This week, I will try and explain laïcité, a very French concept, very current, and one often misunderstood abroad.
In short, laïcité is the principle of absolute separation between state and religion. Religion is seen as a matter of opinion, strictly private. As such, the State protects its citizens’ freedom of conscience, and forbids anyone being attacked for their religious beliefs. But it also rigorously keeps religion at arms’ length and away from public places, i.e. run by the State.
It all started in the eighteenth century, when a young man, the Chevalier de la Barre, was judged, condemned, tortured, and then burnt to death. What or? He had kept his hat on as a religious procession went past. Such a cruel punishment for such a menial crime shocked sensibilities. The Enlightenment philosophers, led by Voltaire, argued vehemently against religious intolerance, and against the absolute power of the Catholic Church in pre-Revolution France.
In 1789, during the French Revolution, their efforts paid off. Freedom of conscience was spelt out in the Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen (Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen): “Nul ne doit être inquiété pour ses opinions, mêmes religieuses” “Noone should be troubled for their opinions, even religious ones”. This “même religieuses” is so telling. It emphasises how mind-blowing this new freedom must have been at the time. In those two words are of all the past sufferings caused by religious intolerances in France. From the terrible persecutions of Jews in the Middle Ages to the devastating Wars of Religion in the sixteenth century, culminating with the bloodbath of St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, there are so many victims.
Napoleon and the nineteenth century saw a return of the influence of the Church in France. It took another victim of religious intolerance for laïcité to emerge as a key principle of French public life. Captain Dreyfus was a French Army officer, who happened to be Jewish. He was accused and convicted of treason in 1894. Then, new evidence came to light that another officer had been the one selling secrets to the enemy, and framing Dreyfus for it. But a military tribunal tried to suppress the new evidence. French society split for years and years between the dreyfusards, who believed in the innocence of Dreyfus, and anti-dreyfusards, who considered that, as he was a Jew, Dreyfus’s loyalty to the nation was compromised anyway. A military tribunal found Dreyfus guilty in 1899, despite clear evidence of his innocence. He was then pardoned by the President of the Republic, and acquitted by a civilian tribunal in 1906. Thankfully for Dreyfus, the times were less brutal than the pre-Revolution era, and he escaped the scandal with his life. But the interminable affair (1894 – 1906!) highlighted the anti-Semitism rife in French society at the time, and in particular in the Army. The rift helped articulate an anticlerical, Republican, progressive left, against an anti-Semitic, Catholic, reactionary right. For the left, the principle of freedom of conscience written in the Declaration was not going far enough to counteract the influence of the Catholic Church in society, including in State institutions such as the Army. Laïcité was written into law in 1905.
Since then, the French State recognises no religion. Laïcité means to ensure the equality of citizens before the law, without consideration of their religious convictions. From this simple principle derive a multitude of practicalities that make France very distinctive. The président of the République does not swear on the Bible, as they would in the USA. There are no religious leaders in position of power in the Assembly or the Senate, as there are in the UK. No official form ever asks your religion, as in Germany: it is against the law.
In theory, no taxes go towards the building or maintenance of places of worship. Note however, that if these places of worship were built before 1905, they belong to the commune, i.e. the city, town or village, and so they are responsible for their upkeep. This is an enormous caveat, as the vast majority of churches, and the crosses (calvaire) you may see in the countryside, particularly in Brittany, pre-date 1905. Another caveat is that Alsace, and Moselle, were not part of France in 1905, and so laïcité does not apply there.
Cathedrals belong to the State. This is why Emmanuel Macron promised to rebuild Notre-Dame-de-Paris, after it was almost destroyed in a fire in April 2019. Notre-Dame is part of the cultural heritage of the nation, rather than simply a place of worship. The shock and sadness this blaze caused were indeed shared by all French people I know, regardless of their religious convictions.
Recently, school has become a particular clinch-point for laïcité. In public schools, no ostentatious religious sign, such as a hijab, a kippah or a big cross, is allowed, for staff and students alike. It helps to emphasize the difference between the common ground of knowledge delivered in schools, and the diversity of opinions, including religious beliefs.
More than a century on from 1905, Catholics (and Jews) have adapted to laïcité. There are private schools, and religious education (“catéchisme”) is organised around secular public schooling. So, in practice, the main objectors to laïcité in schools these days are Muslim parents. School canteens are a particular battleground. When pork is on the menu, should substitute meals be offered? The tension, obviously, is that if the State, through public schools, is too intransigent, it will end up driving parents to home-school their children, or to set up private religious schools, driving communities further apart. It is interesting to o bserve in this context that laïcité, which started as a left-wing principle, is now most robustly defended by the right and far right, which use it to push back against demands by Muslims.
Laïcité is sometimes misunderstood as being against Muslims. Macron defended laïcité, and the right to publish and to teach about the famous Charlie Hebdo caricatures, in the aftermath of the killing of Samuel Paty in October 2020. Many in the Muslim world, and some in the English-speaking press across the world, saw it as a defence of Islamophobia. It was not. It was a robust defence of the freedom of expression on the one hand, and of laïcité, the non-recognition of religious beliefs, in public school in particular, on the other. France guarantees freedom of conscience, and no-one can be attacked for the religion. But France also guarantees freedom of expression, and religions themselves, as they are considered mere opinions, can be, and are, laughed at freely. Islam is no exception.
The Conseil d’Etat decided in December 2020 that meals without pork in school canteens would not contradict laïcité. This, to me, is the triumph of the concept of laïcité as State neutrality in matters of religion, aiming for tolerance through insisting on a non-religious common ground (school). As opposed to the perception of laïcité as aggressively pitting the State against one particular religion or another.
For me, laïcité is fundamental to freedom of conscience (Liberté), equality of citizens before the law (Egalité), and tolerance of all people, whichever their religious and non-religious beliefs (Fraternité). But then again, I am French…