Profile with Cecile Laborde

 Cécile Laborde FBA (France & St. Antony’s 1993) is Professor of Political Theory at University College London. She has published extensively in the areas of republicanism and multiculturalism, theories of law and the state, and global justice. Recent books include Critical Republicanism: The Hijab Controversy and Political Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2008) and Republicanism and Political Theory (co-edited with John Maynor; Oxford Blackwell 2007). She holds a degree in Political Science from Sciences Po Bordeaux and a DPhil in Politics from the University of Oxford. She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in July 2013.

 Rhodes Project: Can you tell me about a favourite childhood memory?

My parents took me to India when I was 2 1/2 years old. I have quite a few unforgettable memories: riding a baby elephant; watching my dad get off the train to take pictures of it while it was still moving; and being terrified of using the toilets in the aeroplane. But the best bug I got infected by was the travelling bug!

Rhodes Project: How did you first become interested in the study of politics and multiculturalism?

Cecile Laborde: I was always interested in politics, and in religion. Both were common topics of conversation (and dispute) at the family table, and I’m grateful to my parents  for that. During my first degree I spent some time in Senegal and wrote my first book on Islam. Then when I studied political philosophy at Oxford I became very interested in differences in national traditions of political thought, notably French republicanism and Anglo-American liberalism. All these interests came together in my work on the hijab controversy, and in my current work on the question of whether ‘religion’ is special. Interestingly, I’m now back to India too, as understandings of secularism and even of ‘religion’ are very different there!

Rhodes Project: If you could change one thing about the political and cultural dialogue surrounding the hijab in France, what would it be?

Cecile Laborde: I would change pretty much all of it at the moment. The debate about secularism, immigration and Islam has become hopelessly confused and, unfortunately, its terms are increasingly set by the right-wing, xenophobic agenda of the Far Right. It is a real shame, because I do think that a number of republican ideals – secularism, citizenship, equality, a shared public space – are very valuable. At times, I despair that the French are giving republicanism and laïcité a bad name!

Rhodes Project: What motivates you?

Cecile Laborde: I like to think that ideas matter in politics – and so academic work in political philosophy, even it is has a limited ambition (and certainly a limited readership!) contributes – a tiny bit – to making our politics more humane, more accessible, and more interesting. I also like to share my enthusiasm for my subject with students, colleagues, and more general audiences. 

Rhodes Project: What is one thing that you have learned from your students?

Cecile Laborde: The one thing I have learned from them is that I could learn from them! Coming from a French-style education, which is quite top-down, I tended to think that teachers had to know everything, and that teaching was a one-way street. Over the years, I have learned that students can bring as much to a class as a teacher. And my PhD students have been great – making me think in different ways, opening new avenues of research, and inspiring me at every turn.

Rhodes Project: If you hadn’t become an academic, what career would you have chosen?

Cecile Laborde: I would have loved to be an architect. Alternatively, I would happily have settled into the life of a London black cab driver. I love the city, I love driving, and I love listening to people’s stories, so it seems an ideal combination.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to your sixteen year old self?

Cecile Laborde: Don’t be in too much of a rush.

Rhodes Project: What does a perfect weekend look like to you?

Cecile Laborde: I quite like our routine London weekends: music school on Saturday morning with my girls; hot yoga in the afternoon, and perhaps a film or dinner. On Sunday, a walk on Hampstead Heath, a visit to a museum or perhaps a trip to the south coast. Essentials: good company and good food!

Rhodes Project: What is something you are looking forward to right now?

Cecile Laborde: I’m writing a ‘big’ book for Harvard University Press, which is not progressing as fast as it should. I would love to see the end of it! 

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