In France today, pork has become political. A series of conservative mayors have in recent months deliberately withdrawn the pork-free option from school lunch menus. Advocates of the policy claim to be the true defenders of laïcité, the French secular principle that demands neutrality towards religion in public space. Opponents see the new menus as an act of deliberate provocation against France’s Muslim minority. A glance at the politics of pork in nineteenth-century France shows us just how much arguments over laïcité have changed in the last century and a half.
This is not the first time that pork has served as a weapon in the culture wars surrounding religion in modern France. On 10 April 1868 a group of leading Parisian writers, including the novelist Gustave Flaubert and the historian Ernest Renan – whose Life of Jesus had just scandalised the French public – gathered with the literary critic Sainte-Beuve to eat a lavish banquet resplendent with pork dishes.
The meal deliberately subverted the Catholic tradition according to which Christians should refrain from eating meat on Good Friday and consume only fish. Fatty pork sausages occupied a special place on the menu. They symbolised the free-thinkers’ disdain for the restrictive observances of religious life and offered opportunities for innuendo, such as ‘Vicar’s Sausage.’ In response, some Catholic activists started calling free-thinkers ‘sausagers’ (saucissonniers).
The banquet was widely imitated and vendredi dit saint – ‘Supposedly-Holy Friday’ – soon became a popular tradition among ‘free-thinking’ groups in France. The diners at these banquets aimed to enrage their enemies on the Catholic right. They became especially popular during times of political conflict between Republican governments and the Catholic Church, such as the 1880s and 1900s. In fact the tradition lives on in France’s free-thinking associations and a meat-filled Easter banquet can still raise a crowd even in small villages.
At the end of the nineteenth century, anticlericalism and secularism were values associated with the political left. Socialists still claim ownership of laïcité today but in recent years the languages of the ‘Republic’ and ‘laïcité’ have migrated far beyond their traditional home. The former President Nicolas Sarkozy has renamed the mainstream conservative party ‘The Republicans’, while the Front National claims to promote both ‘the spirit and the letter of the 1905 law’ separating church and state. Laïcité is everywhere: even campaigners for a vegetarian option at schools proclaim their project (somewhat playfully) as the ‘ultimate secular menu’ (menu laïque).
The political migration of laïcité provides the context for the recent assault on pork-free meals in towns like Châlon-sur-Saône. The 1905 law had nothing to say about school lunches. Current national legislation mandates only that schools should provide balanced meals, bread, and water, and allows allergy sufferers, vegetarians or religious minorities to bring a packed lunch where necessary. In practice, many school canteens directly accommodate student diversity.
Those first sausage-eating liberals at the 1868 banquet were in fact quite sympathetic to Christianity in principle but they lived in a society where a profoundly conservative Catholic Church wielded great power and influence. They had first-hand experience of repression and restriction that was often justified in religious terms. Flaubert had been tried for obscenity over the adultery scenes in his novel Madame Bovary, while Renan had lost his professorship when he denied the divinity of Jesus. For these men, eating pork on Good Friday symbolised the freedom both to think for oneself and to defy or even offend repressive institutions.
By contrast, actions such as the removal of pork-free meals do not boldly confront any real threat to liberty or society or powerful institutions. Those who want to use school menus as a vehicle for combat argue that they are simply extending the application of a principle: laïcité. But the 1905 law was itself the product of compromise between church and state. The state made provision for Catholic holidays and even continued to fund religious schools. Moreover, a powerful argument for laïcité has always been that it liberates people through the medium of religious neutrality, rather than constraining them through the enforcement of cultural conformity.
Determining the boundaries of religious freedom in a liberal and pluralistic society is a challenge for all modern polities. At its best, the history of laïcité in France has been a story of constructive negotiation rather than ideological combat. Commentators and historians will, of course, continue to argue how successful these negotiations have been. But, despite France’s long history of political pork and secularist sausages, it seems best to keep that more confrontational and petty brand of laïcité ‘off the menu.’
Headline image credit: Sausage pork delicatessen by jackmac34. Public domain via Pixabay.