encountering the politics of religion in France

Just talk about football…or cheerleaders. 

That’s the direction I received when Damien—a late 20-something English teacher with a seemingly endless wardrobe of too-tight pants and even tighter vests—asked me to do a lesson on school spirit.

“They will love it,” he assured me in his posh English accent while adding a second packet of sugar to his espresso. 

Disclaimer: It was only my second week working in France, so I was still in the “I need to prove myself as a competent teacher even though I technically didn’t study to become a teacher and really have no idea what I’m doing” phase. The result? 32 powerpoint slides filled with photos and videos of fans sporting high school hoodies (and hats, and scarves, and sweatpants, and — for the girls, hair bows) with faces painted in school colors, packed like sardines in the stands as a touchdown or goal sends them roaring to life. 

I prepared talking points and discussion questions for each slide, which I practiced reciting in front of the mirror, in the shower, and in my head as I strolled through the never-ending dairy aisles of the grocery store. I timed myself every day to make sure the presentation lasted at least 30 minutes, but no longer than 40. Ideally 34. And after putting on the finishing touches, I emailed it to myself. 

Every time I stood up in front of the classroom to teach, I sweat. Light cotton t-shirt, window cracked open, a thick coating of deodorant… it didn’t matter. By the end of the lesson, drops of sweat would inevitably creep down from my armpits, a glistening sheen across my forehead. 

So when I arrived to Damien’s class on the big day, only to have him tell me that his computer isn’t connected to the Internet, you can imagine what my pit stains looked like. 

“I totally forgot to tell you that you needed to use a flash drive,” Damien said. “I hope you didn’t put too much time into the presentation!” 

A FLASH DRIVE?? You cannot be serious right now. What year is this?

“Ahh no, not too much” I said, followed by a nervous giggle and overly effusive hand gestures to feign indifference. “Just a few photos. And a video or two.” 

“Okay well, just talk to them” he said. “And remember, no French!”

As he quickly turned his attention to attendance, I wracked my brain trying to remember the pictures, videos, and text from every slide. 

Come on, Jacqueline. Come on. Come on. Come on. 

Nothing. 

So with 20 faces staring at me, I picked up a piece of chalk, spun around, took a deep breath, and wrote: “school spirit” in large, slanted font across the chalkboard.

“Do you know what this means” I asked, with a ridiculously large smile plastered across my face? 

Nothing. 

If I had grown a second head, the students would likely have looked at me the same way they did at that very moment. Blank faces, wide eyes, mouths agape, heads cocked sideways as if it was their palms alone holding it up. 

I waited fifteen-ish seconds to be sure not a single student had any inkling of an idea what words had just come out of my mouth before re-phrasing in the best way I knew how: 

“Do you know what this is?” 

Five seconds. Droplets of sweat began pooling under my shirt. 

Ten. Well, this could have gone better.

Fifteen. HELP ME, DAMIEN.   

Suddenly, a hand shot in the air. Thank you Lord Jesus Christ Almighty I thought to myself as that wide grin returned. I stepped forward and called on the student. 

“God” he said, drawing out the o’s into an upward intonation so it sounded less like an answer and more like a question as his palms came together to mimic prayer. 

It took a few seconds before his literal interpretation of “spirit” dawned on me. But hey—he did understand my question, which had to count for something, right? 

Little did I know I had just unwittingly backed myself into a big, controversial French corner. 


In 2004, a law prohibiting religious symbols in France’s public schools passed with an overwhelming 93 percent majority in the National Assembly. Included in the ban were Islamic head scarves, Christian crosses, Jewish skullcaps, and Sikh turbans—all of which, according to former President Jacques Chirac, could be classified as “ostensibly” religious

Opponents argued that the legislation disproportionality targeted Muslims, a reputation that earned it the moniker “headscarf ban,” while proponents lauded the bill as a long-overdue governmental reminder that, in France, collective national identity always transcends individual identity. 

The concept of a legally-enshrined secularism, or laïcité, takes the familiar US interpretation of separation of church and state and one-ups it. Suddenly, freedom of religion becomes freedom from religion. 

By 2004, the concept was far from new. The word laïcité first appeared in the French Constitution in 1946 to describe France as a secular republic and has continued to appear in subsequent constitutional iterations since then. The most recent text reads: 

“La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale. Elle assure l’égalité devant la loi de tous les citoyens sans distinction d’origine, de race ou de religion. Elle respecte toutes les croyances. Son organisation est décentralisée. La loi favorise l’égal accès des femmes et des hommes aux mandats électoraux et fonctions électives, ainsi qu’aux responsabilités professionnelles et sociales.”

“France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion. It shall respect all beliefs. It shall be organised on a decentralised basis. Statutes shall promote equal access by women and men to elective offices and posts as well as to professional and social positions.”

While the very act of wearing religious symbols, lawmakers argued, does not violate the principles of laïcité, as doing so constitutes a legal exercise of freedom of expression, the conditions under which they’re worn in school may “constitute an act of pressure, provocation, proselytism, or propaganda, or would harm the dignity or the freedom of the student or other members of the educative community, or would compromise their health or safety, or would perturb the educational activities or the education role of the teaching personnel, or would trouble public order in the establishment or the normal functioning of the public service.” 

The head scarves themselves weren’t the problem. It was their irreparable, compromising influence on the sanctity of secular public spaces that needed thwarting. 

Polls estimate that, in the years that followed the 2004 law, the percentage of French children enrolled in private schools was up by one and a half percent—a 10,000 student difference from 2005 to 2016. A slew of cases made their way to the French high courts to petition the legitimacy of the law, which lawyers argued stood in stark violation of Article 2 of the French Constitution promising “equality before the law of all citizens, without distinction of origin, race or religion.” 

But any debate around the question of laïcité’s constitutionality in the immediate aftermath of the law passing paled in comparison to the disputes that erupted in 2015 after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in which two French-Algerian brothers, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, broke into the offices of the satirical weekly newspaper, killing 12 and injuring 11 others. Subsequent waves of attacks transpired in the days and weeks that followed, including a siege on the Hypercacher kosher supermarket where 19 people were held hostage and four killed. 

The phrase (and accompanying hashtag) Je suis Charlie (I am Charlie) immediately circulated throughout the world as a global refrain of solidarity. Moments of silence were observed and vigils held against the backdrop of burgeoning debates over the principles of laïcité—particularly as it related to questions of social cohesion and national identity in the classroom. At the time, over 1,000 French citizens had traveled to Iraq and Syria to join the so-called Islamic State, igniting a wave of alarm over the threat of religious fundamentalism. Laïcité, some argued, would breed the only successful safeguard: neutrality. But that’s not how everyone saw it. Critics rejected the notion of a secularism so prescribed that it bordered on religious, a secularism that, they argued, had been so aggressively manipulated that it bore little resemblance to the law’s original intent. 

In the end, the Education minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, embarked on an ambitious attempt to course correct by overhauling secularism teaching in public schools. The goal? Shift the messaging away from the rhetoric used by rightwing politicians—rhetoric that implied a “territorial, social, and ethnic apartheid” in France—to a more reassuring promise. Laïcité isn’t working against you; it’s protecting you. 


I was sitting outside in the small patch of grass behind my studio, strategically shifting into patches of lingering sunlight as the afternoon gave way to evening, scribbling away in my journal when Anaïs called. Startled, I reached for my phone, took a deep breath to bolster my French speaking confidence, and picked up. 

Earlier that day, one of the teachers at the middle school where I was working heard that I was interested in pursuing English tutoring gigs outside of school and asked if I wanted to be introduced to Anaïs, a young mother of three looking to supplement her kids’ rudimentary, three-times-a-week English education with a tutor. 

“Oui!!” I said, probably too enthusiastically. 

Promising to send along my number, the teacher told me that Anaïs would call me and set up time to informally meet. Probably tea at a local café, I thought to myself. I can do that. 

But Anaïs had something else in mind entirely. 

Tu veux dîner chez nous samedi soir?” she asked, in painfully slow, meticulously enunciated French. To ensure I understood exactly what she was asking, she followed up by deploying 90% of her English language arsenal: “Dinner. Evening of Saturday. Home of us.” 

Oui, ça marche. Merci beaucoup!” I responded, to which she let out an energetic “GÉNIAL!” (awesome!). After telling me she’d text over her address, she let out a sing-song “À bientôoooooooot, ma cherie” (see you soon, my dear) before promptly hanging up—an endearing, almost maternal goodbye. I hadn’t met Anaïs yet, but I liked her already. 


Standing on my tippy toes, I tried my best to peek over the high gate to catch a glimpse of the house and, I hoped, some sort of confirmation that I was, indeed, at the right address. Seeing nothing but a sprawling front yard littered with toys, I checked the number on the mailbox for the sixth time, slowly did a 360 to orient the directional arrow on Google maps, and pep talked myself into finally tugging on the thick rope to ring the hefty, old-fashioned bell. 

Almost immediately, I heard a chorus of squeals and shuffling footsteps as the palatial iron gate was pulled open by a little boy, who I guessed was around five years old. Bright blond hair shaped his rosy cheeks in a bowl cut, a striped collared shirt peeking out of his navy sweater. He stood, gently swaying from side-to-side in a potty dance motion, not uttering a word. Just taking in the sight of la fille américaine standing right in front of him. Eventually, I broke the trance of our staring contest with a wave.

Before I had the chance to introduce myself, Anaïs approached the gate, leaning in for the customary bisous on both cheeks with an unbridled confidence that I had yet to master. Introducing Adrien, she affectionately tousled his hair, breaking his trance as he scampered away. Threading her arm through mine, she led me towards the house, unapologetically dodging the toys and rambling on with a rapidity that bore no resemblance to that of our phone conversation a few days prior. 

Anaïs was the kind of person that seemed to sashay ebulliently through the world, projecting an infectious, rhythmic energy and degree of unbridled joy that almost bordered on child-like, in the best way. She didn’t just encourage her kids to play, she played with them, spending hours building lego fortresses, running around the yard, and breaking out in spontaneous dance parties. In quintessential French fashion, she was always, somehow, impeccably put together but simultaneously unserious about herself—her presentation never bordered on vanity. Slim-fitted jeans with a seemingly endless rotation of collared button-downs under crew-neck sweaters was standard, with a scarf perpetually knotted around her neck and straight, light-brown hair that just barely brushed her shoulders. The very embodiment of effortless ease—a microcosm of the certain je ne sais quoi that has the world hopelessly enraptured with French culture. That was Anaïs. 

Walking through the propped-open door into the kitchen, we were met by her two older children, Margot and Léopold (or Léo, for short), 14 and 16-years-old respectively, and her husband, Simon. Soft-spoken and slim with salt-and-pepper hair, Simon seemed, like Anaïs, to be in his early 40s. 

They lived in a historic, 18th-century house in Vendôme, directly across the street from the collosal Gothic abbey-church of the Holy Trinity, its elaborate Romanesque bell tower piercing the clouds. The kitchen was outfitted with sleek, modern Bosch appliances, but the floor was original stone, the kind that sent a slight chill up your spine when you walked on it without socks on. All of the rooms, for that matter, had a slight draft to them, which somehow contributed to the house’s old-meets-new, château-esque charm. It was sparsely decorated with mis-matched furniture and a somewhat organized chaos aesthetic throughout. What was now the playroom used to be a horse stable, they told me, which explained the high ceilings and cross-crossing wooden beams. 

“The table better be set by the time dinner is ready, mes cheries,” said Anaïs to Margot and Léo, as she ushered me from the kitchen to the living room. Along the way, I spotted height markers etched in pencil on the wall.  

One bowl of bright red cherry tomatoes and another with crisp potato chips lay on the dark wood coffee table, alongside small water glasses and cartons of Ceres fruit juice—mango and litchi: the customary, pre-dinner apéro. Removing my light jacket, I sat down, awkwardly, on what was a surprisingly very low couch as Anaïs poured a glass of juice for me. I popped a plump cherry tomato in my mouth, biting down as it burst in my mouth. 

They listened with a gracious degree of patience as I fumbled in broken French through a Sparknotes version of my life—where I grew up, how many siblings I have, what I studied in college. My stint abroad as a student in Paris years earlier had rendered me somewhat resigned to the fact that there was always going to be a depth of intimacy I could never reach when speaking in a second language, but it was times like this when the insecurity blossomed. Sure, I was interested in the tutoring gig, but what I really wanted, I realized, was the role of pseudo spot in their family—a role I seemed to be in the middle of an informal, soft skills interview for. I felt a strong, almost desperate urge to convey a depth of humanity that would portray me as relatable, mature, well-informed, worthy—an almost Herculean feat when struggling to find the right words and turns of phrase to string coherent sentences together at all. I was unable to present myself how I would have liked to, but the best I could hope for is that I would somehow exude something fundamental, and real. Something they would pick up on. 

Anaïs and Simon both spoke rudimentary English at best but were eager to improve before they left for an extended, two-month stay in Florida for Simon’s work. Scheduled to leave in early February, they had just around four months to work on their English.

“Let’s go to Ameeeeeerrrricaaaaa,” exclaimed Anaïs in a heavy, nasally French accent as she stood up and twirled around the room. “Spring breeeeeaaaaaakkkk.” 

With the reminder of their fast-approaching trip lingering in the air, Simon decided to switch gears and pepper his next question with piecemeal English. 

“Do you…how do you say…have…a religion?” 

If I had known, at the time, that Simon works for a religiously-affiliated retirement home, the question wouldn’t have come as a surprise. But in the moment, every single article I had voraciously read about France’s complicated relationship with religion came flooding into my mind with a tsunami-like vengeance.

I should tell the truth. But wait—if I do, will they automatically assume I’m a full-fledged, quasi missionary who can’t compartmentalize English lessons from Jesus? Will they think I’ll somehow irreparably corrupt their children by threatening the sanctity of French national identity with religion? How do I say, “yes, I’m religious but in a totally normal, modern, accepting, family-oriented mostly-on-Sundays kinda way” in French? Or maybe I should just lie. That’d be ironic. 

I took a sip of my mango juice and nodded as I emitted a timid, “Uh huh. Je suis Catholique.”  

“Nous aussi, nous sommes Catholique,” said Simon, switching back to French as he proceeded to invite me to mass at the local Catholic church, St. Madeleine, with them on Sunday. “Et après,” interjected Anaïs, “tu viens chez nous pour le déjeuner et les leçons?” 

I volunteered to carry the tray with our glasses and half-empty bowls of tomatoes and chips back to the kitchen, grateful for the temporary hiatus in conversation to allow my mind a minute to piece together what had just transpired. Church, then lunch. Next Sunday. Followed by English lessons. I guess I got the job?   

Gently setting the tray down on the counter, I watched as Anaïs slowly cracked open the oven door, squinting while meeting the steam head-on. 

“C’est parfait!” she exclaimed.


Over the course of the next few months, I would spend more and more time with Anaïs and her family—sitting with them at 10:45 mass on Sundays, followed by a leisurely stroll back to the house for lunch around noon, a ritual that involved pulling Adrien in his tiny wagon through the old cobblestone streets of Vendôme. Sometimes, lessons took place on Sunday afternoon. Other times, we played games or sat around talking late into the afternoon—in which case, lessons were pushed to Tuesday afternoons (when I would also join them for dinner). 

Their unfussy approach to hospitality had a way of assuaging any worries that I was somehow overstaying my welcome. They never went out of their way to prepare a special meal when I was there, make sure the house was meticulous, or chide the kids for acting out “in front of our guest!” My offers to help cook and clean were graciously accepted. If I wanted another crepe or a second piece of pizza, I would simply serve myself. 

I wasn’t imposing on them; I was existing in the mundanity of everyday life with them. I was introduced as an English tutor from America, and them as students from France, but our relationship was never predicted on anything remotely transactional. Lessons were always accompanied by a meal, a literal breaking of the bread. And while I’ve often wondered if that first lunch would have gone differently had my answer to their bold question about religion been different, I have to believe that the graciousness of their hospitality was entirely agnostic.

For as complicated of a relationship as France has with religion, I had somehow found myself here, and it all seemed strikingly simple. Through hospitality, I had found companionship. And through companionship, the ultimate reminder the Earth is indeed crammed with heaven. Grace was everywhere, or so it seemed, and through it I had found some semblance of home.

onetasteatatime

2 thoughts on “encountering the politics of religion in France

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