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The concept of Laïcité in France

The French Constitution of 1958

According to the first article of the French constitution:

“France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion. It shall respect all beliefs. It shall be organised on a decentralised basis.”

The article in French reads:

“La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale. Elle assure l'égalité devant la loi de tous les citoyens sans distinction d'origine, de race ou de religion. Elle respecte toutes les croyances. Son organisation est décentralisée.”

The French Constitution in French
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Translating Laïque and Laïcité into English

The word secular in the English translation is the word laïque in the French, and it is connected to the French word laïcité. The English word secular does not quite give the same sense as the French word laïque. It is a word at the heart of the opening paragraph in the French constitution, defining the very nature of what it means to be French today. It is equally a word central to the attitude of the French state and the French people towards religion. So it is important to try and understand as much as possible the full sense behind the words laïque and laïcité.

Laïcité is the noun related to the adjective laïque. Inasmuch as we can use the word secular as a translation of the concept, laïcité would be translated by the word secularism, compared with laïque which would be translated by secular.

The concept of Laïcité

The concept of laïcité can be defined as the neutrality of the state towards religious beliefs, and the complete isolation of religious and public spheres. According to the concept of laïcité, the French state and government do not take a position on any religion or religious beliefs. They can only speak on religious subjects when considering the practical consequences of the beliefs and practices of a religion on the lives of its citizens. It also means, in theory at least, that there can be no interference by any religion in the functioning of the government. Equally it also means, in theory at least, that there can be no interference by the government in the religious life of its citizens, or in the forms of religion to which they adhere.

According to Answers.com:

“The French government is legally prohibited from recognizing any religion (except for legacy statutes like those of military chaplains and Alsace-Moselle). Instead, it merely recognizes religious organizations, according to formal legal criteria that do not address religious doctrine:

  • whether the sole purpose of the organization is to organize religious activities;
  • whether the organization disrupts public order.”

Laïcité is theoretically based upon the respect of the state for the freedom of thought, in particular the freedom of thought in the religious sphere, of all its citizens. This is enshrined in the first article of the French constitution in the phrases “It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion” and “It shall respect all beliefs”.

Practical Consequences of Laïcité

The practical consequences of the concept of laïcité are, firstly, that there is no such thing as a state religion, and secondly, there is a complete separation of church and state. It has also come to mean, certainly in France, that there must be a complete division between a citizen's private life and his religious views and beliefs on the one hand, and his life in the public sphere.

The result of all this is that rather than promoting freedom of thought and freedom of religious belief and expression, in reality it can prevent someone from practising their religion. A second result, in France at least, is that the public expression of religious belief is viewed with a certain amount of distaste or suspicion. Religion is something that you do behind closed doors, and do not talk about in public. Thus laïcité means that you are not allowed to let your religious beliefs affect the whole of your everyday, normal life. You cannot show your faith or religious affiliation in public places.

Background to Laïcité

Laïcité goes back to the laws passed in 1905 that enshrined the principle of separation of church and state, and ended, at least in principle, the support of the state for what up to that time were officially supported religions: Roman Catholics, Protestants, Lutherans and Jews. There wasn't a complete break, however, with Roman Catholics still having the right to use free of charge all the church buildings that they were using at the time the law was passed, even though the church buildings were now considered the property of the state. There were some special clauses in the law also to deal with the complications of Alsace and Lorraine, a region which alternated in ownership between France and Germany. The political expediency behind the law of 1905 was to break what was then perceived by many to be the control of French policy and government by the power of the Roman Catholic church. Such control and influence was in principle at least brought to an end by the law of 1905.

Laïcité Today

This concept of laïcité in France has been reinforced in recent years with what many people consider to be anti-religious legislation, and thus against the original principle of laïcité enshrined in the French constitution, and also contrary to the terms of the European Convention on Human Rights to which France has signed up. This is seen in the law of 2004 which banned the wearing of head-scarves by Muslim girls at school for example, or the wearing of skullcap by Jews, or the wearing of a conspicuous Crucifix by Christians. The word conspicuous is important to note; the complete banning of religious symbols is not banned, provided that they are small and unobtrusive.

This reflects the modern French interpretation of the concept of laïcité as meaning that nothing connected with religious belief or practice should appear in public life. It is not hard to see as a consequence of that why some would interpret this as being the interference of the government in the religious life of the citizen, and thus contrary to the constitution. The contrary view would be expressed as the citizen being free to believe whatever he or she likes, but that the principle of laïcité enshrined in the constitution dictates that all religious expression must be kept out of the public sphere.

References

A full discussion of the concept and history of both laïcité and the 2004 law can be found on the BBC's web site.

BBC Discussion on French Secularism: Laïcité
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