Churches on Paris Street

Visions of Secularism, Catholicism and Islam in Paris

Laïcité—the French word for secularism—has received a great deal of attention in recent years. Some contend that the passion associated with French secularism makes the term untranslatable. In France, I often encountered claims that, due to the strength of laïcité, the nation’s historical faith, Catholicism, is dying or disappearing from the public sphere. Yet a walk down any Parisian street makes clear that its symbols and architectural forms fill the city. Where does this sense of vanishing come from? And why is it that signs of Islam—and not Catholicism—stand out in such a threatening way in France today? Why do these signs, in particular when displayed on women’s bodies, receive so much attention from the state?

In contrast to signs associated with Islam, the monumental presence of Catholicism often goes unseen and unremarked in the streets of Paris today. Photo courtesy Elayne Oliphant

My dissertation research addressed these questions, which, I found, have broad ramifications. The disparity in attention given to Catholicism and Islam supports a broader series of partitions: between the religious and the secular, the French and the foreigner, and the ostentatious and the discreet. Over time, signs associated with Catholicism have been made ever more acceptable to a secular French identity. The de facto position of Catholicism allows its symbols to be produced, at times, as unmarked. Signs of Islam, by contrast, appear as highly visible. Laïcité allows for some transgressions while affirming other exclusions. A woman can wear a habit on a Parisian street, but if she wears a burqa, she stands out.

“It has gotten to the point where the most religious people in France are Muslims,” one man lamented to me. In his eyes, there was no space in the French public sphere for Catholicism. The French state, he insisted, resisted the presence of Catholicism at every turn. Following the death of Pope John Paul II, he explained, city regulators refused to hear a petition to rename the square in front of Notre-Dame after the late pontiff. His explanation for why the city refused the petition—because it was Catholic—was questionable given the enormous number of streets, metro stations, and parks named for Catholic figures throughout the city. One day as I stood outside of Notre-Dame, I noticed a sign that clearly marked the space Place Jean Paul II. This perception of being under threat was visceral enough to exist almost entirely separate from its actuality.

A central site of my research was a thirteenth century Cistercian college purchased from the state by the archdiocese of Paris in order to create a much lauded twenty-first century space of art exhibition and intellectual debate. That the Catholic Church in France is investing significant funds in a space not devoted to rituals of mass but a “cultural” project devoted to rituals of art viewing forced me to analyze important shifts in Catholic practices today. The institutional Church presented these endeavors as simultaneously contemporary and historical, situated and timeless, secular and religious, Catholic and French.

Four important insights into the nature of secularism resulted from my research. First, my research called into question any claims of the timelessness of Catholicism in France. In my archival research I found that the expansion of the infrastructure of Catholicism in Paris occurred alongside that of the secular state. Second, my research revealed that a key element of religiosity today is its innocuousness rather than how it stands apart. Third, my research showed how a focus on the influence of the visual sphere can identify how religious and secular subjects are formed through experiences that muddy the opposition some anthropologists have posed between internal beliefs and embodied practices. Fourth, in contrast to studies of Catholicism that eschew the contemporary relevance of the Church hierarchy, my research established that the Church’s representatives are currently engaged in strategic actions aimed at producing new symbols and practices that may be called Catholic today.

With the European project growing increasingly unstable, it is necessary to interrogate claims that only certain religious experiences are natural and inescapable elements of secular Europe. In my future research, I will explore secular and religious projects not only of identity and belonging but also of salvation—of coming to terms with the failures of the past in the process of perceiving the present and imagining potential futures in Europe.

To contact Elayne, please email her at To pass along column ideas, news and items of interest, contact SAR Contributing Editor Jennifer Selby at

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