French Law on Separation of Church and State. Diverting Secularism to War against Islam

On December 9, the anniversary of the 1905 law separating Church and State, the French Council of Ministers will propose a text “reinforcing republican principles.” Under the pretext of defending secularism, it goes against the letter and the spirit of the 1905 law, marked by a liberalism assumed by its promoter Aristide Briand. And it is quite foreign to the idea of expelling the religious from the public space that the current campaigns against Islam and Muslims are advocating.

Paris, April 1905. — Aristide Briand, rapporteur of the bill on the separation of Church and State, at the tribune of the National Assembly
© Collection Roger-Viollet

“There is religious fanaticism, and there is irreligious fanaticism, and the second is just as bad as the first.” There were gales of laughter as Jules Ferry addressed the second congress of the state schoolteachers of France on 19 April 1881.1 Such ideas from the founder of the state schools in France highlighted a fact which has been overlooked: that the struggle for secularism in France was waged on two fronts. First and foremost, against the Catholic church, a powerful, arrogant, and anti-republican force which had no intention of giving up any of its prerogatives. But also, inside the republican camp itself, against those who saw secularism as a weapon with which to destroy, not clericalism, but religion. Yet at both two decisive stages in the long march towards the separation of church and state that began after the birth of the Third Republic—the secularisation of education, the law of 1905—successive governments preferred compromise to intransigence, dialogue to invective, intellectual development to civil war.

Crosses in schools?

Between 1882 and 1886, several laws were to organise the triple “secularisation” of the school: of the curricula, of the premises, and of the teachers; but secularisation of the pupils was never raised. With the law of 28 March 1882, primary education became free and compulsory, while religious education was banned in state primary schools.2

The move towards public schooling took place firmly but gently, as witnessed by the affair of the crucifixes. Should such religious symbols be removed from state schools? Ministerial circulars called for the law to be applied “in the same spirit in which it was adopted, in the spirit of the repeated government declarations, not like a battle law which must be violently deprived of success, but like one of the great organic laws destined to live with the country, to become custom, to be part of its heritage.”3

Thus, it was decided not to install crosses in new buildings under construction, to remove them in places where that would not cause a problem and leave them in places where it would. It was to take nearly a century to eliminate them completely.

Ferry explained the need to “mitigate, by wise temperaments, any harshness that a new situation might entail, or appear to entail”. As the historian Patrick Cabanel remarks, “’Temperaments’, a word which should be taken in both its meanings, of softening and temporal leniency: it is a question of accustoming opinion and mentalities, to give them the necessary time for reforms and systems desirous of triumphing not through the violence of Utopia or arms or texts, but by inculcation and collective appropriation.”4

Apart from the crucifixes, there are many other examples of these “temperaments.” So “duties towards God” were to become part of the compulsory ethics curriculum for two generations; one day a week, Thursday then Wednesday, was left free for catechism; the week before their first communion, pupils could skip school, etc.

“The instrument of torture known as the crucifix”

In a justifiably oft-quoted letter, the same Ferry wrote to the teachers on 11 March 1882: “If a state schoolteacher should forget himself enough to impose hostile teachings in a school, offending anybody’s religious beliefs, he should be punished as severely and swiftly as though he had committed the other misdeeds of beating his pupils or giving himself over to culpable abuse against them.” What would he have thought of imposing on pupils’ cartoons from the anticlerical periodicals La Lanterne or La Calotte, which portrayed the crucifix as “the instrument of torture called the cross bearing a corpse in plaster or metal?” Or of the teacher who supposedly denounced a pupil of 8, 10 or 12 years old to the police because he favoured Jesus over Marianne (the symbol of the Republic) and the laws of God over those of the Republic?5

A reminder is in order at this point. There is no single definition of secularism. Several interpretations of the concept emerged after its invention, and even more so today, when the right has rallied to the secularism which it resisted with such vigour and with which it now clothes itself for it assault on Islam and the Muslims. So, one can defend different versions of secularism, but conversely, only the laws of the Republic apply to everybody. If some think that secularism should lead to the expulsion of the religious, notably of Islam, from the public space, they are free to think so. Provided they recognise that that has nothing to do with either the letter or the spirit of the law of 1905.

Showing yourself in the public space

Several rulings from the Council of State confirmed the liberal interpretation of this foundational text, assuring churches the right to organise themselves as they wished and to appear in the public space. Thus, the issue of religious processions was one of the first conflicts confronting the Republic after 1905. Highlighting the fear of public disorder, a number of mayors wanted to ban them: between 1906 and 1930, 139 municipal orders to that effect were the subject of appeals. One hundred and thirty-six of the orders were quashed, as were all mayoral decisions aimed at banning the wearing of cassocks in their commune. The Council of State also rejected demands from the communes for the decommissioning of churches and refused them the right to sell items sequestered from the church and, in the confrontation between mayors and priests over the use of church bells, imposed strict limits on their use for non-religious purposes.

Anyone delving back into the extremely elevated parliamentary debates of 1905 would be struck by the liberalism, as vigorously defended by Aristide Briand the legal rapporteur, and the socialist leader Jean Jaurès. The Assembly thus rejected the proposals to abolish religious holidays or to stipulate that all priests must be French nationals.6

Article 2 of the law is often recalled—“The Republic neither recognises, finances nor subsidises any religion”—but the second part, which practically contradicts the first, gets forgotten: “Expenditures relating to chaplaincy and intended to assure the free exercise of religion in public institutions such as lycées, colleges, schools, hospices, homes and prisons may, however, be included in the said budgets [of the state, the departments and the communes]”.

On the other hand, the law provides that church buildings belonging to the state since the Revolution could be handed over for free to the church associations (they could have been leased), and that their upkeep would be at the expense of the communes, departments, or the state. So much for the notion that the state does not finance any religion!

The secularism of fantasy exists today only in the minds of those who use it as a weapon against Islam. Let us remember some gaps in “secular purity.” The law of 1905 has never been applied to Alsace-Moselle (for an entire century no government, of the left or the right, has been capable of doing so, producing a situation where France is the only country in the world whose head of state names two bishops, those of Strassburg and Metz, before their canonical investiture by Rome!) It is still not applied to New Caledonia and Polynesia; as for Guyana, for long only the Catholic faith was recognised and its priests paid, an arrangement that is in the process of being terminated.7 And what can one say about the fact that France’s consul general in Jerusalem, representing the Republic, attends a dozen masses a year in his official capacity, is blessed by the priest, and kisses the evangelical saints?

Only one weapon, freedom

There is no need to examine the magnitude of the break that the law of 1905 represented: the ferocious opposition of Catholic circles bore witness to that. But how did the government react? Instructed by the Vatican, the French church rejected the law and the creation of church associations to manage the churches. Applying the law voted by the national assembly ended up forbidding mass. Instead of which, provisional arrangements were put in place aimed at guaranteeing that the management of Catholic places of worship would be left to the priests. The law of 1905 was amended on 2 July 1907 (nobody in the republican camp saw it as set-in stone) to organise the continuity of the faiths, pending an agreement that took another 20 years to reach. As the deputy Joseph Caillaux recalled, Briand managed “however paradoxical it may seem, to organise by legislative means the toleration of illegality”. Moreover, it is Briand who harangues the right and the church: “The only weapon that we wanted to use against you is freedom.”

If at the time the church had been pressed to sign a charter endorsing secularism and its laws or “the republican principles”—a more than obscure notion—as the Muslim faith is being pressed to do now, the country would have been plunged into civil war. But the legislators of the Third Republic were wiser than that and refrained from imposing rules governing the choice of clerical ministers or their being designated by the state.

Today, through the statements of some political leaders and the hate-filled diatribes of pseudo-secular orators who can barely conceal their racism, a new interpretation of secularism is emerging which is confused with the forced secularisation of the public space and those who use it. They ended up believing that secularism is a plethora of forbiddens: forbidden for women to wear the veil in the street, forbidden for them to accompany school outings, the veil forbidden in the university. And they exploit jihadist violence to put in question the very freedoms which they themselves eulogise daily. Forbiddens added to injunctions, accusations of “separatism” along with denunciation, formal warnings coupled with stigmatisation… Aristide Briand and the authors of the law of 1905 must be turning in their graves.

1Quoted by Guy Gauthier and Claude Nicolet, La Laïcité en mémoire, Edilig, 1987.

2The Assembly came awfully close to voting through the right to use school premises for religious instruction, a measure which was rejected by an alliance between the right and the radical anticlericals.

3Unless otherwise stated, the quotations are taken from Alain Gresh, L’Islam, la République et le monde, Fayard, Pluriel, 2004.

4Entre religions et laïcité. La voie française : XIXe-XXIe siècles, Privat, 2007.

6Jean Baubérot, La laïcité falsifiée, La Découverte, 2012.

7These situations stem from the fact that the law of 1905 was not applied either to the colonies or to French Algeria.