Opinion: Quebec does not need lessons from France on secularism

We have reached a point where many believe that Bill 21 is secularism, and to be against Bill 21 is to be against secularism, which is absurd.

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During his recent speech to the Quebec National Assembly, French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal highlighted the close ties between France and Quebec. His speech, eloquent and rich in historical references, brilliantly illustrated this privileged relationship. Yet despite the refreshing approach of the Republic’s youngest head of government, he did not entirely avoid France’s persistent reflex to impose universalism on her.

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In his speech to our ENMs, Attal addressed the complex and delicate issue of secularism. His support for Bill 21 was thinly veiled and even ostentatious, some might say. Passed in 2019 by a split vote, this law remains controversial due to the restrictions it imposes on individual freedoms and the use of the notwithstanding clause, which temporarily overrides certain sections of the Quebec and Canadian charters of rights and freedoms.

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The law has also been the subject of legal challenges that are expected to reach the Supreme Court. In this context, even subtle political support for Bill 21 by a foreign head of government can legitimately be seen as a diplomatic misstep.

Attal’s endorsement of a restrictive vision of secularism in Quebec, somewhat inspired by his country’s version, came as the federal government led by Justin Trudeau seeks to oppose Bill 21 in the Supreme Court. This position is also supported by the leader of the official opposition, the conservative Pierre Poilievre, who intends to keep it if he comes to power, as the polls predict.

Although Attal has adopted a policy of “neither interference nor indifference,” it appears that this stance is strictly limited to the question of Quebec sovereignty. Indeed, despite the nuanced language used, Attal’s support for the concept of secularism promoted by the Coalition Avenir Québec government represents a passive form of interference in a Quebec and Canadian democratic debate with legal, constitutional and intergovernmental ramifications. The CAQ even says it is seeking advice from the French government on how to ensure Bill 21 is respected in the education system.

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Let’s think for a moment: what would have been the reaction of the French political class if the roles had been reversed? It would have been unthinkable for then-Prime Minister Paul Martin or then-Prime Minister Jean Charest to address the issue of secularism before the French National Assembly, when in 2004 President Jacques Chirac banned religious symbols in public secondary schools.

But let’s be clear: secularism is certainly a value we value in Quebec. However – and putting Bill 21 aside for a moment – ​​our approach and implementation of secularism is based on a broader notion of freedom than that of France. Since the Silent Revolution, Quebec has been developing its own model of secularism, which faithfully reflects its society, its history, its geography and a broader vision of freedom. This is a totally different logic of secularization from that experienced in France between the Revolution of 1789 and the law of 1905 on the separation of Church and State, and subsequently.

Fundamentally, the concept of secularism is based on three pillars: freedom of conscience and religion, equality of religions and neutrality of the State. Beyond this, it no longer implies secularism but rather limitations on individual freedoms. Such restrictions could be legitimate if it could be empirically demonstrated that a real and urgent problem exists, and that the implemented policy solves this problem (for example, Bill 101 on the language front). However, this is not the case with Bill 21, and the argument that “in Quebec this is how we live” hardly meets the criteria of a liberal democracy.

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This is how the debate gets derailed. Furthermore, we have reached a point where many believe that Bill 21 is secularism, and to be against Bill 21 is to be against secularism, which is absolutely absurd.

Quebec should not accept lessons or advice from France, whose model has not found echo in any other Western democracy, nations no less committed to secularism. The French model, which has generated tensions and social exclusions, contrasts sharply with the much more serene spirit that Quebec has tried to cultivate, until the adoption of Bill 21. Far from disrespecting French values, this is a affirmation of our own trajectory and principles, respecting differences and seeking balance in our social fabric.

Salim Idrissi is a former political advisor to the Liberal governments of Jean Charest and Philippe Couillard. He is co-founder of the Politiquement Parlant YouTube channel and podcast.

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