VIEW: The struggle for secularism, then and now —Raphaël Hadas-Lebel
There is no room in France for a new religious war. Indeed, when compared to other democratic countries, official secularism no longer appears to be just another ‘exception française’. On the contrary, secularism — whatever its particular legal framework — and democracy are intertwined. They must remain so
It is a strange irony that France is poised to celebrate the centenary of the law of December 9, 1905, that separated church and state at the very moment disorder has been roiling its cities. But passions have always surrounded the roles of church and state throughout French even if no direct link can be established between the recent riots and the exercise of French laïcité.
The struggle between church and state for political mastery goes back to the Middle Ages, when Philippe le Bel’s jurists sought to impose royal power over the Roman Catholic Church in France. Centuries later, the French Revolution provided liberty of conscience and religion across France.
The rabid anti-clericalism of the Revolutionary period gave way to more balanced church-state relations, with the Concordat agreed in 1801 between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII — an agreement that still applies in Alsace and parts of Lorraine.
Throughout the nineteenth century, Catholicism’s public role bred cruel fights between supporters of the clergy and their opponents, reflecting a more fundamental conflict between supporters of the Republic and advocates of a return to the old order. From the 1880s onward, as the Republic took root, a secular ideology arose that sought to emancipate state institutions — the educational system, first and foremost — from clerical influence.
Passionate battles marked the secularisation of schooling, and later the fight against religious congregations. With the outbreak of the Dreyfus affair, the religious question appeared more clearly than ever as a major political issue.
The law of 1905 — regarded by many to be the founding text of French secularism — was thus the culmination of a long historical process. While it may seem to be a declaration of war on religion, in many ways the law’s main aim is appeasement. Its first article declares that the Republic certifies liberty of conscience and “guarantees the free practice of worship under the sole restrictions enacted (...) by the interest of the public order.” Its second article specifies that “the Republic does not recognise, pay, or subsidise any cult.”
Thus, the state guarantees freedom of worship but does not interfere in the ways that different religious bodies function. France’s high court, the Conseil d’État, has enshrined this key principle: restrictions on faith to promote public order are legitimate, but they must not prevent people from worshiping. So the 1905 law — which established the process of maintaining a secular state known as laïcité — marks a balance between two purposes: the rejection of state control over religion, and the rejection of religion’s takeover of the state.
France is the only European country to proclaim its secular nature in its constitution, whereas Germany’s Basic Law refers to God and the Irish Constitution to the Holy Trinity. Church-state relations across Europe are extremely diverse. Some countries have a state church (United Kingdom, Denmark, Finland, Greece), some, like France, assert their secularism, and some combine separation of church and state with special treatment for certain denominations (Spain, Italy, Ireland, Sweden, and Portugal) or otherwise provide such recognition (Germany, Belgium, Austria, Luxemburg). But in reality, EU countries have more in common than what can be inferred from those differences.
In recent years, the French vision of a secular state has been increasingly called into question by the growing influence of Islam, which is now France’s second religion, at least in terms of the number of adherents. In order to help Islam find its place among France’s religions, the state encouraged the creation of a body to represent all French Muslim communities. During the last decade, the debate over the wearing of headscarves by Muslim schoolgirls aroused a new round of controversy about the meaning of laïcité.
A majority of French teachers saw the wearing of headscarves as the work of an organised movement that aimed to question the religious neutrality of schools — and even to contest, as the Roman Catholic Church did centuries ago, the very principles of the Enlightenment. It was this seeming provocation that inspired lawmakers to act, for they feared a communal divide within the educational system. After two years of experimentation, this renewed statement of the primacy of laïcité in France looks like an indisputable success.
More recently, calls to modify the 1905 law have been renewed. These aim at accommodating some specific difficulties, such as how to finance the building of Muslim mosques. France’s proclivity for highly ideological politics has merely aggravated an already polarised debate.
Then again, much is at stake in that debate. The law of 1905 marked a settlement of a divisive battle that must not be re-fought. There is no room in France for a new religious war. Indeed, when compared to other democratic countries, official secularism no longer appears to be just another exception française. On the contrary, secularism — whatever its particular legal framework — and democracy are intertwined. They must remain so. —DT-PS-IHS
Raphaël Hadas-Lebel, author of ‘101 Words about French Democracy’, is president of the social chamber of the Conseil d’État and associate professor at the Institut d’études politiques in Paris. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent any official position