A proposal by a French official to replace Christian national holidays with those based on Jewish and Muslim festivals has sparked controversy in the country.
Dounia Bouzar, an anthropologist specialising in religion who was recently appointed to France’s National Observatory on Secularism, put forward the proposal in an interview with France’s Challenges magazine on Monday.
“At the moment, every French person celebrates Christmas, and I think it should be the case that we include one Muslim festival and one Jewish festival among our national holidays,” she said.
Rather than adding new holidays to the calendar, Bouzar suggested replacing two unspecified Christian public holidays with ones marking the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur and the Muslim festival of Eid.
France often prides its strong secular ideals and has strict laws enforcing the separation of religion and the state. Nevertheless, the majority of its national holidays are based on Christian festivals.
“Today, French Jews and Muslims are very uncomfortable asking for days off to celebrate these two very important holidays [of Yom Kippur and Eid],” said Bouzar.
“A Jewish holiday and a Muslim holiday becoming a celebration for all the French would fight sectarianism and advance the cause of secularism,” she added.
Christian holidays ‘the fruit of history and culture’
Bouzar’s comments have unsurprisingly attracted criticism from French conservatives and Christians.
“We must stop overturning all the cultural landmarks to which the French are attached,” Abbot Grosjean, the secretary for the Commission of Ethics and Politics of the Diocese of Versailles, told French daily Le Figaro.
“The calendar is the fruit of a history, of a culture - a reflection of the Christian roots that are part of our heritage.”
Louis Aliot, vice-president of France’s far-right National Front party, described Bouzar’s proposal as “incredible” and “a step closer to a breakdown of our society along ethnic and religious considerations”.
However, Islamic and Jewish religious groups have also been reluctant to support Bouzar’s plan.
“It’s totally normal to consider other [religious] communities, but we should simply add these two festivals, and not replace any,” Abdallah Zekri, president of France’s Observatory against Islamophobia, told French daily Le Figaro.
“Otherwise, people will say: ‘They want to rob Peter to pay Mohammed,’” he added.
Elie Petit, vice-president of the French Union of Jewish Students, said that there was “no great demand” among French Jews for the creation of a Jewish public holiday.
“We don’t consider it discrimination that there are Christian national holidays - France is a secular country but with a long Christian history, so it’s natural that the state would acknowledge that heritage in certain ways,” he told The Local.
France’s commitment to secularism has long been a source of tension in the country.
In 2004, France implemented a ban on the wearing of religious symbols in public schools, while in 2010 the government passed a law banning the wearing of the full Islamic veil in public. Both sparked criticism from religious and human rights groups.
Earlier this month, meanwhile, the country unveiled a new “secularism charter” to be displayed in all public schools designed to promote better understanding and more consistent enforcement of France’s secularist laws and values.