The separation between Religions and the State in France has been the subject of a number of comments outside France. Some foreigners consider it as a model to be adopted while others firmly reject it. Everyone sees it according to their own or local concerns but eventually few people really know the situation of the Separation in our country.

Is it different in France? I am not quite sure.

Secularism, which had been no longer -or scarcely- debated, has been back on the agenda, mainly because of the efforts of the Free Thought.

In this pre-election period, all the candidates are talking about Secularism. Is it the same secularism as ours, the one we are fighting for? Or is it a vision which remains theirs and sounds mainly as an anti-secularism or some sort of secularism with a modifier?.

Without bothering to write the History of secularism in France, let us remind that it has been a long struggle.

During the Enlightenment, the idea is reasserted that the State, which is not yet a Republic, can rule the citizens without the assistance of religions.

For example: Diderot concerning the power of religion, in his letter to a king or concerning a free society; Voltaire on religious intolerance; Condorcet and the Encyclopaedia on the progress of knowledge and public education separate from religions; D’Holbach on Atheism; And Kant, Rousseau, Choderlos de Laclau and even Fenelon…

And when the Revolution broke out, as early as the 26th of August, 1989, Article 10 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen provided: “No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law”.

This declaration was followed by the first separation in 1795, which did not last long.

Nearly one century later, the Paris Commune decreed the Separation on the 3rd of April, 1871. But the Paris Commune lasted only two months.

Therefore on the 9th of December, 1905, the Third Republic implemented the Separation between Religions and the State.

Three articles in this law are fundamental and have been called into question on a regular basis:

  • Article 2: “The Republic does not recognize, pay salaries for or subsidize any worship”
  • Article 27 on external religious demonstrations
  • Article 35 on the Clergy’s resistance against the implementation of laws

Now, since 1905, the clerical reaction has not stopped trying to reduce the scope of the law and these attempts have often been successful.

This is a coordinated and carefully designed onslaught aiming at one main target as well as some secondary targets.

The main target is education.

Since the Falloux Law [1850], the Catholic Church has been continually trying to take over the system of education which is necessary to perpetuate its religious education and its influence on society. In that effort, the Church has taken advantage of the objective complicity of the State.

After it gained the right to maintain a religious system of education – which had never been contested seriously – the Church has whittled away large sections of what had seemed to be the monopoly of the State.

Let’s remind the following points: lessons on “religious facts” which have taken the place of lessons of ethics; the creation of chairs of theology outside the departments where the Napoleonic Concordat is applied; religious training of imams at the Catholic University of Lille, the university label itself being usurped, which does not prevent the delivery of university degrees by those “free universities” and yet the delivery of higher education degrees is a legal prerogative of the State; places of worship made available for public exams without removing the crucifixes and other religious signs; financial backing of private schools with municipal funds previously earmarked for public education; the Guermeur Law has granted the same benefits and the same career for the schoolmasters of the private sector as for those of the public sector of education and eventually all the expenses of Catholic schools have been paid by the State; all that was completed by the Carle Law which is designed to guarantee “parity funding” between public primary schools and “associated” private primary schools1 and the generalization of chaplaincies.

A particular mention should be made of the Debré Law, which the National Federation of the Free Thought has repeatedly demanded the repeal. Indeed, granting private religious education the status of a public service of education amounts to putting public education in competition with private education because both systems are put on the same footing concerning funding by the State and the municipalities. The low funding of public education has no other explanation. Undoubtedly, if the subsidies earmarked for education were allocated to public education exclusively, the funding would match the hopes.

Let’s keep in mind that the major part of the tax allocated to apprenticeship and vocational education and training, which is collected by the Chambers of Commerce and managed freely by them, goes to the private sector.

In fact everything is done as if the final privatization of education were already planned.

In addition, secondary goals assist and strengthen anti-secularist claims. These are onslaughts in different fields such as attempts to re-establish public processions or successful requests for subsidies to build or maintain places of worship and chaplaincy services.

Concerning chaplaincy, the Guéant Circulaire2 of 2011 provides that religions shall be associated to the management of public hospitals, changing chaplains into public servants to assist the health care team: “Through his ethical dimension, the chaplain’s assistance is enriching for all and the chaplain enlightens the health care team, if necessary”. As if they needed a chaplain.

For the record, the status of the Concordat in the departments of Alsace and Moselle should be mentioned since no-one is demanding its repeal; quite the contrary, election platforms are considering the extension of this status to other religions that were absent in those territories when the Napoleonic Concordat was signed.

In addition to those attempts to call into question the separation of the Churches and the State, the courts dealing with civil law, particularly the State Council of the Republic, hand down rulings that make the provisions of the 1905 law less strict and advocating Canadian-like reasonable accommodation.

Those violations of the 1905 Law encourage other religions in their demands for provisions concerning their own worship, including imposing them to other groups.

Only for the record, let’s mention the opening hours, different for men and women, at swimming-pools, the women’s demand to be examined only by female doctors, the exclusion of pork meat at school meals, the demand of separate religious burial sites in municipal cemeteries, which is explicitly condemned by the law.

It is quite obvious that as long as law courts no longer systematically rule against the multiple violations of the separation and as public authorities close their eyes, secularism is in danger in France.

This trend – which began a few years ago- has found a major allied in so far as M. Sarkozy’s book, “Republic, Religions, Hope” would have openly tolled the bell for French Secularism if a number of people, including particularly the National Federation of the Free Thought, had not firmly protested.

And yet nothing is won.

When it is written that religions should have a position “within” the Republic, and that “religious thought and religious practice can assist in appeasing and regulating a free society” and that “the republican baby- naming ceremony cannot be put on the same level as the religious baptism” and that it is necessary “to build synagogues, churches and mosques in suburban areas”, that “opening places of worship in large urban areas is as important as opening sports halls…” and that “the payment of salaries to religious ministers is necessary” , one is not surprised when opponents of secularism have reasons to act to put an end to it.

Whereas during election campaigns it is good form to claim being an advocate of secularism, those good intentions do not go beyond freedom of conscience. When the suggestion is made to introduce the concept of secularism into the Constitution, it is that sort of freedom which is at stake. But no one has proposed to write: “The Republic does not recognize salary or subsidize any worship”.

That very sentence is important because it is no longer respected. And yet, it is the basis of the Separation.

From this viewpoint, the campaign of the National Federation of the Free Thought should be increased in months and years to come.

Jacques Lafouge