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  • 1 University of Massachusetts-Lowell
  • | 2 University of Leeds
  • | 3 New York University
  • | 4 University of Warwick

Rachel Chrastil, The Siege of Strasbourg (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).

Review by Patrick Young, University of Massachusetts-Lowell

The forty-four day siege of Strasbourg, lasting from mid-August through September 1870, comprises an “almost forgotten” history, in the words of Martha Hanna’s back jacket blurb to Rachel Chrastil’s book. Other episodes have certainly figured more prominently within histories of the Franco-Prussian War—the siege of Metz, for example, or the Battle of Sedan, each resulting in a humiliating French surrender and the hastening of the war’s end. Yet the siege of Strasbourg in Chrastil’s telling augured a new kind of technologically-abetted, impersonal, and indiscriminate war death, one that paradoxically brutalized and mobilized unarmed civilians, and also both endangered and empowered notions of common humanity.

Many of the questions associated with Europe’s twentieth-century experience of “total war” registered earlier during the siege. What compels and justifies treating civilian populations as legitimate targets of war violence? What, if any, are the legal and moral strictures that can constrain such violence? What is the role of third parties and of humanitarian concerns in preventing or containing human catastrophe in war? And how do ordinary people bear the brunt of modern war, responding and even adapting to it over time? As a kind of crossroads moment, unfolding within a consummately crossroads city, the siege in Chrastil’s view represents an early and instructive case study of “civilians at war within a European context” (5). Her book also signals (less explicitly than it might have, perhaps) the need for more post-national perspectives in the study of modern military conflicts.

The story Chrastil tells is an absorbing one. The confidence accompanying Napoleon III’s declaration of war on Prussia in July 1870 quickly gave way to panic, as the large and effectively mobilized Prussian army launched a series of successful offensives in northeastern France in early August that brought its units to the outskirts of Strasbourg. Under the command of General August von Werder, Prussian artillery bombarded both the ramparts and city center, with the aim of pressuring capitulation or effecting a breach in the city’s fortifications that might lead to the same outcome. The development of more accurate long-range artillery technologies allowed Prussian troops to shell the city—including its civilian population and most venerable cultural landmarks—essentially at will, protected as they were by the relative security of their distant positions.

In addition to wreaking havoc upon the city—193,722 projectiles were launched over the forty-four days of the siege, or an average of one every twenty seconds—the Prussian siege exposed the absence of consensual moral or legal standards applying to war violence inflicted directly upon civilians and population centers. Neither the postulates of Just War theory, nor the recently enacted Geneva Convention (1864), provided authoritative guidance, or an enforceable mechanism for containing the bombardment. Faced with a direct and unprecedented military onslaught, town residents responded in a great variety of ways, running the gamut from sheltering in basements to organizing emergency medical, fire, and police services, and pressuring military and municipal authorities for protection and information. In reading about the collective mobilization, solidarity, and perseverance displayed by the people of Strasbourg, one cannot help but think ahead in time to the union sacrée of World War I, and the new capacity on the part of civilians to withstand (and thereby also enable) the full force of modern “total war.”

The more immediate, and for Chrastil significant, impact of the siege was to unsettle the basic categories and distinctions that structured the conduct and experience of war. Where the distinction between civilian and military spheres had in many ways become clearer over the nineteenth century, events in Strasbourg gave rise to a rather large gray area of uncertain rules of engagement and a militarization of everyday life. Chrastil also argues that the siege produced new “spatial and gendered definitions of belonging” (42), imposing separation and isolation in an area where movement and local interconnection across the Rhine had hitherto been the norm. The categories of “insiders and outsiders” were likewise reconfigured, such that male civilians were made either subordinate or invisible (despite suffering the greatest share of the violence). Other civilians were designated “useless mouths” or suspected of espionage in the tense and increasingly brutalized climate of the besieged city. Still others were accorded the status of victim, innocent, or hero, in line with a “dominant gender paradigm” (14) that corresponded imperfectly to the messy realities of the siege.

It was in defense of those deemed most vulnerable, and in response to the violation of ostensibly “civilized” norms of military conduct, that Switzerland initiated one of history’s first examples of transnational humanitarian intervention, interceding in mid-September 1870 to broker the departure of between 1,250 and 2,000 resident women and children from Strasbourg. Though some French continued to favor resistance à outrance, the French command was not long thereafter forced to surrender unconditionally, leaving the surviving residents of Strasbourg to adapt to German occupation and sovereignty, a rather precarious new state of normality.

Chrastil’s overall approach to this episode reflects the broad shift over recent decades toward social-historical and representational or linguistic analysis in the study of modern war and military history. Works on World War I by Jean-Jacques Becker, Annette Becker, Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, Martha Hanna, and Leonard Smith, among others, have been particularly important in redirecting primary historical attention to how individuals and collectivities imagine, experience, and represent modern war. In this same vein, Chrastil treats the siege in a way that opens out onto multiple vectors of concern, ranging from ethics and international law to social and urban history as well as gender politics. She weaves together succinct but informed explanation of the siege’s military and strategic aspects with consideration of its social and psychological impact upon specific individuals and groups, and with critical reflection upon the representation of war experience via private and public media. Her painstaking recounting of day-to-day (sometimes even minute-by-minute) events effectively evokes the peril and chaos of a city under attack, bringing fully into focus the vulnerability, suffering, and tenacity of its residents. Likewise, her attention to Strasbourg’s urban topography and the spatial dimensions of the siege and its attendant civilian ordeal captures tangibly how “total war” comes to permeate the intimate textures of everyday life.

Yet the backdating of total war is not Chrastil’s principal objective in the book, as the technological and strategic modernity of the Franco-Prussian War has long been acknowledged by scholars of the conflict. Moreover, recent books by Isabel Hull and David Bell have made compelling cases for nineteenth- and even eighteenth-century precedents to twentieth-century warfare. Rather, Chrastil seeks to enter into and explain her human subjects’ reactions, deliberations, and initiatives in the face of sustained and in some ways utterly unfathomable conditions of war violence. Thus we learn for example how Werder could square his decision to bomb the city center with prevailing conceptions of military strategy and honor, believing “collateral damage” to civilians justifiable in pursuit of the traditional siege objective of capitulation. Or how townswoman Catherine Weiss—whose extensive diary observations make her one of Chrastil’s main witnesses—could overcome considerable moral and logistical obstacles to join with her children in the Swiss-brokered departure, arriving at a more or less rational discernment of personal and collective well-being and an ability to act on its behalf. Chrastil’s expansive source base, encompassing both French and German official documents, military communiqués, journalistic accounts, and personal diaries and letters, allows her to reconstruct the conversation of sorts provoked by the myriad practical and moral challenges of the siege. This conversation, she suggests, would come to assume even greater gravity in the twentieth century.

Indeed, the tragedy that pervades The Siege of Strasbourg is that none of this could be fully apparent in 1870, and that politicians, military planners and citizenries from both countries failed to derive cautionary lessons from the episode. Subsequent events conspired to marginalize the memory of the siege of Strasbourg, from the declarations of the Republic and the Paris Commune, to the eventual war defeat and its embittered aftermath. But Chrastil’s careful recovery of the complexity and contingency of the event exposes the degree to which public narrative generated both during and after the conflict effectively muted the more complex and contradictory aspects of the experience of modern war violence and suffering that transpired in Strasbourg. This “simplification of the siege” (232), as she terms it, too readily subsumed the episode within dominant gendered and nationalized narratives, contributing to a collective blindness to the realities of total war that only became apparent after 1914. For all that the Franco-Prussian War has been conventionally understood as a consummately national conflict, The Siege of Strasbourg reveals the larger quandaries and deliberations it begat, which transcended national boundaries and extended far beyond the forty-four days of the bombardment.

Barnett Singer, The Americanization of France: Searching for Happiness after the Algerian War (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).

Review by David Looseley, University of Leeds

This is a stimulating, provocative, and unusual book. Stimulating and provocative because the reader is at times surprised by its arguments and drawn to challenge them. Unusual because of its rather idiosyncratic style and its mix of historiography, biography, oral history, and personal comment. Its author, professor emeritus of history at Brock University, makes it clear at the outset that he has reached a stage in his academic trajectory (“I am not twenty-one,” he confesses) where a more comprehensive methodology of this kind feels right.

Unexpectedly given the book’s title, Barnett Singer devotes half of the two hundred pages of text (there are also some seventy pages of notes and an index) to the Algerian War itself, its pre-history, and its immediate aftermath. Chapters 1 to 3 are in one sense composed with a historian’s meticulousness, in so far as he takes a long step back in time to examine migration into France both before and after the Second World War. Similarly, when describing the activities of the FLN in the 1950s, he devotes considerable space to individual cases and court hearings in the Savoie region. At the same time, he is outspokenly contrarian. Opting not to probe both sides of the conflict, he tells a very different story from the one disseminated by Left intellectuals at the time, or shortly afterwards by the influential film La Bataille d’Alger, instead portraying the FLN, sometimes in graphic detail, as a terrorist mafia. Correspondingly, he speaks of the idealism and competence of the French police at home and of French forces fighting in Algeria, which he reappraises with the help of interviews with surviving senior officers, covered at length. De Gaulle, on the other hand, is depicted negatively.

The tenor of the book then changes with chapter 4. Singer’s overarching argument is that, with the end of the war, France began shedding its historic “seriousness,” born of years of having to defend itself, in favor of a more lightweight quest for happiness through American-style consumerism. To some extent, this contention echoes Kristin Ross’s in Fast Cars, Clean Bodies (1995), as Singer acknowledges in his introduction. But he is right on the whole when he insists that Ross neglects some of the key aspects of the narrative which he is intent on filling in, such as youth, pop music, and sport. He begins with French chanson, tracing the evolution away from the lyrical sophistication of Trenet and Aznavour toward the arrival of rock and pop. His biographical portrait of Johnny Hallyday here is detailed but falls a little flat in that it tells us little we did not already know about his importance as the herald of the new Americanization. More revealing and nuanced is his treatment in chapter 5 of other aspects of the “Happiness Revolution,” particularly of sport and leisure as exemplified in the rise of skiing and the iconic skier, Jean-Claude Killy. The last chapter before the brief conclusion moves forward to Americanization in the present and most directly exemplifies Singer’s readiness to lace the monograph with his own reflections after a lifetime of studying France.

Here and throughout the book, he regrets a loss of seriousness he sees as characterizing pre-1960s France. This loss sometimes comes across as the objective result not only of French ‘magical thinking’ (that is, representing Americanization as the answer to all ills), but also of post-Algeria migrations and multiculturalism. He does not appear to be lamenting either phenomenon in a partisan way, even though he does seem to have a certain nostalgia for the France he first encountered as a student at the start of the 1960s. His concern is more with the idea that “losing a sense of the past may constitute the worst thing for a civilization” (186). And he seems to believe in the existence of “Frenchness”—“is it not time for the French to be more French again?” (187)—though this is an issue that needs to be interrogated a good deal further. Without saying so, Singer in fact flags up an epistemological dilemma that sometimes faces established Anglophone scholars, who may find it difficult to watch the perceived distinctiveness of the France they encountered in their student days, the France which drew them to French cultural or historical studies in the first place, apparently being swept away by uncritical “Americanophilia.” Surely, though, there is an alternative view: that France, in fact, remains as intriguing and distinctive as ever because it has demonstrated the ability to absorb, adapt, and appropriate American influences? This is the kind of matter Singer’s book prods us to reflect on. He has produced a useful, absorbing, and challenging addition to our understanding of contemporary French culture.

Kimberly A. Arkin, Rhinestones, Religion, and the Republic: Fashioning Jewishness in France (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014).

Review by Elayne Oliphant, New York University

In Rhinestones, Religion, and the Republic: Fashioning Jewishness in France, Kimberly Arkin offers a historical and ethnographic framing of twenty-first century challenges to France’s notions of republican equality posed by its young, Sephardic Jewish citizens. Arkin lets us know at the outset that her ethnographic research did not go as planned. Just as she was beginning to find her footing working in three Jewish day schools in the banlieues of Paris, a preliminary abstract of her early findings circulated in ways remarkable even in an age of social media. Within a week, Arkin was informed that she was no longer welcome to work or engage in research in these schools.

What was it in Arkin’s abstract that school administrators found so problematic or threatening? In her short statement, Arkin pointed to her finding that race was the primary category through which young Sephardic students framed their difference, from both the French—in Arkin’s terms, “(post) Catholic”—majority and other minorities, particularly Muslims. This trend disturbed school administrators because, as Arkin powerfully demonstrates, such a framing presents a significant shift from the ways in which older generations of French Jews have understood their Jewishness and their relationship to the republic. This transformation became the central problem of Arkin’s thoughtful, informative, and provocative book. Although banned from the schools in which she had intended to focus her study, Arkin remained in France and, by expanding her research parameters, worked to more fully flesh out the contexts in which such a transformation became possible.

The first two chapters offer a remarkably rich account of the development of the categories of Jewishness and difference in France and its former colonies, particularly Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Relying on a wealth of sources, Arkin provides a detailed history from which even the most passionate scholars of France will learn a great deal. She demonstrates the ongoing effects of the markedly distinct experiences of Jews in Algeria—the only colony officially annexed to France—and Jews in the protectorates of Morocco and Tunisia. The Crémieux Decree of 1870 required Algerian Jews to take on French citizenship and renounce their submission to local Jewish religious laws. The remarkable law affected some 37,000 people and accelerated processes already underway, including the Frenchification of Sephardic Jewish names, the incorporation of Algerian Jews into a host of civil service and military positions, and the physical movement of Algerian Jews, first to neighborhoods occupied by Europeans and then, just before Algerian independence, to France itself.

In Morocco and Tunisia, like in Algeria, Jewishness offered a means by which certain actors were able to distinguish themselves from the rest of the “native” population, but in much more limited ways, as French naturalization remained extremely difficult in these spaces. Most significant for Arkin’s argument, however, are the very different forms of schooling available to Jews in Algeria and in Morocco and Tunisia during the colonial period. While Jews in Algeria had access to state-operated, non-confessional French schools, those in Morocco and Tunisia gained entry to French education only via Jewish schools established by liberal French Jewish institutions in the protectorates. Moroccan and Tunisian access to France by way of their difference locked them in an uncomfortable double bind first articulated so powerfully by Joan Wallach Scott in her account of nineteenth- and twentieth-century French feminisms.1 Like the women excluded from the presumably universal category of the citizen, Jews in Morocco and Tunisia worked to incorporate themselves into the unmarked, but could do so only through the categories of their marked difference, leaving them permanently outside of the universal norm.

As Arkin’s text shifts from the past to the present, she points to the disturbing holdovers produced by these institutional distinctions. The Sephardic students with whom she engaged imagine their own (newly orthodox) forms of Judaism as the standard of Jewish practice. Ashkenazi names do not “sound” Jewish to their ears, and they frequently suggest that Algerian Jews are more similar to Ashkenazi Jews than to other Sephardim in France precisely due to their capacity to “blend” into the unmarked white French (post-Catholic) majority. Throughout her text, Arkin explores how these efforts to mark and unmark work to equate surface and substance, to imagine and enact innate racialized forms of difference. Feeling little connection to the France to which their parents worked hard to migrate, these young French citizens fantasize about the day when they can move to a place where their practices, identities, and racial markers will stand as the unmarked majority: Israel. Having vacationed only in coastal Israeli towns typically occupied by French Jews, these adolescents gloss over the diversity (and their likely experiences of inequality) in Israel, reducing Jewishness to a singular essence.

Arkin’s most provocative and significant contribution comes from her argument that it is not only the modern conception of identity formation that confines and limits how students may perceive their Jewishness, but also the religious day schools themselves that contribute to students’ racialized notions of self and other. The schools produce confused students likely to turn to racialized categories to account for their outsider status (but not as far outside as the always already anti-Semitic “Arabs”) through their “fortress-like” structures and in the problematic and contradictory modes of learning they encourage. The schools—although varying in terms of the levels of orthodoxy they presume or demand—attract mostly lower- and middle-class Sephardic Jewish families, due in large part to the colonial history of education that shaped their parents and grandparents, but also to the highly segregated nature of housing in Paris. As migrants from the former colonies, the families of these students tend to live in the southern and eastern banlieues, or in the northern arrondissements. These are the same neighborhoods inhabited by the groups against which some of Arkin’s interlocutors explicitly declared themselves to be “racist,” i.e., the often impoverished Muslim (or, in her students’ words, “Arab”) citizens who, as Mayanthi Fernando has so powerfully described,2 “unsettle” numerous assumptions about the equality of the republic. The high walls that prevent Sephardic students from engaging with their neighbors, the extensive use of security guards, and the alternative calendar the Jewish schools offer (which varies from the standard Catholic calendar followed by the republican schools) reinforce this exclusivity.

Arkin rightly casts a particularly critical eye on the approaches the schools take to the teaching of Jewish history and religious texts. Rather than taking up traditional forms of Jewish pedagogy, in which debate and discussion are encouraged, students are instead offered a rigid, rote style of learning that insists upon a singular “Jewish” reading of religious texts and historical events. The students themselves seem to prefer this apparently straightforward account of the essential practices and interpretations required of them. Fascinatingly, many of the students discount the Jewishness of their own families, insisting that their parents and grandparents “do it wrong,” incorporating too many local practices into what should be a universal homogeneous Jewishness. Thus, it seems that the schools themselves assist in the production of what, for the families involved, amounts to a new regime of Jewish practice shaped by a mix of Hasidic orthodoxy, European Jewish history, and the local experiences of the students in Paris’s suburbs. The schools’ attempts to enforce this particularly fragmented brand of orthodoxy inevitably result in a great deal of confusion for the students and teachers alike. When students articulate their confusion to equally flustered teachers, the latter often simply shut down conversation rather than allowing an opening for imagining a more complex judaism.

Perhaps the most surprising chapter is the final one, in which Arkin describes a set of practices—known as chalala—produced and reproduced by the students to the consternation of their parents and teachers. Chalala was the term students used to describe their “uniforms that cost 500 euros”—sumptuous styles of dress unlikely to pass as modest. Given that these are adolescents, perhaps inevitably the identities they construct and inhabit are fragile. Students respond to this fragility, Arkin argues, both through their racialized assertions and their “aggressive” sartorial practices. While studies of minority or racialized youth consumption practices have tended to highlight how they contribute to the self-construction of hybrid identities that call the essentialized identities imposed upon youth into question, Arkin insists that something quite different is at work here. The youth with whom she engaged saw their sartorial choices not as constructing self-modeled identities, but rather as reflecting their Jewish essence, an essence they insist is already visible but which they are proud to amplify by wearing tight and bright unisex clothing, large rhinestone-bedizened stars of David, and reproductions of the flag of Israel. The “doubling of choice and essence” observed by Arkin contrasts in striking ways with the slightly older Muslim activists studied by Fernando who, through their political actions, strived to achieve a state of “ordinariness” or “indifference.” Their actions did not attempt to hide their Muslimness, but nor did those wearing identifiable markers of Islam articulate their modes of dress as efforts at display. Rather, their choices to veil or wear headscarves were aimed at the production of more ethical communities and selves—their Muslimness being neither a mere choice nor a simple essence.

The contrast between adolescent Jewish day school students and university-aged Muslim anti-racist activists betrays, among other things, the ongoing production of hierarchies of difference in France. As confessional schools are partially funded by the state, Arkin notes, they should receive far more official oversight than they currently do. For example, under the law that created confessional schools in 1959, schools are prohibited from banning students based on their religious confession. While this happens frequently at the day schools at which Arkin worked, state officials essentially confess to turning a blind eye. State officials would surely not be so forgiving in regard to Muslim confessional schools, only a tiny number of which have actually been approved by the state. What brings these state officials, day school teachers, and Jewish adolescents together, however, is the impossible bind of the very limited concept of multiculturalism in France. For Arkin, the everyday work of the schools, parents, and teachers to differentiate these adolescents from “‘Arabs,’ ultimately made Jewish Frenchness impossible.” Because they were “forced to enact the essentializing logics of the French public sphere in order to (at least partially) escape them, young Jews constructed identities around a series of ethno-religious exclusions” (236). As in Fernando’s text, Joan Scott’s foundational analysis continues to be prescient. French republicanism—as well as laïcité—can only allow its minority citizens either to “preserve or deny difference from a position of difference” (236). Thanks to Arkin’s rich text, we now have a historically and ethnographically dense example of how this double bind “fashions” a population often overlooked in France: its young “Arab Jewish” citizens.



Joan Wallach Scott, Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996) and Parité! Sexual Equality and the Crisis of French Universalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).


Mayanthi Fernando, The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

Stéphanie Hennette Vauchez and Vincent Valentin, L’Affaire Baby Loup ou la nouvelle laïcité (Issy-les-Moulineaux:, 2014).

Review by Kolja Lindner, University of Warwick

The transformation of French secularism (laïcité), formerly a genuine left-wing concern, is undoubtedly one of the most striking and astonishing features of the mainstream right-wing governments in France from 2002 to 2012. The book at hand presents a jurisprudential study of the Nouvelle Laïcité, as the authors call this development, through the legal case of the nursery Baby Loup, which dismissed an employee for wearing a headscarf when she returned to work in 2008 after five years of maternity leave. Several court judgments from December 2010 onward came to different conclusions about key questions at stake in the matter: the private character of this particular child-care institution, the degree to which it can be considered an “enterprise of conviction” (due to the aim of “transcending multiculturalism” as inscribed in Baby Loup’s rules), and the importance of religious freedom. Although the court upheld the employee’s dismissal, the case—finally closed with a successful verdict of the Court of Appeals in June 2014—was ultimately a defeat for the Nouvelle Laïcité. Yet, as the Baby Loup controversy made starkly clear a deep ideological shift is transforming French secularism; Vauchez and Valentin specifically address this shift, which they argue, “played against human rights” (24).

This new variation of secularism delimits the borders of religious freedom by confining convictions to the private sphere. Narrating a republican mythology according to which French secularism has always been a universal regime (whereas in reality French colonial rule especially in Africa made numerous exceptions to guarantee its domination) the Nouvelle Laïcité misconstrues the famous law of 1905. This Third Republic decree is still the main normative reference of every debate on laïcité. It frames the relation between state and religion by codifying three principles: freedom of conscience, equal treatment, and state neutrality. The importance of the first principle becomes clear when one takes into account that this set of rules designed to separate church and state allows for chaplains to be employed—on public salaries—in the national army, as well as in state prisons, schools, and hospitals. Hence, Vauchez and Valentin conclude, the Nouvelle Laïcité, by establishing new limitations on religious freedom, most notably in prohibiting the wearing of religious signs in certain public institutions, “is at odds with the meaning of the juridical principle of laïcité” (29).

But the problem of dealing with headscarves cannot be solved only at the level of law. It is also one of interpreting symbols. Does the state necessarily support religion by tolerating its employees wearing corresponding signs? The authors hesitate to answer in the affirmative whereas the Nouvelle Laïcité pushes for a policy of zero tolerance to meet its neutrality demands. The 2007 Charte de la laïcité dans les services publics expanded the obligation of neutrality to include private persons “collaborating” with public services. Before then, law had not sanctioned this extension. Vauchez and Valentin point to the danger posed by any official interpretation of religious symbols: it “risks judging something as ostentatious or as aiming at conversion on essentially subjective or random grounds” (38). Secularism here is culturally biased and, consequently, particular rather than universal. Nor can it claim a republican heritage, since the latter is in fact much more tolerant of religious symbols than the Nouvelle Laïcité.

Concerning industrial relations law, the authors emphasize the controversial concept of an “enterprise of conviction” that has been hotly debated across Europe. In France, the regulation of work relations does not take religious identity into consideration. The main problem concerning this element of the Baby Loup controversy, however, lies in its understanding of laïcité as a conviction. French secularism is a principle of state organization and not simply one belief among many others. It is designed to guarantee religious freedom, not to restrain it as the Nouvelle Laïcité advocates—that restraint being demanded exclusively of Islam. This is why one faces in this case a “rupture in its political signification” (55) pursued by left-wing and right-wing actors alike. By restricting religious freedom, the Nouvelle Laïcité turns out to be antiliberal, denigrating the idea of freedom as such.

The last twenty pages of Vauchez and Valentin’s study discuss the position that the headscarf ban in schools can be justified on feminist grounds. Proponents of the ban often assume that Islam is thoroughly opposed to gender equality and that the headscarf has a single, clear-cut gendered meaning—questionable assumptions in Vauchez’s and Valentin’s view. Moreover, considering the consequences of headscarf prohibition, one can assert that, contrary to its proponents’ intentions, it restrains rather than protects women’s freedom. Thus the authors see it as discriminating against women rather than protecting them. Justifying the ban by referring to the feminist claim of the politicization of the private sphere is also misleading from the authors’ point of view: the headscarf prohibition shifts the distinction between public and private (with religious belief being gradually pushed out of public space) whereas feminism is more about questioning the public/private distinction as such. Moreover, Vauchez and Valentin state that religion as social practice has a genuine collective and public dimension. This is why it needs to be tolerated within certain limits in the public space—as Catholicism historically had been in France, incidentally rendering the idea of a neutral public space a myth.

In their conclusion, the authors summarize how the Nouvelle Laïcité transformed French secularism. It led to a confusion of secularization and laïcité, and it shifted the public’s focus from human rights to cultural identity. The transformation, in short, made laïcité “more a principle of closure than of opening” (88). As for the Baby Loup case, it has had no effective legal consequences for secularism, since the 2014 verdict simply upheld the view that in the nursery “wearing a headscarf was validly forbidden by the institutional rules” (90). The authors, however, are not optimistic about the future: “If the supporters of the Nouvelle Laïcité failed to generalize neutrality obligations to private persons in this case, there is no doubt that their battle against religious freedom, in particular that of Muslims, and their quest for a secularization of all social space will continue by resorting to other means” (91).

Vauchez and Valentin provide a powerful study on the recent reconfiguration of one of the most distinguished features of French republicanism. The book is legally, historically, and philosophically well-informed. What one misses most is an analysis of the political developments contributing to the shift the authors describe—fuelled as it was by the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001 and the success of the far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in moving to the second round of the French presidential elections in 2002. These events signalled a deep “organic crisis” (as Antonio Gramsci would put it) to which the French mainstream Right, especially under the leadership of Nicolas Sarkozy, responded by deploying a strategy that aimed to build “government through culture,”3 that is, through culture-shaping policy. It was only under these circumstances that the alliance of left-wing, neo-republican concerns and right-wing, culturalist preoccupations became possible.

This alliance reinforced the increasing anti-Muslim resentment observable throughout the Western world. Likewise, that sentiment in France had sources beyond the pursuit of secularism alone. If racism consists of the construction of differences, their hierarchical ordering, and their use in favor of the “accuser,”4 the Nouvelle Laïcité might be seen as having a racist dimension as well. When, as Vauchez and Valentin argue, it “sets out from the premise that everything that in Islam distinguishes men and women is unequal and degrading” (68) and then proceeds to advocate the banning of headscarves, Memmi’s triad of the components of racism seems to be at work. Islam is presented as essentially and exclusively different and backward, and the headscarf ban codifies this view. Although one might also question, for example, mainstream Catholic gender arrangements according to this criterion, the discourse of Nouvelle Laïcité was completely absent in the 2012–2013 controversy over gay marriage. Therefore, in seeking to reconceptualize secularism as “non-domination,” or tolerance, Vauchez’s and Valentin’s important contribution could be all the more effective if coupled with an antiracist strategy.



See Jeremy Ahearne, Gouvernment through Culture and the Contemporary French Right (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) and Kolja Lindner, Die Hegemoniekämpfe in Frankreich: Laizismus, politische Repräsentation und Sarkozysmus (Hamburg: Argument, 2017).


For this conception of racism, see Albert Memmi, Le Racisme: description, définition, traitement (Paris: Gallimard, 1982).


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