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French secularism (laïcité) seen as a precondition for human rights

Prof. Maurice Barbier says that separation of church and state prevents the state from supporting any religion or interfering with it ― and obliges religion to leave the public sphere open to all. When both sides respect the boundaries, secularism provides a framework for freedom of conscience, tolerance and democracy. Secularism does not guarantee human rights, but it helps make them possible.

 These two women on a French propaganda poster [1] from World War I still symbolise the two legal regimes in France today. The majority of the French live under the 1905 Separation Law which cancelled Napoleon's concordat. However, the minority, who were under German rule when the concordat was scrapped, find themselves still bound by it. On the poster the majority are represented by the French-speaking "Marianne", in vaguely classical "republican" drapery, who kisses the Tricolour. The minority are depicted as her more traditional sister who speaks the German dialect, Alsatian, wears the regional costume of Alsace and gazes admiringly (but modestly) at the young soldier defending the fatherland.

 In 1905, when the law separating church and state in France was passed, Alsace (and Moselle) were under the Kaiser. When they were returned to France at the end of World War I, they brought back Napoleon's concordat to this northeastern corner of France. This poses an ideological problem for the French Government. Laïcité, (secularism) is the basis for most of France today, but not for Alsace-Moselle. In the name of national unity, however, Alsace-Moselle must somehow be described as "secular" just like the rest of the country ― even though it is under a concordat. Prof. Barbier obliges with the required intellectual gymnastics, and his piece [2] is posted on the official French Government website.

However, the extracts below do not include Prof. Barbier's valiant attempts to find some way to call the Alsace-Moselle' setup "secular", and the confusing terminology that results. In essence, he claims that the 1801 Concordat, which remains substantially in force in Alsace-Moselle, still lets the inhabitants enjoy French secularism – just a different version. Quite amazingly different, if we look at the facts of daily life. For concrete examples, of this variant of "secularism", (details not touched upon in Barbier’s abstract discussion), see the 2005 article in French: "For Sarkozy, it's Alsace-Moselle for everyone." [3] As it turns out, this politically correct "concordat secularism" translates into the hanging of crucifixes in schools and town halls and the imposition of a blasphemy law that threatens up to three years in prison....

 Extracts from “Towards a Definition of French Secularism”

By Prof. Maurice Barbier, 2005

Secularism as separation

[in the 1905 ‘Law on the Separation of Church and State’ that ended the concordat in France] “separation boils down to two precise components, which are negative: the absence of recognition of forms of worship and the absence of their public funding in the form of salaries or subventions. It thus consists solely in putting an end to the regime of recognized forms of worship established by the 1801 Concordat and the organic articles of 1802.”[p.7]

[In 2004 the French Constitutional Council (Conseil Constitutionnel) offered an interpretation of the first article of the Constitution according to which ‘French is a secular republic’. ] “It states that the clauses of this article ‘prohibit anyone from taking advantage of their religious beliefs to exempt themselves from the common rules governing the relations between public authorities and private individuals’. Certainly, this does not involve a formal, full definition of secularism. But it is the first official interpretation of it given by the highest court of law.” [p.11]

“[Here] we can distinguish four different points:

(1) first of all, secularism lays down a prohibition, which translates into a limitation on religious freedom – something that confirms the negative character of the notion…;
(2) this prohibition is addressed to private individuals and more precisely concerns their relations with ‘public authorities’ – a very broad phrase that encompasses the state, territorial authorities, public administration, and public services;
(3) this prohibition concerns the religious beliefs of individuals, not in order to restrict them, but in order to exclude their intervention in, or impact on, the relations between private individuals and public authorities;
(4) finally, this prohibition aims to oblige individuals to respect common rules in these relations that they cannot exempt themselves from them for religious reasons – which comes down to asserting the primacy of these rules over personal beliefs.” [pp. 11-12]

“But this conception of secularism is insufficient.… In fact, secularism does not only concern individuals, restricting their religious freedom. It also concerns the state, public administration, and public services, imposing on them neutrality in religious matters, as we have seen. This notion, which has been explained above, is required for a full definition of secularism. Its combination with the conception formulated by the Conseil Constitutionnel would yield a satisfactory definition of secularism.” [p.12]

Secularism as a negative concept

[Secularism, the exclusion of religion from state support, is a negative concept which can nevertheless be used to help reach positive goals. However], “secularism [cannot be] defined by tolerance, pluralism, or even democracy, which can be detached from secularism and exist without it, as is the case in Great Britain and the Scandinavian countries.”  [Secularism underpins and safeguards these, but is not to be confused with them].

…Article 1 of [the1905 law separating church and state] asserts (or rather reasserts) freedom of conscience and freedom of worship. In fact, it contains nothing new, since freedom of conscience was already recognized by the 1789 Declaration (article 10) and freedom of worship had been consistently accepted since the 1791 Constitution. These two freedoms therefore pre-existed secularism and can exist without it, as is indicated by countries that do not practice secularism but which fully respect religious freedom.”[p.7]

“Consequently, they are foreign to the notion of secularism in the strict sense and cannot form part of its definition. The same is true when secularism is defined by tolerance, pluralism, or even democracy, which can be detached from secularism and exist without it, as is the case in Great Britain and the Scandinavian countries. To be rigorous, we must reduce secularism to its negative aspect, for French law leads us to regard it as a purely negative notion: according to the 1905 law, secularism consists in the absence of recognition and subvention of forms of worship.” [pp. 7-8]

Secularism and religious freedom

[Secularism limits the expression of religion only in the official context of the state, but it allows it to be expressed outside this context and hence permits religious freedom.] “This is why the French legal texts touching on secularism simultaneously affirm religious freedom and assign it its own space outside the public sphere….  The law of 1905 begins by affirming freedom of conscience and freedom of worship before effecting the separation of church and state.” [p.14]

“Obviously, recognizing religious freedom is as important as excluding religion from the public sphere. It implies that the state does not intervene in the religious sphere and hence that it, in turn, is excluded from the latter. This assumes a complete separation between state and civil society, between the public sphere and the private domain, which is the domain not only of individuals but of groups and associations (and thus of churches and religious communities). This is why religious freedom is at once individual (freedom of conscience) and collective (freedom of religious communities). It implies that the latter organize themselves and operate freely. A specific form of organization or a special status cannot therefore be imposed on them.” [p.15]

Religion in the public square

“There is often…a confusion over the meaning of the word ‘public’ or the phrase ‘public space’, because of a failure to distinguish between the public sphere of the state and the domain of social existence: secularism is opposed to any manifestation of religion in the public sphere of the state, but not to its manifestation (even public) in the framework of society or in the public domain.” [p.16, #8]

“On the one hand, the secularism of state schools is not restricted, in the case of pupils, to respect for their freedom of conscience: it essentially consists in excluding religion from state schools and it therefore imposes a duty of restraint on pupils in their behaviour, since they find themselves in a place pertaining to the public sphere. On the other hand, pupils’ freedom of conscience, which is an internal freedom, in no way gives them ‘the right to express and manifest their religious beliefs’ in educational institutions, for that involves external acts which improperly introduce religion into the public domain of the school.” [p.17]

“[Secularism] excludes religion from the public sphere and hence from state educational establishments and public administration; … it imposes an obligation of neutrality on teachers, civil servants, and officials in public administration and public services; and… it also involves a duty of restraint and abstention on the part of pupils. For all alike, this entails a ban on any manifestation of religion and hence on conspicuous religious symbols.” [p.18]

“The relaxation of the boundary between state and society helps attenuate the separation between state and religions, which readily confuse their social visibility with their entry into the public sphere. It is up to the state to distinguish clearly between the two, accepting the first while refusing the second.  The fact that the state has been undermined and that the public sphere has become fluid means great uncertainty for secularism; preserving it presupposes a precise and firm definition of the domain of the state. [pp. 20-21]

Towards a Definition of French Secularism
Maurice Barbier
« Pour une définition de la laïcité française»
article publié initialement dans la revue Le Débat, n°134, mars-avril 2005.


1. From the poster, «L'aurore Verdun» ("Verdun dawn") by Henri-Paul Royer (1869-1938).

2. Maurice Barbier, “Towards a Definition of French Secularism”, translated by Gregory Elliott from « Pour une définition de la laïcité française », Le Débat, n°134, mars-avril 2005. Marcel Barbier teaches political science at the Université de Nancy-II.

3. Antonio Fischetti, “Pour Sarkozy, c’est Alsace-Moselle pour tous”, Charlie Hebdo du 30 Novembre, 4 December 2005. Reposted at:  Here are some excerpts:

Il existe, en France, une région où les curés sont payés par l'Etat et les cours de religion obligatoires. [...] Moselle, Bas-Rhin et Haut-Rhin. Ces trois départements brandissent leur passéisme comme un étendard. Ici, on trouve des crucifix dans les mairies et les écoles. Ici, curés, rabins et pasteurs sont payés par l'Etat. Ici, le temps s'est arrêté en 1801.
Cette année là, un concordat est signé entre Napoléon Bonaparte et le Pape Pie VII. Il s'agit alors de reconnaître la religion catholique comme religion d'Etat (quelques années plus tard, le concordat sera étendu aux Juifs et aux protestants). Conséquence pratique : la rémunération par l'Etat des ecclésiastiques. [...] Le concordat est archaïque, et en plus il coûte cher.  [...] Alors que partout ailleurs un prêtre gagne à peine le smic grâce au denier du culte, un corbeau de Strasbourg ou de Mulhouse (comme un pasteur ou un rabin) palpe quelque 2500 euros net. Soit davantage qu'un prof agrégé après dix ans d'ancienneté (2300 euros). A cela il faut ajouter un logement de fonction et des frais de déplacement princiers.
Quant aux évêques, c'est 4.307 euros qu'ils empochent chaque mois, auxquels il faut ajouter des "indemnités de représentation" et une voiture avec chauffeur.

Au total, ce sont 2100 ecclesiastiques qui pompent 37 millions d'euros par an dans les caisses de l'Etat (en plus des exonérations fiscales et de l'entretien obligatoire des bâtiments religieux). [...]

"Quand une nouvelle école est inaugurée à la campagne, le curé la bénit avant que le maire vienne couper le ruban", déplore Edouard Boeglin, conseiller municipal à Mulhouse. A la mairie aussi: "Je connais un élu qui a voulu le crucifix dans sa mairie. Il y a eu une pétition contre lui, car les habitants voulaient garder le crucifix, en prétextant qu'il a toujours été là".
Au tribunal aussi, une loi moyennageuse punit tout blasphème de trois ans de prison. Autre hérésie, la cours d'assises du tribunal de Metz est ornée d'un tableau d'un Christ en croix. L'ancien avocat Daniel Delrez s'est longtemps battu contre ce crachat sur la dame aux yeux bandés: "J'estimais que ce tableau pouvait interférer avec les consciences. J'ai écrit plusieurs fois au ministre de la Justice pour le faire déplacer, mais je n'ai jamais eu de réponse. C'est finalement le président du tribunal qui a trouvé un compromis en recouvrant le tableau d'un drap pendant les procès." [...]

Il faut savoir que les Alsaciens bénéficient d'un "droit local" hérité de l'annexion allemande, grâce auquel ils ont acquis une série d'avantages sociaux : jours fériés supplémentaires, Sécurité sociale qui rembourse à 90 %, etc. Tant mieux pour eux,.. sauf qu'ils ont peur de perdre tous ces avantages si le concordat est remis en question. Peur injustifiée, mais la confusion est soigneusement entretenue (et on comprend pourquoi) par les apôtres de tout poil. [...]

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