Lecture about Laïcité, Valentine Zuber, January 2016

Valentine Zuber, « French laïcity history and forms and the challenge of radical terrorism », EARS, Strasbourg, 14-16 janvier 2016.

Laïcity is one of the subjects up for debate in contemporary French society. This French passionate debate, that seemed settled since the law on separation of Churches and the State in 1905, has re-awakened vigorously during the past 25 years. Laicity is inscribed as a republican characteristic in the constitutions of the 4th Republic (1946) and the 5th Republic (1958). It had not seemed to create any particular problem since it had been accepted by the significant society actors. Even the Catholic Church, which fought against laicity at the end of 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, accepted it since the early 1920s. The debate about the law of 1905 has come alive again since the end of the 20th century, in the context of one of the main areas of its application: the public schooling system. Large demonstrations for « l’école libre » (free or private school) (1984), and in defense of « l’école laïque » (state school) (1994) brought on each occasion one million people into the streets. What became known as “the headscarf affair” (1989-2004), then the ban of the burka (2010) brought back the question of laicity to the forefront of public debate. This occurred as religious pluralism was emphasized by the recent settlement of a significant Muslim minority on French soil. The January and November 2015 terrorist events have again dramatically accentuated the debate, by introducing two new relative concepts: the guarantee of freedom of expression for everyone and security for all…

The French interpretation of laicity is about to change in French peoples’ minds. Some, afraid of the growing cultural and religious pluralism and the expression of Islamic radicalism in the French society seem to wish to add a new term to the traditional French motto: Liberty-Equality-Fraternity - Laicity. We would like to show in this lecture that French laicity is historically not a civil religion, neither an activist atheism nor an anti-islamic weapon, but a legal way to organize and guarantee religious diversity and liberty by a neutral state. The French tradition of laicity must be able to preserve us from reducing public liberties through the development of a discriminatory security apparatus leading to religious discrimination…


  1. I) The French state is a liberal secular state

 For Donald Smith[1] the ideal-type concept of secular state can be visualized as a triangle, in which the three angles are religion, the state and the individual. The sides of the triangle represent three sets of social and political relationship:


  1. “Religion and the individual” (freedom of religion and conviction): at first, the secular State must guarantee the freedom of conscience (and, in particular, the free exercise of different religions but also the right to change or to give up religion). Secondly, the secular State can limit some manifestations of religion, “in the interest of public health, safety or morals.”
  2. “State and the individual (citizenship)”: In a secular State “religion becomes entirely irrelevant in defining the terms of citizenship; its rights and duties are not affected by the individual’s religious beliefs.” Consequently, religion is excluded from the relationship between the State and individual. This point is a logical consequence of the pluralism of religions and beliefs in a modern democratic society. If it were not, certain members of the country would be regarded as “second-class citizens” and could be discriminated against.
  3. “State and religion (separation of state and religion)”: In a secular State, it is not the function of the State to promote, regulate, direct, or otherwise interfere with religion. Similarly, the democratic state derives its authority from a secular source (‘the consent of the governed’) and is not subordinate to ecclesiastical power. To resume it by an ideal definition, we can re-use Cavour’s formula: a secular state is a state where you can find “a free church in a free state” (1860).

 The above defined secularism is an ideal-type concept, with which we can evaluate and measure the secular and non-secular elements of a political society. In the real world, a totally secular country does not exist, but, in democratic societies, some secular elements must always exist, even if some characteristics of the state religion system remain. For example, a democratic state can have a national religion, but the state law does not have to conform to religious moral standards, because the state is the state of and for all citizens. French, with its strict separation system, is a form among others of secular state. Secularism and laicity have no structural difference. But they both exist with, or without, different kinds of civil religion.


  1. II) Laicisation process in France

 Laicity is a very polymorphous notion, both in time and in space, and this in part explains the recurring debates it provokes. Laicity is first of all a typically French designation for secularism that is very hard to translate in most other non-Latin languages. In France laicity takes varying forms including within the French national space. For example, Alsace-Moselle still abides by the « situation concordataire » defining the relationships between the State and three traditional religions (Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaïsm) by a special agreement, whereas in the rest of the national territory the separation of Churches and State prevails. Another example is Guyana where the Catholic Church is the only religion recognized by the State since 1821.

 French laicity is also the product of a particular historical moment. Launched during the French Revolution, the laicisation process went through several stages, and took several forms, ending up with recognition at the highest level through the inscription of the principle of laicity in the Constitution (first in 1946 and then again in 1958). The history of French laicity is not monolithic at all. It was marked by feverish moments of excess, some clerical[2] and some anti-clerical[3]. These are extreme expressions of the famous conflict of “the two Frances” (to quote Emile Poulat): for almost two centuries there have been two antagonistic conceptions of the French identity: one that sees France as monarchist and traditionalist, the eldest daughter of the Catholic church ; the other one viewing France as the country of human rights and citizen’s rights, the republican and progressive, “daughter of the French revolution”.


III) Laicity as a French exception?

 This particular terminology has led the French and others to speak of laicity as « a French exception ». The term often takes on a particular resonance to foreigners, implying an authoritarianism and a supposedly militant atheism governing the French State. History shows us that acts of religious persecution by the State have existed, however they have not been worse than elsewhere. More importantly, they have not been predominant in the legislation that has ultimately been retained (laicization of the school, separation of Churches and State). On the other hand, one may still speak of a French exception with regards to laicization, as it took place in a situation of religious pluralism that was almost unique in Europe at the time of its inception[4]. In other countries in Europe, laicization was often less violent but also less complete, and in many countries one religion was “more equal than the others” (the established church in Great Britain, Scandinavia…)[5].

 The law on separation between Churches and State (1905) ended the system of recognized and subsidized religions:

- « The Republic shall not remunerate nor give grants to any religion » (art.2).

But it did not proclaim the indifference of the State towards spiritual matters because the law also guarantees religious freedom. In its first article, it effectively states that :

- « the Republic assures freedom of conscience. It guarantees the free practice of religions ».

 Therefore, the laicity legally prevailing in France is not the atheist and authoritarian “laicité” of the atheists and free thinkers. Rather, it is the liberal and neutral laicity of abstention, distinguishing the two spheres (civil and religious), recognizing religious pluralism and the existence of believers and non-believers among its citizens. The religions accepted this new posture of the State (since 1905 for Protestantism and Judaism, and since the 1920s for Catholicism, at first violently hostile to this unilateral measure by the French government.

 The State maintains an uninterrupted dialogue with the different religions present in the country. This dialogue is never without hidden agendas, and the “gallic” mentality of the State sometimes shines through the secular surface. The “historical” churches are often represented at the major moments of the year and the Catholic Church still possesses historical privileges (legal holidays, national funerals, and so on). Towards more recently appeared religions (Islam, Evangelical movements of Anglo-Saxon origin, cults…), the State is much more cautious[6].

 Islam, now the second-largest French religion with 4 to 5 million believers, came onto the scene in the 1970s. Since then, laicity has been redefined to integrate this new religious component. Authorities, together with their stated goal of assimilating immigrated populations, seek to subjugate exotic religious expression. The temptation is to make Islam another « recognized » religion and to consider all other religious expressions as a priori suspect (small churches, movement considered as cults). The anti-clerical temptation and suspicion towards religions (which goes back to the Enlightenment and is solidly anchored in peoples’ mentalities) all too often dominate the contemporary discourse about religions in France. This contradicts the much more liberal view of the fathers of laicity in the 19th century…

 Cultural claims by some high school students (the most widely-mediatized ones being that of Muslim girls, but these are not the only ones) led since the end of the 1980s to an impassionate debate about the limits of laicity in the national school system. Facing the partisans of an inflexible laicity (laicism) calling for the exclusion of all religious expression within the school, which should become a sanctuary of the Republic, the responses of the highest State authorities have been first of all to refer to the principles of state neutralism in religious and ideological matters. These principles, remarkably stable for a century at least, require absolute respect for the freedom of conscience of pupils and neutrality from teachers, who are public servants in a secular state. But, because of the increasing debate in the Medias and in the schools, it appears nonetheless necessary to ask pupils to respect some limits in the expression of their religious convictions. The recent eruption of terrorist violence on the national soil dramatized and polarized the debate about the increasing visibility of radical Islam. It also affected the political management of the Muslim presence in France.


 V) Three conflicting conceptions of secularism:

 There are today (and have always been) several understandings of the notion of laicity in French society. Historical laicization process in France has always oscillated between these three perceptions.

 a) Some see laicity as « abstention », « neutrality ». They privilege the idea of the inalienability of freedom of conscience and think that the state is not competent to intervene in certain domains – including religion, which is a private affair – and that the State should abstain from these subjects. Some of the measures of laicization, leading to a greater autonomy of religious and political spheres, where carried out according to the liberal concept of laicity[7].

  • b) Some insist on religious freedom – including freedom of conscience and freedom of religious practice. Here, laicity becomes the guarantor of dialogue between the State and religions, and the religions are seen as associated with the State in the search for the common good (committees on ethics and morals etc.)[8].
  • c) Some see laicity as the guarantor of freedom of thought. For these « defenders of laicity », the State’s mission is to save and preserve the freedom of each citizen – whether he or she likes it or not. Laicity is thus sacralized and becomes the embryo of a civil religion. Several measures in the history of republic laicization, on the other hand, showed the recurring desire of the State to interfere with the beliefs of the people[9]. Recently, it was the case with the creation of the CFCM (Muslim Council) in 2003, the laws forbidding ostentatious religious symbols at state schools (15 March 2004) and forbidding the face hiding in public spaces (10 octobre 2010). These two laws have given an important inflexion in the traditionally liberal French laicity (for the first time a laical comportment is required from the individuals and not only from state representatives). The recentdeprivation of nationality” project concerning bi-nationals guilty of terrorist acts is part of this trend.


VI) The recent debate about islam and religious radicalism

 Observing the eruption of Muslim radicalism on the world stage, the famous scholar Olivier Roy said that it is less a radicalization of Islam than an islamization of radicalism[10]. He observes that the young French jihadists who made the bombings of 2015 all belong to the second generation of North African immigrants or declassed middle classes young persons. He notes that these young people became radicalized in France before travelling to Syria to find a cause to join. These radicalized young look very much like the young nihilists and ultra-left terrorists of the 70s’. This, according to him, is much more a social and generational revolt than the expression of a religious unrest. He emphasizes religious ignorance and isolation of these radicalized young and their lack of social integration. Furthermore, police and scholarly investigations show that radicalized persons are by far not always original Muslims. Jihadists are often freshly converted people from declassed middle classes of european countries… For Gilles Kepel, another specialist, nothing had really been done to help the integration of children of North African immigrants since the “Marche des Beurs” in 1983[11]. Because the French national school had not kept its promises of social ascension in a context of economic crisis, this lost generation stopped to believe in shared republican values and had become to promote religious counterculture. For François Burgat, another scholar, these social explanations are not sufficient to fully explain the phenomenon of religious radicalization[12]. He emphasizes the political and religious motivations of these radicals, deriving from a heavy French colonial past poorly served. As we can see, the links between religion, islam and radicalization is not as limpid as what the Media and the political speeches generally present to the public. Islam does certainly not have the exclusivity of religious radicalism…[13]. Although recent commentators link the special relationship between religion and violence. Jean Birnbaum denounces the contempt and ignorance deliberately maintained of the specificity of the religious phenomenon by progressist political thinkers[14]… In this sense, the political power of religion must be taken more seriously and investigated. Nowadays, islamic ideology seemed to enjoy the ideological vacuum since the fall of great polical ideologies of the XXth century. And islamic radicalism seems to offer a newly attractive and universalist ideology for which one can fight… The return of religion in politics should be taken very seriously.

 Recently two private structures were created in order to better understand – and fight - the phenomenon of radicalization. Both of these associations are supported by the governmental and regional authorities: the Centre de prévention contre les dérives sectaires liées à l’islam (CPDSI), in 2012[15] and the Centre d’action et de prévention contre la radicalisation des individus (CAPRI) in 2016[16]. Both organizations intend to prevent radicalization. They also want to provide tools to support radicalized individuals. They depart from the idea that radicalization is a kind of sectarian hold and that a multi-disciplinary support (psychological, social, educational…) can be offered to individuals and their family to liberate themselves from this mental threat.

 In parallel, the authorities organize their services to offer a better prevention of radicalism. The French Ministry of Interior had always kept an eye on Islamic movements through police surveillance. At the same time, it tries to encourage a moderate Islam that could be tolerant, modern and pluralist. However, the organizational structures of French Islamic groups are so diverse that almost all attempts to obtain a unique official representation of Islam in France failed. Besides, these attempts reveal the French State’s permanent temptation to control religions, which is not really the spirit of the French legally defined laicity…

 The Ministry of Education recently modernized the civic instruction in a new curriculum titled “Education morale et civique”, which is supposed to develop respect for republican values like laicity among, above all, Muslim pupils. But, in fact, this initiative is not as new as it is presented. Republican school always wanted to simultaneously teach different knowledges and promote a moral and civic education to young future citizens. Beyond the change of name of this new curriculum, the same liberal ideology is promoted since the beginning of French national school system in the 19th century, with the same very limited time allocated (one hour a week). It is not clear how to make this education more effective …

 In the Academia, authorities seem to encourage the scientific knowledge about religious radicalism, the fashionable new term for fanatism. According to informed sources it seems that a serious financial effort is about to be made in favor of the creation of academic chairs of Islamic studies in Universities. These chairs must respond to a political demand and they are supposed to focus on the specific link between Islam and radicalization. EPHE made a demand in order to strengthen its offer in matter of islamologic studies: this old institution speciallized in religious studies already presents a large expertise in islamic fields (including various disciplines like philology, archeology, mystic, philosophy, law studies and shiism theology). Now it would like to have the opportunity to create two new chairs to complete its curriculum : “Exegesis and theology of sunnism” and “Radicaliszation and fanatism: comparative sociology of islam in Europe”. But the draft makes clear that radicalization should not be studied only from an islamic point of view. According to its experience, the fanaticism phenomenon affects all religious traditions without any exception…


Conclusion: The governmental challenge of integrating muslims in the respect of laicity principles…

 In present-day France, if strict laicist discourses were quite predominant in 2004 with Jacques Chirac, President Nicolas Sarkozy showed a preference for a “positive laicity” close to the second type of secularism. He favoured the “essentially Christian roots” of France. He added “a transcendent God who is in the mind and heart of every human being.” The inflection given by the President Sarkozy to the practice of laicity brings it more into line with the European practice of collaboration and recognition of religions. The French legislation seemed to evolve towards granting a preference to the historical church, and this to the detriment of religious neutrality and of religious minorities (evangelical Protestantism and Islam) judged politically “less secure” and therefore under surveillance by the Ministry of Interior… Finally, President François Hollande tried to pacify the tremendous debate about the definition of the laicity by introducing an independent commission, the Observatory of laicity (2012)[17].

We must not forget that the free exercise of religions is strongly guaranteed in France: every weekend, millions of people living in France freely and peacefully attend religious services[18]. In relation to the school or to the French society as a whole, French laicity should not turn away from the liberal approach to Churches-State relations. It should not give in to the recurrent temptation towards a state control of religions. This posture has always led to conflict. In our times, it seems harder and harder to put this into practice due to the general context of pluralism, which is one of the specificities of our Western democratic, secular open world. Terrorism challenges our public liberties. We need security of course, but we also have to stay firm about the preservation of our democratic values.

As the world is rocked by the upheaval of politico-religious conflicts (Middle Eastern conflagration, never-ending Israel-Palestinian conflict, terrorists events, etc.), governments must remain aware of the necessity to defuse tensions between the religious communities represented in the country. Finally it seems that this liberal requirement must be combined with the preservation of the equality and safety for all citizens. In the current configuration, this represents a real challenge, and not only for French representatives…

 In these days of trouble and fear, the authorities must be careful to avoid discrimination between the different religions, if we still want our pluralistic society protected from political and religious disorders. The government has to endlessly improve its politics of laicity and by that, constantly reaffirm the universal message of the French motto applicable to all French citizens without exception: Liberty-Equality-Fraternity. Finally, with regard to the academic studies on radicalization and/or religions, security discourses must not invade the academic fields. Religious sciences, like all other fields, must be preserved from the urgency of the moment in order to produce studies of balanced and great quality.



Valentine Zuber, EPHE, PSL Research University (valentine.zuber@ephe.sorbonne.fr)


[1] D. E. Smith, India as a Secular State, Princeton University Press, 1963.

[2] For example, the law against sacrilege during the Restauration in 1825, the public consecration of the basilica of Sacré-Cœur just after the Commune 1870-71

[3] For example, the antireligious policy of the Revolution of 1793, the law on religious congregations in 1880,1901 and 1904, and the Combes project of separation in 1904

[4] Since the Ancien régime, several religions have co-existed on French territory, though in a very unbalanced way. In spite of the (fictive) principle proclaimed by Louis XIV with the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685) -- « one King, One Faith, One Law », Protestantism and Judaism have continued to coexist with the Catholic majority, since the 16th century at the very least. The Edict of tolerance (1787), recognized for the first time since the Edict of Nantes (1598) the existence of non-Catholic subjects in a country where Catholicism was the sovereign religion of the State, and finally and definitely reestablished the legality of other religions. France was one of the first countries in Europe to have dissociated national belonging and religious belonging. This was not without problems, due to the resistance of the majority. But the Concordat of 1801 consecrated in a precocious and definitive way the pluralism of the French state. It recognized and subsidized three legal religions; Catholicism, Protestantism, and finally, Judaism in 1808.

[5] Beginning in 1879, the French State launched a gradual laicization process, starting with the removal of catholic priests from the administrative committees of hospitals and boards of charity, and in 1880 the substitution of lay women for nuns in hospitals.

Thereafter, the Third Republic established laical education with the Jules Ferry laws in 1881–82, whereby religious instruction in all schools was forbidden and members of the clergy banned from teaching in them. In 1886, another law secured the laicization of the teaching staff of the National Education. But religious schools were always maintained (however privatized) and parents always kept the freedom of choice between public and private education.

Other moves towards laicity include the introduction of divorce and compulsory civil marriages, legalizing work on Sundays, making seminarians subject to military conscription. The law ordaining public prayers at the beginning of each Parliamentary Session has been abolished. The religious character erased from the judicial oath; all actions and emblems serving in any way to recall the idea of religion banished from the political assemblies, the courts, the schools, the army, the navy.

[6] Secret services keep these movements under surveillance especially if they have foreign connections[6]. Cults have been particularly stigmatized during the 1990’ because of the so-called mental manipulation risk against human rights and individual freedom (the law About-Piccard of 2001 to prevent the cults development… has been pointed out by the U.S. State Department in its Religious Liberty report).

[7] An example would be the laws concerning schools in the 1880s and the 1905 law of separation between Churches and State.

[8] Laws on the organization of private education such as the Debré law of 1959 and the institutional dialog between State and Catholic Church since 2002, are effectively liberal measures in favor of a kind of recognition of religions and their action in public space, validated by the Republic.

[9] One may observe several examples of an instrumentalization of the religion by the State “gallicanism” during the Ancien Régime, the Constitution Civile du Clergé proclamed in 1790 during the French Révolution, and the State promotion of the moral utility of religion with the Concordat of 1801-1802. Still, other measures showed a real State anticlericalism or at the very least a wariness of the state with regard to the religious phenomenon. The laws on religious congregations in the 1880s, and in 1901-1904.

[10] Olivier Roy, « Le djihadisme est une révolte générationnelle et nihiliste », Le Monde, 24 novembre 2015, http://abonnes.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2015/11/24/le-djihadisme-une-revolte-generationnelle-et-nihiliste_4815992_3232.html

[11] Gilles Kepel, « Prendre soin des musulmans », Réforme, 31 décembre 2015, http://reforme.net/journal/%5Breforme-numero-publication%5D/evenement/prendre-soin-musulmans

[12] François Burgat, « Réponse à Olivier Roy : les non-dits de « l’islamisation de la radicalité », Rue89, http://rue89.nouvelobs.com/2015/12/01/reponse-a-olivier-roy-les-non-dits-lislamisation-radicalite-262320

[13]Dounia Bouzar, « La radicalisation ne touche pas que les musulmans », Le Monde, 29 décembre 2015,


[14] Jean Birnbaum, Un silence religieux. La gauche face au jihadisme, Paris, Seuil, 2016.

[15] http://www.cpdsi.fr/

[16] http://radicalisation.fr/

[17] This commission’s principal task is to assist the government in respecting the laïcity principle in its action. The Observatory have also the role of producing documents, statistics and analyses on the present situation towards laïcity in the French society and make proposals to improve laïcity and peaceful coexistence in civil society: http://www.gouvernement.fr/observatoire-de-la-laicite

[18] See, J. Baubérot, “Laïcité and the Challenge of ‘Republicanism’”, Modern and Contemporary France, Vol . 17, N°2, May 2009, 189-198.

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