I’m near Bordeaux spending the weekend with my family, and I spotted this sign on a local school. I love the lettering, the colour, and the fact that it states that the school is laïque. I wondered how I would translate this very French word into English; the first one that came to mind was secular, but I knew this wasn’t quite right. So straight after coming back (and eating my 11am chocolatine), I got down to work.
1560s, from Late Latin laicus, from Greek laikos “of or belonging to the people,” from laos “people” as opposed to klerikos (clerc), which designate religious institutions. Incidentally, the English word lay (uneducated; non-clerical) has the same origin.
So laïcité is a legal or institutional system based on the separation of churches and State and is all about the social role and the place of religion within institutions and civil society. In France, this system was put in place by the 1905 law, which sets out that the State does not recognise, remunerate or subsidise any religion, and guarantees complete freedom of conscience.
The field of secularisation is wider: whilst it also concerns itself with replacing religious laws with civil laws, it also works within the private sphere, not just on the level of the State, with the aim of emancipating consciences and human society from religious rule.
Hence the problem with translating école laïque: it refers to a precise institutional system rooted in French history, and a footnote would be handy to explain its meaning. If I had to provide a translation on the hoof, while interpreting for example, I think I’d say non-denominational state school. Any better ideas?