100th Anniversary of Secularism in France

· For Reference and Research

December 9, 2005
100th Anniversary of Secularism in France


December 9, 2005, marks the 100th anniversary of secularism in France, known as “laïcité.” In 1905 the French government passed a law stipulating “the separation of churches and the state,” thus enshrining secularism as a national principle. The law, which barred the state from officially recognizing, funding or endorsing religious groups, represented a major shift in church-state relations in France. It has recently come under increased scrutiny in connection with the integration of Muslim and other religious minority groups in French society.

In light of this anniversary, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has collected a variety of resources capturing the significance of the original law and the current debate concerning its implementation. The resources include links to Pew Forum transcripts and related resource pages, as well as links to official statements on secularism and accredited news and commentary.

Pew Forum and Pew Research Center Resources | 1905 Law of Separation and Historical Background of Laïcité in France | Official Statements and Commentary on Secularism
News | Other Resources and Interest Group Statements

Pew Forum and Pew Research Center Resources

Report: An Uncertain Road: Muslims and the Future of Europe

Poll Report: Islamic Extremism: Common Concern for Muslim and Western Publics

Poll Report: Among Wealthy Nations…U.S. Stands Alone in its Embrace of Religion

Event Transcript: Secular Europe and Religious America: Implications for Transatlantic Relations

Event Transcript: Does “Muslim” Turkey Belong in “Christian” Europe?

Event Transcript: Pope Benedict XVI and World Affairs

Question & Answer: Vatican Foreign Policy in the New Pontificate

1905 Law of Separation and Historical Background of Laïcité in France

December 9, 1905 Law Concerning the Separation of Churches and the State
On December 9, 1905, the French government passed a law on the separation of churches and the state. The 1905 law prohibits the state from officially recognizing, funding or endorsing religious groups.
History from the French National Assembly (in French)

Vehementer Nos, Encyclical of Pope Pius X on the 1905 French Law of Separation
On February 11, 1906, Pope Pius X delivered the Vehementer Nos encyclical denouncing the 1905 French law of separation.

1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man
The French concept of secularism, or laïcité, was born out of the Revolution of 1789. The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man states in Article 10 that “No one may be disturbed on account of his opinions, even religious ones, as long as the manifestation of such opinions does not interfere with the established Law and Order.” Prior to the Revolution, Roman Catholicism was the state religion of France. With the Concordat of 1801, Napoleon reestablished the Church in France, officially recognizing Roman Catholicism as the majority religion of the French people. Napoleon also officially recognized Judaism and the Lutheran and Reformed churches. These groups received official state recognition and support until 1905.

Preamble to the October 27, 1946 Constitution
France’s current constitution, the Constitution of October 4, 1958, makes explicit reference to two texts: the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Preamble to the October 27, 1946 Constitution. The 1946 Preamble guarantees, among other things, “the provision of free, public and secular education at all levels.”

The Constitution of October 4, 1958
The first article of France’s 1958 Constitution sets forth the secular principle: “France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It shall insure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion. It shall respect all beliefs.”

1989 Affaire du Foulard (Analysis by the Conseil d’État in French)
In 1989, the debate over the wearing of religious symbols and attire in French public schools escalated when two Muslim girls were expelled from school for wearing headscarves. The incident became known as the Affair du Foulard, or the “headscarf affair.”

The About-Picard Bill of 2001 (Official version in French)
On June 14, 2001, the French government approved a controversial bill aimed at “preventing” and “repressing” cultic movements that undermine human rights and fundamental freedoms. Known as the About-Picard Bill, the law was signed in the wake of public outcry over the 1994 Order of the Solar Temple murder-suicides.
Unofficial English translation by the Institute on Religion and Public Policy

French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) (Statement by Nicolas Sarkozy at the twentieth annual meeting of the Union of France’s Islamic Organizations, April 19, 2003)
The French Council of the Muslim Faith, or Conseil Français du Culte Musulman
(CFCM), was created in May 2003. The Council was created by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy to give Muslims official representation before the French government.

The Stasi Commission Report (in French)
Throughout the 1990s the debate concerning the application of laïcité continued. In 2003, President Jacques Chirac created the Stasi Commission to consider how the principle of laïcité should govern legislation. In its December 2003 report, the Commission recommended barring students from wearing conspicuous religious apparel and symbols in public schools.

March 15, 2004 Law on Secularity and Conspicuous Religious Behaviors and Symbols in Schools (Official version in French)
On March 15, 2004 the French government adopted a law banning public school students from wearing “conspicuous” religious attire and symbols in school. In practice, this ban applied to Muslim headscarves, Sikh turbans, Jewish skullcaps, and large Christian crosses. The law went into effect in September 2004.
English translation

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