Towards a New Relationship between Religion and State

in France


Speech given at the New Dehli Congress

Colloquium of the Inter-Religious Federation for World Peace (IRFWP)

February 1 7, 1993, Ashok Hotel, New Delhi, India



It might seem odd to choose as a topic of a paper at a conference on inter-religious cooperation the relationship between State and religions but in France, a country with a centralized government and a powerful State, this question has been central for each religion and will remain so, at least in the near future. It is affecting each faith in its efforts to define itself in relationship to our society and is also affecting relationships between the four main religious groups in France (Catholics, Muslims, Protestants and Jews).

1992 was the bicentennial year of the proclamation of the French Republic. Amidst the turmoil of the French Revolution, the First Republic brought about a clear separation between church and State but more than that, a new concept of man.

According to leaders and thinkers of the French revolution, man was first of all a citizen of the republic, a political and social being whose religious life should be confined to the limits of his private, individual existence. Even the 1789 declaration of Human Rights which was written mostly by moderates states that "Nobody should be troubled for his opinions, even for his religious convictions, so long as the manifestation of these opinions does not trouble public order." (Translation mine).

Instead of "even for his religious convictions" and considering the long history of religious conflicts and persecutions in France, the authors of the French Human Rights declaration might have been better inspired in writing "particularly or specially concerning his religious convictions.

But there was worse to come. In 1792 was voted the civilian constitution for the clergy (constitution civile du clergé), an attempt to make of all Catholic bishops and priests civil servants chosen and paid by the State. These members of the clergy had to pledge allegiance to the Revolution and were encouraged to marry, marriage being considered as a sign of reconciliation between the status of priest and the one of citizen. According to the same constitution, Catholic orders of monks and nuns were simply forbidden, monks and nuns being encouraged to marry with each other.

The refusal by members of clergy to accept this new "constitution of the clergy" was punished by a death sentence or their expulsion out of France. Later, at the peak of the terror period, all churches were closed or transformed into temples for the Reason goddess.

Even Maximilien Robespierre, leader of the radical wing of the Revolution, realizing that attacks against Christianity were going too far and could in the end undermine public morality or the so-called Republican morality and bring about a kind of anarchy, spoke strongly on Nov. 21 1793, a few months before his death, against the "dechristianization" of the country. In December of the same year, the government called for a return to the freedom of worship.

Leaders of the revolution were seeking for a kind of synthesis between a form of "enlightened" Christianity that would be "purified" from its mysteries and miracles and the Republican moral values along which the new generations would be educated to become good citizens.

A century later, after a long story of conflicts between the Catholic church and successive governments, the 1905 law of separation between church and State was much less radical than the revolutionary "constitution of the clergy". Nevertheless, Pope Pius X felt urged to excommunicate all the members of the French Parliament who voted for this law. According to this legislation, the State should remain neutral towards all religions, letting everyone free to express his beliefs, all religions being equal before the law. The law declared that all Catholic churches built before 1905 were property of the State but Catholics have had the entire freedom to operate these buildings as they wished. So the government, even if it was then controlled by people opposed to the Catholic Church, has to pass some kind of compromise with it, something understandable in a country where 80% of the people have been baptized within this denomination. The 1905 legislation had some good sides for religions, including the Catholic church.

One surprising result of the 1905 law was that the State did respect most Catholic holidays and still today in France, despite the decline of Christian faith, there are so many public holidays such as All Saints Days, the day of the Ascent of Jesus into Heaven, the Assumption of Maria day (August 15), the Joan of Arc day etc. during which nobody is supposed to go to work. The most ardent defender of these holidays is the communist led General Confederation of Labor Union which has been fighting in recent years a severe battle in order to keep shops closed on Sunday.

Both Protestants and Jews have viewed favorably the 1905 legislation which placed them on an equal footing with the Catholics. At the turn of the century, Protestants have played a key role in favor of a school free from Catholic influence. Thus a Protestant leader at that time, Ferdinand Buisson, argued that in order to respect religious pluralism, the school had to avoid any sign of belonging to a particular faith, even if this faith in the case of Catholicism was the one of the vast majority of Frenchmen.

To better understand the hostile attitude of governments towards Catholics then, it must be said that during most of the 19th century, the Church hierarchy had opposed democratic or republican movements in France, favoring a return to a kind of constitutional monarchy. Because of tensions between governments of the Third Republic (1871-1940) and the Catholic Church, law-makers were viewing any form of religious expression beyond the private sphere with concern. Something has remained of the French Enlightement concept of man as first of all a citizen, a political and social being.

The neutrality of the State was interpreted by law-makers as a strict neutrality and all signs of belonging to a particular religion in public places such as Bible, crosses, prayers or hymns, had to disappear. Children were taught at school a republican morality "l'intruction civique", teaching them how to become good, law-abiding citizens but no reference at all to God or to religion was allowed during instruction civique courses.

There was not such a thing as a "civilian religion" to use the word of Sorbonne historian Pierre Chaunu, a set of common Christian values shared more or less by all, whatever their particular denomination. This "civilian religion" has been depicted by Alexis de Tocqueville in his book "de la Démocratie en Amérique" as something typical of American society, a vital ingredient for its cohesion.

French people have always expressed some amazement when discovering that American presidents are taking an oath of office over the Bible, that the Bible is being used in courtrooms or when they discover that there is a prayer room in the Congress building. To see a politician during a campaign simply mentioning the name of God is quite rare in France but much less in the United States. The words "so help me God" are not heard on public occasions when someone is being sworn in.

Through these simple facts, we can see that there can be very different understandings of the concept of the separation between religion and State.

During the sixties and seventies, it seemed as if the hatchet between the State and religions had been buried for good along with the Vatican II council, the spirit of ecumenism and the general acceptance among Catholics of democratic values. Private schools owned by the Catholic Church, mainline Protestant churches and Jewish private schools came to be increasingly supported by the State particularly after 1960 and the Debré laws. To receive public funds, they had to pass a contract according to which the government would check the qualification of teachers and whether or not the educational program was fitting with the one of public schools.

During this period, France was government by conservative governments and the Socialist party supported by most teachers' unions was contending that the State had granted far too much to churches, particularly concerning private schools.

In 1981, when a Socialist, François Mitterrand, came to power, he had among his campaign promises a project to "unify" the school system and bring all Catholic, Protestant or Jewish schools under state control.

It was thought that this campaign promise would soon be forgotten but this was not the case and two years later, the Education Minister, Jerome Savary, proposed a law to go ahead with this project with the support of a Socialist-controlled parliament. Suddenly, a tide of massive demonstrations and marches against this law orchestrated by Catholic organizations and Parents' unions submerged the main French towns, with the largest demonstrations in Versailles and Paris (June 1984) gathering each well over a million people, numbers far higher than any demonstration organized by labour unions. The demonstrations were made in the name of the freedom of Parents to choose a school of their choice for their children and in the name of the defence of free, private and mostly Christian schools against the state-controlled education system. President Mitterrand could not neglect such a massive movement: the Savary law was promptly withdrawn and the Socialist-Communist coalition government was replaced by a mild Socialist government who despite the discontent of teachers' unions did not dare to speak again about unifying the education system.

This time, it seemed as if it was the end of an age with the failure of the last effort of the secular "laïque" movement to impose a control over education. The Paris daily le Monde spoke of "the end of an epoch marked by ignorance and reject between a State and a dominating Catholic religion". The government began to consult regularly religious leaders of many social issues such as immigration. It included representatives of the main Faiths in a National Committee on Ethics supposed to advise law-makers on difficult issues such as the use of genetics in fighting against some hereditary diseases.

The government became more and more involved in the restoration of old religious buildings, monasteries and churches. It invested large sums in the restoration of the St Denis cathedral where have been buried French kings among many other initiatives.

Jacques Lang, the culture minister, played a key role in this effort. Not only he helped for the restoration of the Chârtres cathedral, one of the most beautiful gothic building in the world, and supported the building just outside of the cathedral of a museum on religious art,

but his ministry helped financing largely the building of a new cathedral, the first being erected in decades, in the town of Evry, South of Paris.

In interview over a breakfast table, Lang told me that for himself did not believe in God, but he felt that in the name of culture, the government should do its best to preserve the Christian heritage of France and to make it known and admired by young people. This is done in the name of "culture", so from a Christian viewpoint, the motives behind these efforts are ambivalent but still, this reflects a rapid evolution from the traditional attitude of French politicians, particularly Socialists, towards religion.

An important aspect of this cooperation between religions and state concerns the teaching of religions at school from an historical viewpoint. This was first put forward by Cardinal Lustiger, the Archbishop of Paris who argued in an interview with the daily Le Monde in October 1988 that the simple understanding of French classics, of authors such as Bossuet, Pascal, Descartes, Racine or Corneille to name only a few, required a basic knowledge of Christianity which was lacking among young people.

"If we are not able to transmit, or if we transmit badly to young people this key part taken by Christianity in the edification of French culture, then these young people will not only have no longer access to a large share of our inheritance and will not understand the characteristics which are giving to our civilization its identity and its coherence. We will then see a similar fracture to the one which broke some ancient civilizations" the Cardinal said in his interview. He was striking a sensitive cord in a country where culture is highly viewed and the debate on the relationship between religions and state rebounded. He asked for a "redefinition of the separation between church and state" allowing the church to "continue to transmit the religious memory" to new generations in the difficult spiritual environment of modern societies.

Lustiger's call was echoed by other Catholic leaders an somehow the government reacted positively opening discussions with religious leaders,.

But as everything seemed to evolve in the right direction with a greater religion-State cooperation, a new challenge appeared which this time involved not the Catholic church versus the State but Islam.

Islam during the 1980's had become the second religion in France with over 3 millions members and. Many of these members, particularly young Arab second-generation immigrants, had difficulties in finding their place in French society.

In October 1989, a year after Lustiger's call for a "new laicity", a turmoil erupted, opposing the ministry of education to Muslims.

The facts which caused this turmoil would look insignificant in another context: two young high school girls insisted on wearing "Islamic scarves" around their faces and their necks inside classrooms. Their teachers felt the wearing of scarves meant a rejecting of republican values and they soon received the support of the National Federation of Education (FEN),the powerful teachers' union.

The ministry of education, the Catholic and Protestant churches, leading Socialist politicians, anti-racist organizations and the main newspapers, almost everybody took part in the controversy. The two girls were first expelled of the school, then after several weeks, some kind of arrangement was passed with the school Principal which received much pressure from the government to calm the situation and to find a compromise and the girls were allowed to wear their veils outside class-rooms and during mealtime.

Again the FEN which wanted the expulsion of the two girls felt betrayed as after the 1984 debate over Catholic schools by a government it had supported.

This controversy revealed that there was still a gap to bridge between Christians and Muslims.

Christians were worried that as they were progressing with the government towards a good cooperation, the growth of Islam which was not viewed favorably by many French people would hamper all this progress and bring them back to an hostile confrontation with the State. Lustiger, one of the most outspoken Catholic leader, said bluntly to the daily Le Monde (Nov.3.89) "Muslims will need at least 30 years" to understand how they should cooperate with the State and find their place in society. It was argued that Islam as a religion rejected did not accept or understand the religion-State separation concept.

Since then some steps have been taken in the right direction such as regular meetings between Muslim, Jewish, Christian leaders on Religion-State issues or the founding of the Ecole Laique des Religions at the end of 1992. One purpose of this school is "to show the common values shared by religions" and it has received the support of leaders of the main Faiths.

But all the steps have not been in the right direction. We have seen recently anti-Christian pamphlets distributed by Muslims and the main Christian radio, Radio Notre-Dame, airing this January a program in which a priest commenting on the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 24) explained that Mohamed was among the false prophets who would appear before the return of Christ. Also, there is a widespread intolerance towards Islam which shows no significant sign of a decline. In several towns, the population has been vigorously opposing the building of Mosques.

In order to advance towards a better cooperation with the State, some lessons should be and have to a certain extent been drawn from the 1989 controversy. It is clear that a dialogue with Islam is an absolute requisite if we want to defuse tense situations. Muslim leaders have accepted the idea of a formal dialogue with the government with the founding of the CORIF (Council on Islam in France). On the other side, the government should not try "to impose a narrow Western conception of Human Rights" on Islam in France, in the words of Islam expert Mohamed Arkoun. We have already seen some tensions within the CORIF between the Interior Minister, Paul Quiles and the rector of the Paris Mosque, Dalil Bourbakeur.

Another lesson to be drawn from this controversy is that cooperation with the State will not bring fruits if the main religions in France are too divided because in this case, groups favoring a strict division between religion and State will use these tensions between religions to block this cooperation. But if they are able to speak in a unified manner on moral or educational issues, the State will have no other choice but to listen.

Bernard Mitjavile

To return to the front page, click on index