French Views of Religious Freedom

France and the United States appear not to see eye to eye on issues of religious freedom. This gap in understanding widened dramatically in 1998, when the US Congress and the Government of France both passed legislation on religious freedom that seemed to embrace opposite goals. In the United States, the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) imposed sanctions on countries around the world that were convicted of violating religious freedom. The new law created a US Commission for International Religious Freedom and appointed an Ambassador-at-large to head an office on international religious freedom at the State Department. In France (on the very next day, by coincidence), the National Assembly recommended the creation of a governmental task-force, the Inter-Ministerial Mission against Sects (MILS), to monitor so-called dangerous cults. In each case, the legislation was approved unanimously. Yet their different goals appeared to conflict. In 1999, US Ambassador Robert Seiple, a Baptist and ex-chairman of the Evangelical development organization World Vision, met with Alain Vivien, the French head of MILS who is also president of a secular development organization called Volunteers for Progress. The two discussed their differences, but failed to reach a common understanding on the goals of the two laws.

The paradox is that both countries embrace religious freedom and respect the separation between church and state. Despite different religious histories, France and the United States have both long embraced religious freedom in their constitutional documents. This principle was affirmed almost simultaneously in the two countries—in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and in the US Bill of Rights—in 1789. At the end of the Second World War, France and the United States cooperated in drafting the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which includes religious freedom. Both also embrace the separation of church and state. Separation has existed in France since the 1905 Law of Separation (except in Alsace-Lorraine in eastern France and in French Guyana). Separation in the United States dates to the First Amendment of the US Constitution, ratified in 1791, and to a 1947 decision by the US Supreme Court that extended religious freedom and the disestablishment of religion to individual states.

Thus, like the United States, the French Republic neither recognizes nor subsidizes any religion (Article 2 of the 1905 law), and it respects all beliefs (Article II of the Constitution of 1958).

Church and State

But from a common starting point, US courts have erected a higher and more impenetrable “wall of separation,” as Justice Hugo Black called it in his 1947 decision, than have their French counterparts. Controversies that are still divisive today within American society, such as religious discussion in public schools after teaching hours and government subsidies to faith-based organizations, have never been weighty political issues in France. Since 1959, the French government pays the salaries of teachers in private schools, most of which are religious, and gives subsidies directly to those schools. Churches, temples and synagogues built in France before 1905 are the property of the state. National and municipal governments maintain these buildings, which are used free-of-charge by the clergy. Religious feasts are official holidays in France. The government organizes religious funerals for victims of disasters and for French Presidents.

These exceptions to a strict separation of church and state in France result in part from the enduring central role of the Catholic Church. Sunday attendance at mass has dropped to about 10 percent of the population in France today, but 80 percent of French citizens are still nominally Roman Catholics. This makes France the sixth largest Catholic country in the world, after Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, Italy and… the United States. Catholicism was the exclusive state religion of France prior to 1791, and one of the four official religions, together with Lutheranism, Reformism and Judaism (later Islam in Algeria), recognized by the state under the 1801 Napoleonic Concordat up until 1905. The central role of Catholicism has in part dictated the nature of the relationship that the French state maintains with all religious organizations today. The four other main religions in France have, like the Catholic church, been organized at the national level, and the French government is currently discussing with several Islamic groups to achieve a similar national representative body for Islam.

In France, the government regulates religious activities in all of their dimensions—worship, observance, practice, and teaching—in order to protect the rights of others, the public order, health, and morals. This regulatory oversight applies not just to religious organizations, but to any kind of organized group in France. In regulating religious activities, however, the state does not make religious interpretations. It does not define religion, as the state is incompetent in matters of belief. But the state also does not make exceptions to general laws and regulations on religious grounds. US courts may interpret laws more flexibly when a strong religious motivation is at stake—permission to use a hallucinogenic substance in Native American rituals, for example—a policy that has created controversy within the United States over the past decade.

By contrast, French law is applied without any consideration of religion, race, or wealth. This approach has its roots in the universalist tradition of French democracy and citizenship. Within the public sphere, a French citizen is not defined in terms of particular traits. The law represents the General Will, but it is not simply a combining of private interests. Law is instead an act of public reason to be decided by rational arguments. Thus religious preoccupations enter political debate only if they are supported on rational grounds.

The French Tradition of Laïcité

The traditional conflict between church and state in France, finally resolved by the 1905 law, had focused on the issue of moral authority. The Roman Catholic Church accepted the principle of religious freedom only in 1965, with the Declaration on Human Dignity passed by the Vatican II Council. Until then, under the 1864 Syllabus and the 1870 Papal Infallibility decree, the Vatican required national governments to impose on their people the moral truths taught by the Catholic Church—a requirement that posed problems not only for France but also for the United States. The French term laïcité, translated roughly as secularism, was created to describe the growing opposition to this moral authority held by Catholic priests. Over time, the laïcité movement came to condemn religious coercion as a form of undue religious influence.

If the French are more sensitive to religious cults than are Americans, it is in part because of the historical emphasis that laïcité has placed on the freedom of conscience. Both the 1945 UN Declaration of Human Rights (article 18) and the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) embrace freedom not of religion alone, but of “thought, conscience and religion.” The distinction between these different kinds of freedom is frequently overlooked by Americans, who, for historical reasons, often consider the three synonymous. Americans are used to a plurality of religions. It is estimated that 40 percent of Americans change religion or denomination at least once in their life. Thus for Americans, freedom of choice of religion or belief is the most usual form taken by freedom of conscience.

The French law of 1905, by contrast, never mentions religion. It guarantees in its first article the freedom of conscience, and in that context the freedom of worship (culte, in the French). This emphasis on conscience has historical roots. The French have, since the end of the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, known only one large majoritarian religion. Either one was within the Catholic Church, or one was a free-thinker outside of it. In the tradition of French laïcité that emerged from this context, freedom of conscience is still understood by the French as a freedom from the moral authority of a single dominant religion.

Religious Freedom and Policy

This difference in emphasis has consequences for the conduct of foreign relations. The French tend to sympathize with the author Salman Rushdie, for example, who is perceived as the free-thinking “Voltaire of Islam.” Americans agree, but also stress the right of any Muslim to be baptized as a Christian. This can lead to a difference of approach in conducting foreign policy. The civil war in the Sudan, for example, tends to be discussed in US public debate as a religious war. US peace mediation efforts have therefore tended to be more intensive, and more focused on the issue of religion. French policy by contrast tends to treat this conflict as a traditional, secular power rivalry. Both causes are legitimate. But both also risk to ignore the real political and social developments—democratization and women’s rights, for example—that are taking place within Muslim states today. In this sense, both the French and the American views tend to overlook the majority of Muslim people who both follow Islam and are also good citizens.

The difference in emphasis also has consequences for domestic policy. In the American tradition, for example, the Islamic faith is fully compatible with religious freedom. But in the French tradition, some aspects of Islam may contradict the governing principle of laïcité. A broad public debate emerged recently in France, for example, on the question of whether Islamic students should be allowed to wear scarves in French public schools. The issue arose because French public schools are considered to be neutral ground, where any religious or political symbolism is prohibited. The practice was eventually permitted, but specifically on the grounds that the scarves were not being used ostentatiously or as a means of proselytising. In general, religious freedom is regarded in France as a human right, but never in isolation from other universal human rights. France therefore objects to a special status for religious freedom over freedom of conscience.

This view of religious freedom helps to explain France’s legislation on “dangerous cults,” passed in its final version by the France’s National Assembly in June 2001. Freedom of association in France is guarranteed under the 1901 Law of Association. The law on “dangerous cults” simply grants the government the right, under judicial review, to dissolve such associations if they violate French law. The French government also retains the right to review decisions granting a special tax status to religious organizations under the 1905 Law of Separation if worship is not their “exclusive activity.” Religious groups pursuing non-worship activities are free to do so under the 1901 provision for associations and they do so with the usual tax exemptions accorded to all associations. These measures reflect the French respect for all religious belief, but not for actions that restrict the freedom of others to believe or not to believe.

In this respect, the French and US governments genuinely differ in their approaches to religion. Their two societies may even differ on the definition of religion itself. But this difference should not hurt French-American relations, nor their defense of human rights in the rest of the world, which each will continue to pursue according to their own view of religious freedom.

Dominique Decherf is currently a research fellow at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. He holds a doctorate in law from the Sorbonne and is a senior French diplomat.