French Secularism - Laicite Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

French Secularism - Laicite

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The French concept of laïcité is often difficult to understand for foreigners, in part because the word itself is not easy to translate. As it signifies the strict separation of Church and State, the closest approximation in English is secularism. However, that does not fully convey the importance of laïcité in France.

At the end of 2003 and the beginning of 2004 the French newspapers seemed to talk about little else, due to the December 2003 report of the Stasi Commission (set up by Bernard Stasi to investigate the application of laïcité in France) and the resulting law of February 2004. This law, recommended by the commission, forbids school students to wear any conspicuous religious or political signs or symbols, such as the Islamic headscarf, the Jewish skullcap or large Christian crosses. The law is due to take effect at the beginning of the 2004-2005 school year.

Such a measure was seen as extremely unusual and almost incomprehensible by many in other countries. However, in order to better understand the importance of secularism or laïcité in France, it is necessary to trace the history of the relationship between the Church and the State, beginning at the time of the French Revolution.

A History of an Idea

Religion and Revolution

Although the idea of religious tolerance had been around since 1598, when the Edict of Nantes made it permissible for Protestant Christians to practise their religion, before 1789 the Roman Catholic Church was still a major part of the French system of government. Within the rigid social structure of the French Estates (known as the Ancien Régime), the clergy, or First Estate, wielded considerable power. Not only was the Church responsible for collecting the tithe from the ordinary workers and operating the hospitals and schools, it also had powers of censorship and owned around 15% of the land in France. The clergy can be seen as being divided into two groups. The lower clergy was made up of the parish priests and gained little from the power and wealth of the Church. However, the upper clergy, which consisted of the bishops and abbots, often used and abused their position to gain personal riches and property. These members of the Church, instead of serving the people, grew rich at their expense and were strongly resented by the French workers.

This was the situation until the Revolution of 1789, when the French people sought to overthrow not only the monarchy and its supporters, but also the whole social and political system, including the Roman Catholic Church. Although the Church survived the revolution, according to the ideology of the new republic it could no longer remain a separate estate with its own possessions. Therefore, the new government confiscated the land and assets belonging to the Church and auctioned them off to help resolve the financial problems that had led to the revolution. The state also attempted a huge restructuring of the Church hierarchy and demanded that the clergy swear allegiance to the French government ahead of the Church. Only 54% of priests complied with this request, but nevertheless, this attempt to bring the Catholic Church under state control can be seen as the beginning of the development of secularism in France.

Naturally the French government and the Vatican were at odds over the status of the Roman Catholic Church in France. This dispute was only resolved in 1801, when Napoleon Bonaparte signed a Concordat with the Pope, which officially brought the Catholic religion under state control. However, the document stated that so long as the Church confined its authority to religious affairs and kept within the rule of the law it would be allowed to run itself. Roman Catholicism was recognised as the faith of the majority of French citizens, but Napoleon also named Judaism and the Lutheran and Reformed Churches as being officially recognised by the state. Although these four 'official' religions received state funding and protection, none of them were given the status as the religion of the state. France had begun to view faith as a matter for each individual citizen rather than for a nation as a whole.

The Rights of Man

Another result of the French Revolution was the development of The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. This was a list of 17 rights to which every French citizen was entitled. The National Assembly believed that government corruption and public disaster always stemmed from the disregard of one of the essential human rights and so swore these principles would underpin all French laws and statutes from that time onwards.

Article 10 of the Declaration stated that: 'No-one should be disturbed on account of his opinions, even religious, provided their manifestation does not upset the public order established by law.' This right of every French citizen to follow his or her own religion is the basis of the country's modern day principle of secularism. And although the word laïcité was not used in 1789, this is the first written evidence of the principle in French documents.

The 1905 Law

Despite this, it wasn't until 1905 that the principle of secularism in France was fully developed and set down as a law. This was mainly due to increased conflict between atheist government ministers and members of the Catholic Church who had been allowed to work in schools and hospitals. In 1880, Jules Ferry (an ancestor of the education minister who oversaw the 2004 law) sought to completely eliminate religious personnel from state-run schools as part of his education reforms. This was taken a step further by Emile Combes who, in 1902, closed the majority of religious schools and as Prime Minister was behind the movement in favour of a law guaranteeing the independence of the state from religion.

Although Combes resigned in early 1905, the law was passed later that year. The law of 1905 enshrined a number of already-applied principles in law, but it also officially ended Napoleon's Concordat and imposed a number of new measures. The main terms of the law were:

  1. No religion could be supported by the state, either by financial aid or political support.

  2. Everyone had the right to follow a religion, but no-one had an obligation to do so.

  3. Religious education at school was strictly forbidden.

  4. No new religious symbols could be placed in public places, including graveyards.

A number of current French historians view this law as effectively a privatisation of religion, and it is clear that after passage of this law, religion was strictly the private business of each individual. However, the law continued to uphold the right of all citizens to follow their religion 'as much in public as in private'1 so long as this did not disturb public order.

Challenges to Secularism in the 20th Century

Despite the 1941 repeal of the 1905 laws by the Vichy government, and the subsequent restoration of the majority of these laws by De Gaulle after the liberation of France, French secularism faced little challenge until the 1970s. Due to France's growing economy in the 1960s, the government turned to immigration as a solution to their labour shortage. They enticed workers from their former colonies of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia to fill job vacancies, granting visas but not French citizenship to their families. These countries have strong Islamic traditions, although those who chose to move to France were, on the whole, not strongly religious.

However, many of the children of these immigrant workers - French citizens who had lived in France all their lives - found it difficult to discover a place for themselves in society, and perhaps as part of their search for identity they turned to a more visible version of the religion of their parents. During the 1970s to the 1990s there were a number of cases of girls who were expelled from school because they insisted on wearing their headscarves in lessons. The headscarves seemed to concerned teachers to be compromising the other students' right to an education free from religious influences.

Although the numbers of students affected were relatively small, official figures from 2003 counted 1,256 young women who wore the headscarf, 20 of whom were considered difficult cases and four of whom had been expelled. Clearly, not every case ended in expulsion; more often a compromise was reached between the individual girl and her school. Nevertheless, the situation became increasingly tense until July 2003 when the Stasi Commission was set up.

The Current Debate

The Stasi Commission

This Commission was led by Bernard Stasi and had the brief of examining the application of the principle of secularism in France, particularly in the light of tensions relating to the Islamic headscarf. After discussions with 120 selected French citizens of different opinions, religious beliefs and origins, the Commission published its report in December 2003.

The principle recommendation of the Commission was the establishment of a law forbidding students at any state school to wear any conspicuous religious or political sign. It also recommended the institution of public holidays to mark important dates in the Moslem and Jewish calendars in addition to the already-established Christian feast days, and the setting up of a specialist school dedicated to the study of the Islamic religion. However, all other recommendations were forgotten in the debate over banning religious signs in schools.

The Debate in France

The most fascinating thing about the debate in France was that both those who supported the law and those who opposed it did so in the name of laïcité. The concept is now such an integral part of the country's heritage that the dispute centred on whether a more modern and liberal form of secularism was needed in the new millennium. Essentially, the law had to strike a balance between two of the central principles of the French Republic: freedom and equality. Those in favour of banning all religious signs stated that at school everyone was a student first and that individual beliefs were secondary, whereas those against argued that equality was not the same thing as uniformity and that secularism should become more encompassing as the ethnic make-up of French society changed.

Those supporting a ban argued that the headscarf was a symbol of the repression of women, although the women themselves protested and argued that it was their choice, their right and their religion. Perhaps there was some truth in both opinions, but it seemed an irreconcilable disagreement. When it came to a vote, however, the more conservative interpretation of secularism won by a huge majority. Only 16 representatives voted against the law, as opposed to 494 who were in favour. According to the surveys at the time, this is broadly representative of the opinion of the French general public.

The 2004 Law - Continuing Uncertainty

The aim of the law was to clarify previous legislation on the subject and to give an obvious political backing to teachers in conflicts over headscarves and other religious symbols in schools. Unfortunately, even the leaflet published by the French government was unclear. Two different newspapers received completely different impressions regarding which symbols were to be banned and which were not. The biggest misunderstandings were over the bandana - often worn as an alternative to the headscarf, and over beards grown for religious reasons; these are difficult to regulate for obvious reasons.

An Ongoing Battle?

In the past France, more so than most other countries in the western world, had to fight to free itself from the authority of a Church whose political and social control was virtually complete. For a long time afterwards, the forces of religion were, sometimes unfairly, associated with monarchy and autocracy and were seen as an obstacle to modernisation and democracy. Secularism won that battle, and the French freed themselves from the control of the Roman Catholic Church.

However, because of past precedent it is very easy for the French to interpret any strong religious views as a direct threat to their freedom and way of life, even when this is not the intention. Such a visible symbol of religious belief as the Islamic headscarf is seen as intimidating, a view supported perhaps by the actions of fundamentalist terrorists in the wider world. It would seem disturbingly ironic if, as many journalists in other countries have suggested, the French government ends up helping the terrorists by leading youngsters to believe that their own country will not allow them to follow the rules of their faith.

The young women expelled from their schools because of their refusal to remove their headscarves argue that their freedom is being restricted - an argument that would strike a chord in the United States or Britain. However, in France, personal freedom, though important, comes second to preserving the strict neutrality of the state. In the western world, where controversial opinions and strong convictions often have the effect of making people feel slightly uncomfortable, France has stood by and even strengthened a century-old law. Cultural differences between the countries of the West may be declining in the main, but it seems those that remain create a wider gulf of opinion than ever before.

Further Reading

For more information about French history, see these Entries from the Edited Guide:

In addition, BBC World Service offers Pretender to Universalism: Western Culture in the Globalising Age a lecture by Professor Ali Mazrui discussing the conflicts arising from increased globalisation of Western cultures.

1From Article 18 of the revised Declaration of the Rights of Man.

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