The ultra-secular shift in the understanding of laïcité in France harms religious freedom

By Thibault van den Bossche |
Paris Eiffel Tower
Unsplash / Chris Karidis

Secularism is the way of life in most of Europe. But how it is defined and implemented is not uniform. Two primary models of secularism exist on the continent. On one side is the American model (widely followed across Europe), which aims to protect religions from the State. On the other side is the French concept of laïcité. Unlike the typical understanding of secularism as defined in English, the aim of laïcité is to protect the State from religions.

The American model guarantees non-discrimination, encourages pluralism and multiculturalism, and accepts “reasonable accommodations” for differences. The laïcité model guarantees equality before the law and encourages integration into the notion of public order where differences are neutralized. It divides private from public life and puts religion exclusively within the private sphere.

These two models often conflict with one another. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is a space for arbitration and confrontation between these two understandings of the relationship between the State and religions. But because the Court wants to respect the sovereignty of States, they consider many disputes over religion within a domain that falls under each states’ own concept of “vivre ensemble” (or culture of “living together”).

Thus, in 2014, the ECHR admitted that, in the name of the margin of appreciation of States, France could ban face-covering in public spaces, and thus the full Islamic veil (S.A.S. vs. France case). France’s “choice of society” justifies the infringement on religious freedom by protecting the rights of others to interact in a social space that facilitates living together.

Origins of French laïcité

The Catholic Church in France held enormous power over civilian populations for hundreds of years. Seeking freedom from this oppression, laïcité originated during the French Revolution as a means of separating the Catholic Church from public affairs. The Law of 1905, known as the Separation of Churches and State Law embodied the concept of laïcité. Article 2 of the law states, “The Republic neither recognizes, nor funds, nor subsidizes any religion.” This is illustrated by Aristide Briand’s formula: “The State is neither religious nor anti-religious; it is areligious.”

The Separation Law establishes neutrality – or a civil peace which avoids religious conflicts. It shields institutions and public services (especially education) from religious interference. This principle of separation was strongly reaffirmed in Article 1 of the Constitution of 1958: “France is an indivisible, laïc (secular), democratic, and social Republic.” The Catholic Church condemned the laïcité of 1905. But after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), it defended the laïcité as a framework for the free engagement of Christians in the world.

However, in a decision on 21 February 2013, the Constitutional Council shifted from the “neutrality of public service” to the “neutrality of the State.” This extends neutrality beyond the purely public sphere. For example, it allows employees of an associative nursery to be prohibited from wearing religious symbols. Additionally, private sector companies can also impose internal neutrality regulations on their employees particularly for security or the necessities of “living together.”

This reflects a shift in how laïcité is understood. Today’s laïcité is a secular morality that seeks to eliminate all religion from life in society and culture, even if that culture is undeniably Christian. It is a form of ultra-secularism that supports emptying the public sphere of all religious elements by neutralizing individual religious behaviors.

Pressure to neutralize all religious expression

The shift in how laïcité is understood is increasing anti-Christian sentiments.

Paid advertising

In 2015, a poster of a concert organized by l'Œuvre d'Orient for the benefit of Christians in the East was refused by the advertising agency of the Paris subway. The reason given was the “principle of neutrality of public service.” The controversy grew to such an extent that permission was eventually granted. However, this did not prevent Radio France in 2020 and then the television channel Arte in 2022 from censoring advertisements in support of Christians in the East.

Users of public institutions

In November 2019, a 70-year-old nun was refused a place in a public retirement home in Vesoul because she wore religious attire. The president of the public institution cited internal regulations and the respect for laïcité. Yet, a resident in a retirement home, a user of the public service, is not subject to the same rules as a public servant. Religion is not banned from public residences. Only private establishments can impose different rules. In the end, the nun was forced to live alone in an apartment.

Public statues

In 2018, the mayor of Les Sables-d'Olonne installed a statue of Saint Michael in a public square in front of a church of the same name. The statue had already been present in the city between 1935 and 2017 inside a private school. A laïque association, the “Libre Pensée” (“Free Thought”), protested.

The association took the case to court citing the separation of Churches and State, which prohibits any religious emblem on public property (article 28, law 1905). The final verdict from the Council of State: the statue has to be removed. The mayor and the priest found a solution. The city hall sold a small plot of land to the church, turning a public space into a private space. This allowed the statue to be relocated in September 2023. It respected laïcité to the letter and no more.

Christmas

Every Christmas, the Christian feast celebrating the birth of Christ, we have controversies. In Cholet this Christmas in 2023, an environmental activist saw a prefab church installed on the Christmas market as a violation of laïcité. In the Strasbourg market, the sale of crucifixes, renamed “JC crosses,” narrowly escaped censorship. The placement of nativity scenes in public spaces has become subject to strict and absurd rules.

In public buildings, the cultural, artistic, or festive nature must replace the originally religious nature of the nativity scene, so that it does not signify the recognition of a cult or the endorsement of a religious preference. Outdoors, the nativity scene is saved by the festive nature of the installations associated with “the end of the year celebrations” (that is, Christmas…), especially in the streets and public squares, as long as it does not constitute an act of proselytism or a statement of a religious opinion.

Government officials attending religious services

When Pope Francis visited Marseille in September 2023, President Macron had to defend himself for attending mass against criticism from those who support an ultra-secular form of laïcité, explaining that he was “present as the President of the Republic” and that he was not “participating as a Catholic.”

Using laïcité wisely

The law strengthening respect for republican principles in 2021, known as the “separatism law,” aimed to combat Islamism. However, due to the refusal to distinguish between religions, the State has actually strengthened its power over all religions, thereby limiting religious freedom, association and expression, and parental educational rights.

Today, it is important to use laïcité wisely, so that it does not allow an openly anti-religious battle. Unfortunately, to avoid their disappearance from public spaces, Christians must seek refuge behind notions of identity, culture, festive or artistic frameworks. But in a way, these notions deny us. Republican “living together” starts with good intentions, but let us remember that true fraternity is found in the sharing of the Gospel.

Thibault van den Bossche is advocacy officer at the European Center for Law and Justice.