June 3, 2007 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 356

Rachid Kaci and Sophia Chikirou: North African Roots, French Identity, Universal Ideals

June 3, 2007 | By D. Lav
Algeria, North Africa | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 356

This report covers the political thought of two French politicians of Algerian Berber origin. Rachid Kaci, from the right-wing UMP, and Sophia Chikirou, from the Socialist Party, have much more in common than just their shared background. Despite the fact that they are on opposite sides of the political spectrum, both of them are ardent devotees of the principle of the secular nature of the state – a principle known in French as "laicité." They are also both against the "tribalization" of French public life and warn against the French polity disintegrating into competing ethnic and religious sub-communities. Their antidote is a strengthening of a national French identity based on Enlightenment values, which they hold to be universal, and a rejection of cultural relativism.

True to their republican principles, neither Kaci nor Chikirou call themselves Berber politicians; both speak in the name of universal French ideals. At the same time, both are proud of their heritage, and have been influenced by the liberal secular political tradition of the Kabylia region in Algeria from which their families hail.[1]

Of the two, Rachid Kaci, leader of the Thatcherite "Free Right" faction in the UMP, is the better-known. He is a founding member of the Movement of Secular Muslims of France, and his adamantly secularist positions have often led him into polemics against Chirac, Sarkozy, and others in his party, whom he feels are pandering to Islamists and violating the principle of laïcité. He is the author of two books on public affairs, The Republic of Cowards: The Failure of Integration Policies (2003) and An Open Letter to the Demagogues: Affirmative Actionists, Penitents, and Communitarians (2006). He was a candidate for the UMP nomination in the 2007 presidential elections, but in the end withdrew from the race and gave his support to Sarkozy.

Sophia Chikirou is a young Socialist Party politician and a member of the party's national committee. She was born in France to newly-arrived immigrants; her parents had originally planned to return to Algeria, but the raging civil war there persuaded them to stay in France. She has adopted secularism as the central element of her political worldview, as can be seen from the title of her recent book, My Secular France (2007). As with Kaci, Chikirou's secularist positions often lead her to criticize others within her own party, as well as the radical Left's discourse of "victimization" and its political alliance with Islamism.

Secularism, the Schools, and the Headscarf

Sophia Chikirou writes in My Secular France that she first became an adept of secularism when, in the course of the 1995 electoral campaign in Algeria, she heard the liberal Algerian politician Said Sadi defend the principle of secularism "in a country that was prey to Islamist terrorism." Chikirou continues: "As far as I remember, this was the first time that I became conscious of the meaning of the word secularism and became attached to it – a bit in the way that a prisoner loves the word 'liberty'."[2]

The French word laicite, translated here as "secularism," does not have an exact English equivalent. Historically, it is a concept born of the fight against ecclesiastical control over various aspects of public life in France, and especially in the schools – a fight that was more or less won in 1905 with the adoption of a law ensuring the separation of church and state, stating that "the Republic neither recognizes, nor salaries, nor subsidizes any religion." The French principle of laicite is more thoroughgoing than the American concept of separation of church and state, and comprises not just the government's religious neutrality, but also that of the public sphere in general – whence the conflict over the headscarf in public schools.

Chikirou defines secularism in the following way: "Secularism corresponds to an organizing principle of social life, which places it above currents of opinion." She sees it as being distinct from simple tolerance, which leaves minorities dependent on the good will of the majority. Unlike tolerance, secularism is a meta-principle, a universal law that separates the spiritual from the temporal and serves as a framework for shared social life. In particular, she sees the schools as "the sanctuary of reason," in that they are charged with transmitting republican values from one generation to the next. It is because the schools are "the key to the vault of secularism" that they have become the main target for those who want to break with the French model of secularism.[3]

Chikirou writes that the traditional champions of secularism are ill-equipped to deal with the challenge now that it comes, not from the ecclesiastic establishment, but from members of the country's Muslim minority: "Stunningly, the traditionally secularist currents… [including] the parties of the Left… seem to not be able to furnish the same disciplined and determined battalions of yesteryear. Wracked with doubt, in particular with respect to Islam – the secularist camp's hot potato – and weakened by an absence of roots and networks in disadvantaged neighborhoods, the part-time [soldiers] of secularism presented a disturbingly cacophonic spectacle on the school debate, in contrast with the unity of the opposing camp."[4]

Rachid Kaci also argues that France has an "Islam complex" that makes it difficult for it to apply the same standards of secularism to Islam as it does to Christianity. He asks, for instance, why Chirac opposed any mention of Christianity's role in European history in the European constitution, but publicly refers to Europe's "Muslim roots."[5] He also devotes an entire chapter, titled "Minister of the Interior or Commander of the Faithful?" to Sarkozy's micromanaging of The French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), an institution Sarkozy created with the intention that it would represent Islam in France. Kaci cites Sarkozy's own testimony as to the very active role he played in haranguing various Muslim factions to come to an agreement, and he asks what business this is of the Minister of the Interior of a secular republic. In his estimation, such interference in religious affairs would have provoked a huge controversy had it been with regard to Christians and not Muslims.[6]

Another fault Kaci finds with the CFCM is that its representatives are elected through the mosques. If the CFCM were to limit itself to properly religious affairs, then this would not pose a problem; in fact, it is also a player in the political arena, and Kaci argues that this in effect means that secular Muslims have been excluded from representing the immigrant communities: "for Sarkozy, secular Muslims have no business representing the Muslims."[7]

On the issue of the headscarf Kaci takes an unusual position. The current rule forbids the wearing of any "ostentatious" sign of religious identity in the schools, a distinction which rules out the Muslim headscarf, but allows the wearing of a kippa, a necklace with a cross, and the "hand of Fatma" (a North African symbol common to Muslims and Jews). Kaci attacks the reliance on this distinction as a sign of "cowardice." He writes that "the veil is less an ostentatious sign of Muslim religious identity than [a sign] of women's submission," and cites as a proof a statement by Sheikh Al-Azhar Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi to the effect that if the wearing of the headscarf in schools is contrary to the traditions of the French state, then Muslims should conform to the law.[8]

Since, in his view, the veil is not a symbol of religious identity but a symbol of the political aspirations of Islamism, he supports a law that singles out the headscarf for prohibition: "It is a shame that this law extended to encompass all religious symbols, as this gives the impression that the problem is of a religious nature, whereas it is first and foremost political. It is not Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, and Islam that are at issue, but rather the Islamists' reading of Islam, and this reading is at least as political as it is religious.

"Why would young Muslim women's wearing the headscarf bother anyone more than the Jewish kippa, for example, if it were nothing but a sign of religious identity?... The Islamic veil bothers people… because it expresses the refusal of those who wear it to adopt the traditional values, usages, and customs of French society and the refusal to assimilate, or even to become integrated. To the contrary, it [the headscarf] conveys ambitions of conquest of this society and a proselytism that is contrary to the traditions of the host society. In this conception, the political competes with the religious. It would have been better had the legislator taken this into account when drafting the law, and prohibited just the wearing of the headscarf. He would then have responded to a political strategy with a political decision."[9]

"The Day Will Come When… Marianne… Will Have the Handsome Face of a Young French Woman of Immigrant Background; but Marianne Cannot Wear a Veil"

Statistically, the headscarf – at least until recently – has not been particularly widespread in the French Muslim population, and even less so among Algerian immigrant communities.[10] A 1989 Le Monde opinion poll showed that the immigrant community was at that time almost as divided on the issue as was the "Gallic" French community, with, for instance, 49% of Muslim women opposing the headscarf in schools.[11] Both Sophia Chikirou and Rachid Kaci see the issue not as one that pits the rights of a minority against the demands of the majority, but as a fault line between supporters of the secular republican model and its opponents, a fault line that runs, for various reasons, across varying communities and political groupings.

Chikirou cites approvingly a speech by the Socialist Party politician Laurent Fabius, who used the image of Marianne, the emblematic female figure who represents France: "The day will come when… the Marianne of our municipalities will have the handsome face of a young French woman of immigrant background. But Marianne cannot wear a veil…"[12]

On May 5, 2003, Kaci's Movement of Secular Muslims in France published an appeal to secular Muslims in the Marianne weekly: "…We call… on the silent majority of French Muslims, both practicing and non-practicing, who have been long muzzled by pressures and intimidations, to finally stand up, express themselves, and make their point of view count… The current surreal debate over the Islamic headscarf, the true banner of political Islamism, and the calling into question of French secularism must not let us lose sight of the fact that, for France and for the French, this is a matter of resisting the implantation in our territory of an ideology that is dangerous, perverse, and above all, deadly for the Republic." The appeal was signed by a number of French Muslim public figures, including then-Mufti of Marseille Soheib Bencheikh[13] and the French-Algerian anthropologist Malek Chebel.[14]


On March 1, 2007, Kaci and other like-minded French public figures of North African origin published, in the Liberation daily, an open letter to Dalil Boubakeur, Rector of the Paris Mosque and head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith. The letter protested the fact that Boubakeur, generally considered a moderate, had brought a lawsuit against the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo for having reprinted the Danish Muhammad cartoons. The content of the letter clearly outlines the signatories' views on Islamism: "Islamism is to Islam what the extreme right is to democratic parties." The authors asked Boubakeur to drop the lawsuit and to resign from the CFCM, which they said "is composed, in its majority, of fundamentalist organizations, who are an activist minority motivated by a strategy that aims to inject theological-political poison into our democracies."[15]

Sophia Chikirou does not often address Islamism as a separate phenomenon, but her secularist and feminist stands and her opposition to communitarianism make her relation to Islamism fairly self-evident. She believes that Islam, like Catholicism before it, should be a matter of personal belief, and not of social or political organization. She feels that the French Republic offers Islam a great opportunity, but that Islam in France needs to accept the autonomy of the individual, including the right to choose and to change one's religion, and needs also to recognize human rights and gender equality.[16]

Being French

Sophia Chikirou: "The strength of our [French] culture is that individuals can be imbued with it despite their differences, since French culture is founded on universal values, such that one can be an Arab, a Jew, an Italian, a Laotian, or a Chilean of French culture." She does not believe in full assimilation, but rather thinks that France should recognize the fact that it is a mixed-race society, "like Brazil."[17]

Rachid Kaci differs with Chikirou on this point. While he agrees that modern French culture is founded on universal values, he also holds that the country has a specific history and that all French citizens should be able to identify with that history. Addressing his readers, both Muslims and non-Muslims, he writes: "The Gauls… are our collective ancestors, since they inaugurated… [French] history down to our days, via Clovis, Charles Martel… the Revolution, Napoleon… One who wants to be considered French adopts this history, or rather, lets himself be adopted by it…"[18]

France's Failed Integration Policies

Rachid Kaci does not mince his words when it comes to France's integration policies (or lack thereof), to which he attributes a great share in the creation of the country's current problems. His basic argument is that France originally expected most of the immigrants to return to their countries of origin, and thus, instead of encouraging them to feel French and identify with France, actually encouraged their attachment to their traditional identities – or at least what the state believed to have been their traditional identities.

One example Kaci gives is a state program for the instruction of Arabic to special classes formed entirely of primary school students of North African background – classes which Kaci himself briefly attended. The program was inaugurated in 1978, as a result of accords signed between France and North African countries in 1975. According to Kaci, the majority of the teachers were employees of the Algerian school system whom the Algerian authorities judged to be too close to fundamentalist circles, and whom they thus preferred to send to teach in France. In addition, many of the students in these classes were Berbers, whose families never spoke Arabic to start with. Kaci relates that his father pulled him out of the class after the teacher said to him: "You don't even speak Arabic, and Kabyle [Berber] is not even a language."[19] Given that the French Berber population is today estimated at well over one million,[20] Kaci's experience in this respect may not have been particularly extraordinary.

Another example is the state TV program "Mosaique," also launched in the 1970s. This program, produced in conjunction with the state media in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, aimed to give positive press to these countries and to encourage the immigrants to return. The program was broadcast in literary Arabic with French subtitles; Kaci writes that in order for his father to understand "Mosaique," Kaci had to translate from the French subtitles into Kabyle Berber – somewhat absurd for a program that aimed to speak to immigrants "in their own language." In addition, the North African governments had a veto over the contents of the show, such that, for instance, a performance by the popular Berber protest folk singer Ait Menguellet was taken off the broadcast schedule after the Algerian government protested.

Sophia Chikirou suggests more or less the opposite analysis and criticizes the model of French identity that Kaci supports. "The error of integration policy over a span of more than a century was to think of republican assimilation as the capacity of diverse individuals to embrace French identity and forget their origins. It is clear that the French model of assimilation is defined around a conception of French identity as a fixed entity. Thus, one can be of French nationality and citizenship, but be perceived as, or feel like, a foreigner, because one's specific identity does not dovetail with the archetypical image of a French person. 'Muslim French', 'overseas French', and '[French] of French origin' are expressions that reveal this difficulty in conceiving of French identity outside of stereotypes like that of the 'Gaul', a Christian who comes from the metropolitan provinces… A better representation… of the diversity of French people would respond to the need to reconstruct French identity on the basis of the universalism that lies at the origin of the concepts of citizenship and secularism."[21]

Unlike Kaci, Chikirou also sees economic inequality and lack of opportunity as a large factor in the increasing alienation of immigrant communities vis-à-vis the French polity. Her solution though is not the adoption of a discourse of special rights, but the encouragement of social mobility, which would make the poor suburban neighborhoods into a transitory station on the way to social improvement and fuller integration, and not permanent sub-communities unto themselves.[22]

France's Guilty Conscience and Cultural Relativism

Both Kaci and Chikirou, whatever their differences, share the same basic diagnosis of France's condition: it is weighed down by self-doubt and a guilty conscious over its past (in the context of the Islam debate, mainly its colonialist past), and this makes it easy prey for an energetic and self-confident Islamism and others who challenge the secular republican model.

In Chikirou's opinion, the colonial legacy has no bearing on the debate over secularism and Islam in France, which is a debate among French citizens equal before the law: "While everyone agrees that there are persisting discriminations and inequalities, I find dishonest the parallel between the [former] status of those colonized and the situation of their descendants. As the inheritor of a family history marked by the Algerian war, I cannot accept certain people revising history by evoking this fallacious parallel." She points out that the first congress of the FLN stated that the Algerian war was neither a civil war nor a war of religion; it wished to establish republican equality in Algeria, and was not opposed to the French model of republicanism, but only to the yoke of colonialism.[23]

Thus Sophia Chikirou believes that the Republic needs to be wary of those who invoke colonialist-era guilt to dismantle its secular egalitarianism and promote cultural relativism. She warns of following the example of Ontario, whose courts have begun to recognize shari'a rulings (after having granted similar rights to the Jewish and Christian communities). "In France we are not immune to such developments. Thus, one of the arguments used today by proponents of communitarian rights… is the blaming of France, which [they claim] needs to make repentance for its colonialist past…" While Chikirou believes in a reconstruction of French identity that would better suit the population's diversity, she warns that this can only be achieved within France's traditional universal republican model: "The Republic needs to confront the exaltation of cultural differences, which have been erected as cultural barriers. It needs to confront the demand for specific rights in the guise of reparation."[24]

She adds that over the past 20 years the French Left has been drawn into the relativist current of thought. While it has done this "out of a desire to recognize cultural difference, in the name of democratic progress," [25] Chikirou believes that this is a misguided approach: "Cultural relativism is not a manner of taking cultural diversity in our country into consideration. To the contrary, it compartmentalizes society by authorizing and justifying unequal treatment, which can even lead to inequality of rights under the guise of equitable justice."[26] She also avers that cultural beliefs and practices need not be taken as static givens: "Being a citizen does not mean to bask in the role of an ethnological reporter filming an Indian tribe in the Amazon. We cannot be mere spectators of our differences and forbid ourselves from looking [critically] at the other, under the pretext that he is what he is." As an example, she notes that despite being herself of Kabyle Berber background and active in Kabyle cultural activities, she has a critical view of some customs, and notably of Kabyle inheritance customs, which are even more discriminatory towards women than is Muslim inheritance law.[27]

Drawing on the thought of Jurgen Habermas and Henri Pena-Ruiz, she argues for a third way between refusal of cultural difference and acceptance of cultural relativism. For Chikirou, the principle of laicite guarantees respect for cultural difference within a common, universal framework.[28]

For Rachid Kaci, France's guilty conscience not only fails to facilitate integration; it is actually the root of the country's immigration problems. "In order for youth of immigrant background to be able to love France and recognize themselves in it, first the French must relearn to love it, and to love themselves."[29] While himself the son of a pro-independence FLN fighter,[30] he attacks those for whom French history is merely a chronicle of collective guilt: "It certainly does not do anyone any good to disfigure our past by accusing France of errors it did not commit, inciting the French to doubt themselves, their collective genius, and their legitimacy as a people, to the point where they lose pride in what they are.

"But more than anyone else, this has not done any good to the newly French, these millions of young men and women born in France to foreign parents… In order to become assimilated, or even just integrated… one has to first want to. How can one want to become assimilated or integrated into a people who doubt themselves?"[31]

*Daniel Lav is Director of MEMRI's Reform Project.


[1] Kabylia was, for instance, one of the few regions not to vote for the Islamic Salvation Front in the 1991-92 Algerian elections. See also MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1308, "Algerian Berber Dissidents Promote Programs for Secularism and Democracy in Algeria," October 6, 2006, Algerian Berber Dissidents Promote Programs for Secularism and Democracy in Algeria. For a historical overview of Kabyle secularism, see Yidir Plantade, "Laicite et atheisme en Kabylie: Mythes et amibguites" (Secularism and Atheism in Kabylia: Myths and Ambiguities), MERIA, Vol. 2 No. 1, January 2007.

[2] Sophia Chikirou, Ma France laique, Paris: Editions de la Martiniere, 2007; pp. 12-13.

[3] Ibid., pp. 19-21.

[4] Chikirou, pp, 27-8.

[5] Rachid Kaci, Lettre ouverte aux demagogues: Discriminateurs positifs, repentants, communautaristes, Paris: Editions des Syrtes, 2006; p. 77.

[6] Ibid., p. 41.

[7] Rachid Kaci, La Republique des laches: la faillite des politiques d'integration, Paris: Editions de Syrtes, 2003, p. 211.

[8] Ibid., p. 127.

[9] Lettre ouverte aux demagogues, pp. 71-72.

[10] Francoise Gaspard and Farhad Khosrokhavar, Le Foulard et la Republique, Paris: La Decouverte, 1995; cited in Paul Silverstein, Algeria in France, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p. 146.

[11] Le Monde (France), November 30, 1989; cited in Rachel Bloul, "Engendering Muslim Identities:

Deterritorialization and the Ethnicization Process in France," Women Living Under Muslim Laws, Dossier 19, February 1998.

[12] Ma France Laique, p. 13.

[13] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1368, "Former Marseilles Mufti Soheib Bencheikh: Islam Must Be Criticized, Just as Christianity Was…," November 28, 2006, Former Marseilles Mufti Soheib Bencheikh: ‘Islam Must Be Criticized, Just as Christianity Was [Criticized] During the Enlightenment; Islam is a Message for All Humanity – Therefore It Is Not the Property of Muslims [Alone]’.

[14] La Republique des laches, pp. 213-215; for more on Malek Chebel, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1325, "French-Algerian Scholar Malek Chebel: 'Islam Is the Only Monotheistic Religion that Advocates Free and Spontaneous Access to Sexuality'" October 17, 2006, French-Algerian Scholar and Author Dr. Malek Chebel: ‘Islam is the Only Monotheistic Religion That Advocates Free and Spontaneous Access to Sexuality’.

[15] The other signatories were Rachid Achour, Leila Babes, Messaoud Bouras, Abdelwaheb Meddeb, and Mohamed Sifaoui.

[16] Ma France laique, p. 37.

[17] Ma France laique, pp. 58-61.

[18] Lettre ouverte aux demagogues, p. 12.

[19] La Republique des laches, pp. 79-81.

[20] France does not collect official statistics on the size of its Berber population. Salem Chaker, professor at the French National Institute of Oriental Languages and Cultures (INALCO) estimates the Berber-speaking population of France as 1.5 million, with two-thirds being of Algerian origin, and one-third being of Moroccan origin. Salem Chaker, "Berber: A 'Long-Forgotten' Language of France," 2006, Said Doumane, another INALCO professor, puts the number at approximately 2 million; Said Doumane, "Langue maternelle et integration citoyenne: le cas des berberes," October 20, 2006,

[21] Ma France laique, pp. 60-61.

[22] Ibid., pp. 124-126.

[23] Ibid., pp. 29-30.

[24] Ma France laique, p. 96.

[25] Ibid., p. 97.

[26] Ibid., p. 100.

[27] Ibid., p. 101.

[28] Ibid., pp. 97-99.

[29] Lettre ouverte aux demagogues, p. 71.

[30] La republique des laches, p. 76.

[31] Lettre ouverte aux demagogues, p. 13.

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