Earlier this year, a French university student union president named Maryam Pougetoux appeared on television in a hijab. Even though she was breaking no formal rules, her decision to wear a symbol of her religion while in her role as a student representative prompted national controversy.

The perceived lack of sympathy American reporters expressed in articles about the French antipathy to Pougetoux’s headscarf created a backlash against the US media; the cultural divide was laid bare.

So began recently returned ICWA fellow Karina Piser (France, 2017-19) at a talk about her fellowship at the Alliance Française DC on December 5. Although the role of laïcité—the state policy of secularism—has been central to France’s national identity since the Revolution, she said, for the staunchest secularists today, it has come to mean that religion—notably Islam—should be entirely confined to the private sphere.

That contradicts the very spirit of the state policy, Karina said—which, after all, is supposed to remain neutral toward religion, and all religions supposed to enjoy equal footing before the law.

    ICWA trustee Fabrice Houdart photographs ICWA executive director Gregory Feifer during his introductory remarks

Following her talk before a full crowd in the library of the Alliance townhouse in Washington’s Kalaroma neighborhood, Karina took part in a panel discussion on European migration and national identity with former ICWA fellows Malia Politzer (Spain, 2013-2015) and Jean-Benoit Nadeau (France, 1998-2000), moderated by ICWA trustee Pascal Saura.

    Karina Piser

Malia, a journalist based in Spain, spoke about her investigations into how migration is being managed across Europe. In Germany, she discovered large-scale financial mismanagement and exploitation in the wake of the refugee crisis: The private companies charged with running refugee centers cut corners to increase profits. “There was a lot of lack of shampoo, a lot of lack of toilet paper, of baby products,” she said. “So they really came under fire for human rights abuses.”

    Pascal Saura (left), Piser (center) and Malia Politzer

Pascal—a senior knowledge and learning officer at The World Bank—asked Jean-Benoit how he would use his position as a journalist to advise the French. There is every reason to think they will talk their way out of any identity crisis, he said. “Every time I speak with French people on the issue of laïcité,” Jean-Benoit said, “I always remind them that the discourse is considered in the absolute when in fact it’s a gigantic compromise.”

“They don’t acknowledge that, but their holidays are religious,” he added, and some state schools remain religious. “The Republic is perfectly capable of making any kind of compromise.”

Jean-Benoit is a freelance journalist and bestselling author of books on language and culture, including Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong, which came out of his ICWA fellowship in France.

Link to the video of Karina’s talk and panel discussion here.

    Feifer speaks to fellowship candidate Astha Rajvanshi

    The audience including Feifer, Alliance Française DC executive director Sarah Diligenti, ICWA board chair Paul Rahe, former ICWA trustee Julie Barlow and current trustees Fabrice Houdart, Jeff Race and Joe Battat