).  A French Kennedy, perhaps, but his assassination was in slower motion and so his place amongst the immortals is as a water-carrier. Whenever I carry out my little sac of ordures to take it to the poubelle, I think of him. Maybe he was more a Lyndon B Johnson, a sweeper, brushing up other’s ideas  so they could be swept into practice. But he hadn’t allowed for the tramontane of reactionary France. Militarists, royalists, hunting party representatives. The rubbish is flying all over the place.