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Laïcité: Why French Secularism is So Hard to Grasp

Laïcité: Why French Secularism is So Hard to Grasp
 Anastasia Colosimo
Professor of Political Theology

The 1905 French law separating the Church and the State is now over a hundred years old. The laïcité (or secularism) principle it defines, despite the term not being mentioned in the text, is unique in the world and is an integral part of France’s contemporary political DNA

However, this principle is protected neither by the fact that it is legal nor by its relatively old age. Indeed, it is controversial both at the national level, where it is subject to contradictory debates, and at the international level, where France is often accused of having an intolerant and discriminatory system. 

"Laïcité is the product of the long evolution of the relationship between the Church and the State."

Laïcité is the product of the long evolution of the relationship between the Church and the State. If Rome’s authority impregnated Western Europe up to the Reformation, France partially broke away from Papacy with the rise of the Capetian monarchy. From the beginning of the 14th century, Philip IV of France opposed the Pope’s interference in kingdom affairs. He inaugurated an autonomy policy, which partly includes the ecclesiastical establishment and posits that, in its order, the civil jurisdiction does not recognize any superior jurisdiction. A principle the religious wars tragically confirmed. 

This State demand will subsequently animate the Gallican movement, which reaches its peak under Louis XIV with the Declaration of the Clergy of France of 1682. Affirming implicitly that the Church’s field of play is limited to spiritual representation, outside of temporal realities, amounts to ingraining in national patrimony the idea that political power precedes religious authority. The Enlightenment movement in France later takes advantage of this first breach in the wall and breaks with the traditional heteronomy principle during the Revolution. Universal reason must now arm itself against obscurantism and intolerance! Jacobinism will materialize this ambition in their intent to erect a cult of the Supreme Being, before the Republic settles for the liberalization of cults, including Protestantism and Judaism, and the privatization of belief.

The State’s powerful comeback nonetheless occurs with the Empire. The Concordat signed by Napoleon I in 1801 with the Vatican is accompanied by the creation of the Great Sanhedrin, then of the Central Consistory of Israelites, as well as by the institutionalization of the Reformed and the Lutherans. If ministers of religious affairs have a public status and treatment, they remain under government control, to which they are obliged to swear their loyalty. The following regimes will more or less endorse this logic, which will however disturb the rising debate between tradition and modernity.

The clash between the “two France” dominated the Third Republic, which positioned itself as essentially secular. But this notion divided the progressist group into various trends. The first was pragmatic and aimed to reclaim the mastery of education, health and social care, which led to several “nationalization” laws in the two last decades of the 19th century. The second was rather ideological and tried to foster a religion and a civil myth able to substitute two existing faiths - this explains why the Pantheon was built. The third was mainly political and wished to increase the separation between the public and the private spheres, in order to avoid both interference and discrimination - a way to ease a conflict that could have been detrimental to the nation. 

The latter, more moderate, is the guiding principle of the 1905 law. Article 2 both dictates that “the Republic neither recognizes nor employs nor subsidizes cults”, and guarantees the freedom of each cult, as long as they do not violate public order. The State abolishes the particular rights granted to institutions or religious congregations, and confines religion itself to personal and private subjectivity. It only recognizes citizens, independently of their background, whether it be religious, ethnic, or other. However, despite the fact that it was conceived to neutralize communitarianism, this law is not devoid of prejudices. It was constructed around the historicism according to which the future of humanity largely depends on the emancipation of religion. This “laïcism” provoked the loss of part of France’s cultural identity on this typical issue. Nonetheless, the two World Wars mitigated this optimism and the Fifth Republic opted, once more, for a “healing” policy during the Glorious Thirty, from 1945 to 1975. 

"Laïcité provokes a lot of incomprehension outside of the country"

The conception of laïcité as a shared and accepted modus vivendi was destabilized twice from the 1980s onwards: first by the diversification of faiths caused by migration to France, and second by the “return of God” in politics, a movement spreading across the globe. This unsettles the French elite like nothing before. Rethinking religion while at the same time retaining its founding principles becomes a matter of urgency. Confronted with the rise of extremisms, in particular radical Islam, and with the inflation of communitarian claims, the Republic stands strong. Religious signs at schools are restricted in 2004, concealing one’s face in public spaces is forbidden in 2010, and, one thing leading to the other, Nativity scenes were proscribed in town halls in 2016. The public sphere springs from equality and neutrality, which, in this context, take over religious license.
The Republic may still be standing, but it is not exempt of increasingly persisting criticisms. In Paris, the political milieu and the media split between partisans of a strict version of laïcité, thus incarnating the general will against all the particular wills, and partisans of an open version of laïcité, both liberal and libertarian, i.e. aligned with their time. The quarrel goes beyond the country’s borders, and France is regularly accused of intolerance towards religions by part of the international community. In reality, these two debates merge into one: strict laïcité, i.e. French laïcité, vs open laïcité, i.e. Anglo-Saxon communitarianism.

However, no matter how violent the debate is, revising the 1905 law appears inconceivable to a majority of French people. Indeed, such a change would profoundly challenge the national cement uniting France, the political reason structuring its culture, and the emancipation principle animating its History. Laïcité provokes a lot of incomprehension outside of the country, which isn’t surprising given the current financial globalization trend that privileges individual rights over collective fraternity. Yet, in France, the political community takes precedence over subjective communities, as it is the only body able to guarantee both freedom and equality. And a community transcending particular interests cannot exist without universalism, the founding principle of laïcité

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