In France, religious believers — and especially Catholics — are very often presumed not to be good citizens. It is commonly assumed that they refuse the idea of revolutionary liberty. That’s why their civil liberties — and, more precisely, their religious freedoms — are sometimes restricted by French politicians.

These restrictions are covered by the word “secularism”, which is used in a very specific French sense — and which is sometimes called “laïcité à la française” (that is, the French way of understanding secularism).

Of course, all forms of secularism in all countries are not always inimical to religious freedom. In fact, French secularism itself is not always against religious freedom. Quite the contrary, it is very often the way that the French express support for religious freedom.

There are, however, many different ways to interpret French secularism. One of them in particular can lead to a position that is, paradoxically, antithetical to the idea of religious freedom.

What is secularism?

In brief, secularism is the principle of separation between political institutions and religious institutions. But this broad principle has many divergent applications. In the United States, the state can neither establish a religion nor regulate the free exercise of religion. In Britain, by contrast, the state’s religious neutrality is accompanied by a state religion. And in France, religious matters are supposed to be solely private matters.

The history of French secularism begins in 1789, with the French Revolution. Under the “Civil Constitution of the Clergy” (1790), an important religious matter had been raised. The Revolution allowed priests to follow Rome in dogmatic, moral, and canonical matters only after the prior authorization of the French Parliament. Yet they were also supposed to remain loyal to a papal authority that wasn’t recognized in France — and which did not have the agreement of the nation as represented by the Parliament. (The “Civil Constitution” was, of course, a religious statement that had been coerced through abusive political power). Many “nonjuring” clerics refused and were condemned to banishment or death.

The Concordat of 1801, signed by Napoleon and Pope Pius VII, restored the freedom of worship, but bishops remained subjects of the state and submitted to the state’s control — even in matters of faith and morals.

Under the Third Republic in the 1870s, many antiCatholic laws were passed, including the main “secularist” law, the law on the Separation of the Churches and the State (9 December 1905).

Although the 1905 law’s implementation could have been better, it was the end of a long process and French Catholics opposed it for several reasons. The 1905 law deprived the Church of its goods, including all its buildings. It deprived clerics of any state salary, even though the Civil Constitution itself had afforded them a salary as compensation for the Revolution’s first deprivation of ecclesiastical goods. And it was, moreover, a final break in the relationship between France, the “eldest daughter of the Church”, and the Vatican.

Many of the Catholic faithful were shocked by the subsequent nonsensical aggressiveness of those in power. Georges Clemenceau, for example, then the minister of the interior, ordered French policemen to conduct an inventory of all churches — “even inside the tabernacles”.

So the history of French secularism is not a peaceful history. This history explains why French secularism is not synonymous with religious freedom. Fortunately, after World War I, religious peace again began to be restored in France. But occasionally, the old anti-religious tendencies of French secularism began to reappear.

A secular religion

In the decades following World War I, the application of secularist laws — especially the 1905 law — has usually been peaceful. But on occasion, there have been expressions of extreme anti-religious sentiment, and there have been some incidents that have amounted to a virtual war against Catholics.

We can just give a few examples. In 1984 the French government tried, unsuccessfully, to outlaw all Catholic schools. More recently, France’s Association of Mayors has argued that displaying crèches in municipal town halls is detrimental to the French “law of separation” — even though recent jurisprudential decisions have said the exact opposite!

French secularism often sees itself as competent in these sorts of religious matters. Thus it is not only an idea that ensures state religious neutrality, but also something that becomes a sort of state religion.

As an illustration of this, consider the recent “anti-sect law”. In 2001, the French Parliament passed a law against sects, called the About-Picard law after its parliamentary rapporteurs. A list of minority religions considered ‘cults’  or sects — like Jehovah’s Witnesses — was published and these religions were deemed dangerous to the French Republic.

The new law imposed many controls on these minority religious organizations. It expanded control even into children’s education, for example. It also stipulated that religions deemed ‘cults’ would not benefit from the standard tax deductions allowed for gifts and donations made to religious organizations.

The list of minority religions targeted by the new law seemed wildly arbitrary. On the one hand, some organizations mentioned on the list were not even considered dangerous for their members or for society (like the Jehovah’s Witnesses). On the other hand, radical interpretations of Islam — which can easily become dangerous for their followers and all of society — were not included in the list of ‘sects’.

The original justification for the law was to combat mental manipulation and fraud, apropos of the mass suicides often associated with “doomsday cults”. As some observers pointed out at the time, however, it was still possible to punish such offenses without necessarily establishing a list of so-called sects or cults. The French penal code already prohibited fraud and mental manipulation, especially by people in positions of authority like priests, teachers, or religious ‘gurus’. (In fact, the existence of such positions of power in cases of manipulation is what the law terms an “aggravating circumstance”.)

This anti-sect law is still in effect, even though there is no longer a list of sects and cults. It provides a very good illustration of how French secularism becomes a sort of ‘state religion’.

In other words, efforts to police the boundary between the state and religion eventually becomes its own sort of religion dedicated to defining ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ religious practices.

State neutrality & societal secularism

French laïcité is not only the insistence that the state have neutrality in religious matters. Sometimes it extends to the rejection of any public religious statement whatsoever. That’s why France was opposed to the European Union’s official recognition of the Christian roots of European civilization (despite how obviously historically accurate this acknowledgment would have been). So one should not try to mingle the state’s neutrality and society’s laïcité. On this issue, we should remember General de Gaulle’s famous quotation: “The Republic is secular and France is Christian.” Both can be true at the same time.

Furthermore, we can even say that the French Republic is secular because France is Christian. The specific distinction between political and spiritual power is rooted in the teaching of Christ and the famous sentence, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God, the things that are God’s” (Mt 22:21).

That is also the reason why arguing for strict secularism — as, for example, the National Front has been doing — is not necessarily a good response to the new Muslim presence in France: Islam does not recognize such a distinction.

I can give two examples of the effect that banning religious statements in public can have:

Christine Boutin, a former government minister, was prosecuted and sentenced in 2015 for having stated publicly that homosexuality was an abomination. While this was perhaps an ill-advised political statement, it remains, of course, a simple quotation from the Bible.

Recently (as noted above), the Association of the Mayors of France declared that putting a Christmas crib in a town hall should be considered as an injury to laïcité — despite the fact that this supposed injury is not prohibited by the law. Further, as many judges have already ruled, in many instances such displays are not religious symbols but merely cultural ones.

French laïcité against a higher law

The most important point about the specific idea of a “state religion” is perhaps that most French officials reject the idea of the existence of any law higher than positive law. Since Antigone, this has been a great problem in political thought. Insistence on higher law is one of the main distinctions between civilization and barbarism — or even between civilization and totalitarianism.

Two quotations will illustrate the mentality that I have described as widespread among French officials. First, on the right, former President Jacques Chirac said during his campaign in 1995: “[We say] ‘no’ to a moral law which would take precedence over the civil law and [which] would justify one’s placing oneself outside the law. This cannot be conceived of in a secular democracy.” Second, on the left, former Senator Jean-Pierre Michel, during the debate about same-sex marriage, said: “The law is only an expression of a balance of power.”

Given such conceptions of the supremacy of positive law over any other moral laws, the French Parliament is to be considered almighty. Through its own legislative agenda, it can thus forge a new human being and a new society — which are exactly the elements of the totalitarian project.

We should recall that the totalitarian project was “to reunify the two heads of the eagle”, as Jean-Jacques Rousseau said, and to refuse the Christian distinction between political and spiritual power.

Here lies the main paradox we face: secularism is supposed to be the consequence of the distinction between church and state. But if secularism is enforced so strictly that it becomes its own “state religion”, then it achieves the exact opposite of its desired result. Instead of what Pope Pius XII described as “healthy secularism”, it results in the unification of both powers — the unification of the two heads of the eagle — and signifies the end of religious freedom.

Conclusion

Nevertheless, we can see some rays of hope. Some French officials — one of them is former President Sarkozy — have been talking about “positive laïcité”, by which they mean a neutrality of the state accompanied by an inducement to make public religious statements and public participation for religious leaders.

But as we await a concrete and juridical notion of what this “positive laïcité” would look like, we must notice that the French government is anything but consistent. It works against a select number of small religious communities, which seem not to be dangerous to the public — groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses — while, at the same time, offering esteem and encouragement to bigger and less tolerant religions like Islam, in which apostasy is punishable by death.

The French government must choose. If it wants to assert some religious competence, then it must seek and promote the truth, even in religious matters, and therefore explain the principles which lead to this truth. (It must also be willing to accept the fact that the public will have to discuss these principles.)

On the other hand, if the government chooses not to engage in any kind of religious debate, then it must remain truly neutral — which means allowing the free expression of all religious opinions and making sure that it only condemns and prosecutes real offenses and actual crimes — not the opinions themselves.