As a French citizen, I’m always surprised that in Great Britain, State and Religion are linked. For example, it would be totally unthinkable in France that the Head of State also be the Head of any Church. Whilst the Queen delivers a speech on Christmas Day, the French President presents his (not yet her) wishes on 31st December.
The French citizen is un individu, which means an individual in the etymological sense of cannot be divided (in = not + divide).
It means that the French citizen is to be considered in their irreducible human essence, an individual without age, without sex, without race, without creed – a transparent being.
Hence the motto of the French Republic, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. In particular, Liberté means much more than the freedom of the Nation. It means that every citizen is free to believe in what they choose, without any external interference and, in return, without interfering with anybody else’s beliefs. And Égalité means that nobody can be discriminated against – but it also means that positive discrimination is not acceptable either.
Those are the ideals of the French Republic, as they were established during the Revolution, which itself was immensely influenced by the 18th-century philosophers of les Lumières (the Enlightenment): Diderot, Montesquieu, and Rousseau, to name a few.
Unfortunately – and predictably – those ideals, which set high standards, were and still are very difficult to implement.
Already during the French Revolution, in response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a woman called Olympe de Gouges wrote and put forward the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen… which led her to the guillotine.
Also, in 1794, the Revolution abolished slavery, which Napoléon I re-established in 1802: business is business!
And, in the 20th century, in contradiction with the principles, the French Parliament had to pass several laws establishing some forms of positive discrimination: for example so that women would be better represented in public life and so that disabled people would get a fairer access to employment.
In line with the founding ideals of the Revolution, the law on the Separation of the Churches and State was passed in 1905. Since then, laïcité in France (secularism) has been a principle separating the political power from the religious organisations – the State having to remain neutral – and which has guaranteed the freedom of worship.
That principle also asserts freedom of conscience, no opinion whatsoever being above any other (religion, atheism or freethinking), thus building the republican equality.
Through the principle of laïcité, the Republic doesn’t fight religions, but keeps them out of the political and administrative sphere of decisions, thus keeping religious, spiritual and philosophical beliefs and ideas in the exclusive sphere of individual freedom and freedom of conscience.
Laïcité also attempts to conciliate freedom of conscience (everyone has the right to believe in what they choose) and freedom of thought.
It means that the State, through its public schools, intends to foster emancipation by giving each citizen the opportunity to learn to think freely without being locked in the ideas of their native social, religious or ethnic group. Public schools must allow each individual to be confronted to different systems of thought, different cultural references, so that they can make choices more freely.
That’s why so many French people were appalled when the present President, Nicolas Sarkozy, declared, during a recent visit to the Pope, that “the roots of France are essentially Christian”.
Such words are being part of a wider policy consisting in dividing the French society into categories (whereas the Republic defines itself as une et indivisible), in order to oppose some against others.
A wider policy in which the French Muslims ⁽¹⁾ are systematically pointed out as scapegoats. A wider policy in which the Home Secretary ⁽²⁾ bans street prayers whilst banning the building of new mosques…
(1) Islam is the second-most widely practised religion in France behind Roman Catholicism by number of worshippers, with an estimated total of 10-12 per cent of the national population.
(2) In France, the Home Secretary is also the Minister of Worship (or Minister of Ecclesiastical Affairs) and is thus responsible for overseeing the French government’s relationship with religions.
Tympanum of a French church. The Republican motto “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” was put on in 1905 (following the French law on the separation of the Churches and State) to show that this church was owned by the state. Such inscriptions are very rare, and this one was restored in 1989 during the bicentennial of the French Revolution.
Here is the first Article of the French Republic’s Constitution:
France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion. It shall respect all beliefs. It shall be organised on a decentralised basis.
Statutes shall promote equal access by women and men to elective offices and posts as well as to professional and social positions.