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Lesson Transcript

Hi everybody! Welcome to Ask a Teacher, where I'll answer your most common French questions.
The question for this lesson is: What is la laïcité?
La laïcité, in short, is the separation of state and religion. Another word for it is le sécularisme, or "secularism."
Every country has its own principles of secularism. In France, it's part of a long, historic battle against religious influence on laws and government.
The French secular state, or l'Etat laïque, doesn't promote any one religion or discourage any – as long as the beliefs and practices don't interfere with the State or with other citizens’ rights.
Because of its commitment to total separation of religion and state, though, it means that overt religious activities and symbols are banned in public spheres – that includes public schools, public service offices, and public areas.
This distinguishes it from other models of church-state separation, such as in the United States. In the U.S., the Constitution prohibits religious tests for government offices and the passage of laws that prevent people from exercising religion freely.
The U.S. Constitution, however, does not prohibit people, including members of government, from expressing religious sentiment in the public sphere.
French laïcité, however, makes a sharp distinction between public and private spheres and attempts to keep religious expression out of the public one.
One area where this has caused controversy in recent years is the case of Muslim headscarves. These have been banned in some public contexts, such as schools, though some in the Muslim community consider it obligatory.
Critics say that rather than promoting diversity, freedom of thought and opinion, or multiculturalism, la laïcité is interfering with a right to basic religious self-expression.
Some go further to argue that laïcité unfairly infringes upon the rights of those who practice minority religions. Public holidays, for example, continue to enshrine traditional Catholic values in public life by following the religion's liturgical calendar.
Critics of laïcité come from this traditional Christian perspective as well, arguing that the prohibition of religious sentiment from public life denies the positive contribution faith has made to the history and culture of France.
All of this means that different populations of France are still at odds on what laïcité is all about, and whether the current laws are fair or not.
Well, that’s it for this lesson. If you have any more questions, please leave them in the comments!
A bientôt, see you soon!