Thursday, April 12, 2007

Church and State in France

There has been recent signs of a trend towards increasing secularisation in the United Kingdom.

Some people point to France as an example of the type of secularisation which they would wish to see in the United Kingdom.

The present Church-State settlement in France has its origins in the anti-clericalism of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.

The French position of laïcité is not like the separation of church and state as guaranteed by the First Amendment in the United States, which is buttressed by a guarantee of freedom of religion also written into the First Amendment.

But there are signs that in France, as in other parts of Europe, there may be a trend away from secularisation and a trend towards the encouragement of religious thought and ethos in the public sphere.

In June 2005, 30 Days published an interview with the French cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran. At the time he was the Archivist and Librarian of Holy Roman Church.

In the interview the Cardinal discussed the constitutional law of December 1905 which set the relations between Church and State in France on a radically new footing, and the immediate aftermath of the law which caused such great damage to the Catholic Church in France.

He also discusses the late President Mitterand and his attitude towards the Catholic Church, as well as the present candidate of the Right in the forthcoming Presidential Election, Nicolas Sarkozy who wrote a book entitled La République, les religions, l’espérance.

From the interview:

"Let’s go back to the 1905 law. Is it possible that it be revised, not least in the light of the increasing number of Muslim believers in France? Minister Nicolas Sarkozy thinks the possibility exists. And says so in his latest book La République, les religions, l’espérance.

TAURAN: I haven’t been living in France for many years, however it would seem to me strange that a hundred-year-old law might be so perfect as not to require alteration. However, both Sarkozy and the Catholic bishops have warned of the danger of reopening a debate on relations between State and Church that could give rise to a recrudescence of secularism and anticlericalism. So many say: leave the law as it is and complement it in the light of the jurisprudence of the past century. I believe that is the solution preferred by the majority of the bishops. What has to be avoided is a fundamentalist interpretation of the law, given that luckily it has never been that way.

A question about Sarkozy’s book, since Le Figaro has reported a visit he made to the Vatican to present it to Secretary of State Cardinal Sodano Angelo, to Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo and to yourself…

TAURAN: Yes, the minister gave us a copy of his book. on the occasion. Mine had the written dedication: «Votre ami tout simplement». What I liked about the book is that it is written by a government minister who is not afraid of speaking of religion, stating that Christians must not be ashamed of their faith and must have no inferiority complex about it. Interesting then is the definition of secularism given in the book: «I believe in a positive secularism, in a secularism that guarantees the right to live according to one’s own religion as a fundamental right of the person. Secularism is not hostile to religions, on the contrary secularism is the guarantee for each of us to believe and live according to his own faith».

For more about Sarkozy`s view of Church and State in France, see
In a Very Secular France, Nicolas Sarkozy Is Breaking a Taboo by Sandro Magister (May 11, 2006 ) at

In the article by Sandro Magister, there is a review of Sweden, Germany, and France – the most secularized areas of Europe – where there would seem to be signs of “a reversal of this tendency, with growing interest in religious matters.”

He also publishes a review of Sarkozy`s book which appeared in "Avvenire” – the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference then headed by Cardinal Ruini – on May 3, 2006. The review was entitled Even the République Needs Religion and was by Carlo Cardia. In the review Cardia said:

"But in spite of the fact that the reader is prepared for important new ideas, the surprise is no less when he reads the book’s proposals for modifying the norms of 1905.

These norms, Sarkozy says, are not “as if they had been carved in marble and were impossible to modify.” And he identifies as the main objective of reform “a question that is neither pivotal nor frivolous: that of the financing of the major religions in France.”

Yes, this is the strategic proposal. France must confront the issue of financing for the Churches: “Let us admit without hypocrisy that there is a contradiction between the desire to acknowledge the religions as a positive factor in society and completely denying them any form of public financing.

According to Sarkozy, there is an insurmountable difficulty for those who “think it is natural for the state to finance a soccer field, a library, a theatre, a childcare center; but whenever it is a matter of the needs of a place of worship, the state should not spend so much as a penny.”

The passage from general principle to concrete application does not diminish the surprise of Sarkozy’s proposal, because his recommendations concern the construction of places of worship, the “most appropriate fiscal accommodations for the faithful who participate in offerings for the maintenance of the clergy,” and even financial aid for the formation of the clergy, including “making available instructors on non-spiritual subjects, allowing the use of public property, and signing conventions with religious representatives for the education of French ministers of worship.”



1905 French law on the separation of Church and State

French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools

Roman Catholicism in France


Religious Liberty: The legal framework in selected OSCE countries.. Law Library, U.S. Library of Congress (May 2000). (.pdf file)