My to-do list today included tracking down eighteenth-century primary sources in French for some of my ambitious Francophone students. So, obviously, I decided to see what if anything French press had on Martin Luther King (fair warning: all links in this piece go to French language sites).
But what really grabbed me was this short video on a kids’ news site, explaining who MLK was.
Two things jump out. First, in contrast to the current propensity to refer to the “alt-right” and other obscuring euphemisms, the narration readily calls out racism: MLK was born into a “racist and violent US” and was ultimately assassinated by a “white racist” (this last taken up with fury by the first young commenter).
Second, there’s some uncertainty about how exactly to handle MLK’s faith. The intro text highlights his role as a “Christian religious leader.” In the video, we hear that
Like his father, he became a pastor, but there was no question of devoting himself only to prayer. What he wanted was to act peacefully to abolish his country’s racist laws. And he would succeed.
That’s an interesting dance between emphasizing King’s religiosity (and implying some connection between it and his nonviolence) and contrasting a religious life with one of action.
Of course, it makes some sense that religion would be harder for this French educational site to handle than race. And, lo and behold, they’ve also got a “What is secularism?” video up (posted most recently this past December 9—which, it turns out, is national secularism day in France). It’s a pretty standard narrative of the signing of the 1905 law, with some specific mention of how this affects children and schools—mostly to bring peace, respect and tolerance to all.
Here, it’s the comments section that’s intriguing (not just for being blissfully innocent and polite). One young man asks,
but if no one can be excluded because of their religion, why is my friend who continues to want to wear a veil excluded?
Though this goes unaddressed by the moderators, another question about how religion works in the classroom gets a lengthy response from one of the site’s writers:
in a public school in France, there can be students from different religions. But no religion can influence the school’s subjects or daily life. When you live in a family who practices a religion, that makes a real difference! At home, the parents can remind us of the rules of our religion; at school, it’s different. For example, it is forbidden for Muslims to make an image of the Prophet. In public school, it would be different: there are no Muslim rules or Christian ones or Buddhist ones. On the other hand, the rule at school is not to make fun of others on purpose to cause them pain, because of their religion or anything else.
Of course the example given relates to Islam, and it’s also unsurprising that it’s about the prohibition on images of Mohammad (central to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015). There’s an attempt to come up with a secular rationale not to offend others—but the emphasis on not doing this “on purpose” walks this back—unintentional offenses apparently don’t count.
The MLK video had a striking moment discussing segregation:
Even though slavery had been abolished, blacks lived separately from whites. They had their own neighborhoods, their own churches, their own schools.
Muslims in France today often find themselves in their own neighborhoods, certainly in their own mosques, and even in their own schools (especially as a response to the banning of religious symbols, which prevents Muslim girls from attending in their veils). While this social segregation is still a far cry from Jim Crow, it’s hard not to perceive some mauvaise foi on the part of those decrying the racism Martin Luther King faced down, while ignoring their own prejudices. Probably not on purpose.
Plenty more to come on French secularism…