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On the State and Religions in France

After his reference book on the relationship between religion and politics in the French Revolution(1)Lucien Jaume,  Le religieux et le politique dans la Révolution française. L’idée de régénération (PUF, 2015), Lucien Jaume, director of research emeritus at CEVIPOF, continues his study of the tensions and associations between politics and religion. In his new book L’Éternel défi. L’État et les religions en France des origines à nos jours [The eternal challenge. The State and religions in France from its origins to today] (Tallandier, 2022), he provides an in-depth examination of the various meanings of laïcité. Rising above the polemics, he explores its roots and evolution, and embraces the lively debates that it continues to generate today. Presentation.

In this new book, I study the historical, intellectual and legal-institutional conditions of laïcité in France. I also analyse how this idea evolved after emerging in the public debate in the middle of the 19th century with the historian and statesman François Guizot and the philosopher and politician Victor Cousin in response to the Catholic Church’s demand for ‘freedom of education’.
In France, laïcité differs from secularism insofar as it reflects a truly republican philosophy inspired by Human Rights, Christianity (especially Protestantism), and Kantian philosophy (education of reason for self-governance). For some authors, and many in this book, it even lays claim to a ‘spiritual power’. School plays a major role in the dissemination of a specific secular morality (still stated in the Official Bulletin), as conceived by Ferdinand Buisson; the mission that successive ministers assigned to school is both to instruct the mind and to form a civic conscience – hence the controversies over the ‘neutrality’ of schools and of the Republic. Jules Ferry explained in a parliamentary session: ‘We promised denominational neutrality, but never political or philosophical neutrality.’ Moreover, Minister Ferry and Buisson agreed that: ‘Laïque teaching is distinct from religious teaching, but does not contradict it’ (speech in the Chambers and ‘laïcité’ article in the Dictionnaire de pédagogie [pedagogical dictionary] edited by F. Buisson).
Although my book leads to a redefinition of laïcité – given the changes that occurred between the Third Republic and the 2020s – its scope is broader. The reflection builds on a theoretical question about the enduring relationship between state authority and religious freedom. According to the major political figure, Aristide Briand (explanatory memorandum of the 1905 law), these relations have been worth considering since the distant Carolingian era, when the king of the Franks (Pepin the Short, father of Charlemagne) agreed to militarily liberate the states of the pope threatened by the Lombards and to protect them. In exchange, France received the spiritual protection of the Pope and endorsement of the divine legitimacy of its kings. The long history of the two ‘challenges’ – that which the State poses to the religious world, and that which religions periodically pose to the State – is worth analysing over time and with precision. Doing so requires going back to Gallicanism under Louis XIV, the Revolution and its three declensions (Civil Constitution of the Clergy, cult of the Supreme Being in 1794, and separation of the State and religions under the Directorate), the Concordat, and the current role of the Council of State, in a society where globalisation leads to a proliferation of ‘beliefs’ and dilutes Catholic ties.
On the theoretical level, L’Eternel défi compares the French conception of laïcité with the notion of tolerance favoured in Anglo-Saxon thinking – a major difference that spurs discussion and misunderstanding. Similarly, approaching ‘secularism’ from an American perspective underscores the fundamental role of the judge on the other side of the Atlantic. The latter must ensure equality between the many ‘denominations’, and is confronted with a very wide range of cases that can be very different from what France or Europe might experience. For example, a judge may need to rule on whether a baker who declares himself to be a Christian can refuse to sell his products for use in the wedding ceremony of a homosexual couple, or whether a student wishing to demonstrate opposition to the war in Vietnam could wear an armband in class signalling opposition to this war. Of the various forms or secularism in the world today, that of France can only be understood by considering its political culture, history (notably marked by the religious wars and the revocation of the Edict of Nantes that hit Protestants), and the important link that it maintains with European rationalism (René Descartes, Emmanuel Kant, and Alain, among others).
This historical legacy is all the more important to consider that Islam – a recent arrival to France via economic immigration – does not fit into the previous configuration.
Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism established relations defined after the Concordat by the 1905 law of separation between the Churches and the State and subsequent amendments. The latter sometimes revived the controversy over the financing of private education using public funds – a decision that the Constitutional Council validated. But when faced with a religion that is not established as a Church – Sunni Islam – the State appears uncomfortable, and even awkward. The question of representation of the faithful constantly reemerges despite the pacts, charters, and commitments that successive ministers of the interior have tried to get adopted by a ‘community’ that is actually divided into multiple associations and served by imams of multiple origins.
The Eternel Challenge draws on a host of historians, Islamologists, and philosophers to trace the conflicts and various visions of the caliphate, from Mohammed to the 11th century. The book underscores the dispossession of the spiritual authority that befell the caliphs to the benefit of the unstructured world of the ulama, who appropriated the legislation of daily life and the interpretation of the texts (Koran, hadiths of the prophet, and the Sunna tradition). This examination of the history of the caliphate raises the question of the conditions (political, but also theological) under which acceptance of the authority of the republican state in France can be built, and according to what consensus.
The recent Charter of principles for Islam in France (January 2021), ultimately signed by most Muslim organisations and published on the website of the Great Mosque of Paris, seems to mark a major step forward: jihadist Islamism is specifically condemned in precise terms, the French Constitution and the rights mentioned in the European Charter are declared unreservedly binding on the French territory for Muslims. Gender equality is not up for debate or downplay.
The book also considers the remarks of some jurists on the issue of the veil (2004 law prohibiting students from wearing signs or clothing that ostensibly manifest a religious affiliation), following the extensions that legislators thought necessary to develop, culminating in the recent law on measures reinforcing the principles of the Republic (summer 2021). The latter has raised fears in various churches, and reinforces the notion of public order, which has moved from material measures (traffic, urban planning, public markets) to a sort of public morality of. According to the jurist Patrice Rolland, laïcité tends to expand its remit to an excessively extensive and social ‘public order’ to reform mores. However, as some authors recall in line with Jean Baubérot, it is the State that must be laïc, not society.
When viewed through a French lens, laïcité is particularly complex for two main reasons.
On the one hand, the past weighs ‘like a nightmare on the brains of the living’, as Marx wrote in another context. On the other hand, only in-depth, interdisciplinary, and patient research can enable identifying and interweaving the different threads of this skein: public law, history, philosophy, theology of the three monotheisms, and political theory. All of these forms of knowledge are needed to shed light, as the great historian and philosopher Mohammed Arkoun called for. My work contrasts the discourses of actors in political situations, institutions, and even religious dogma in order to uncover frequently implicit issues that shape discussions and misunderstandings. The goal is to answer two major questions. First, what the State can and wants to do with regard to religions. Second, what history shows about the relationship between sovereign authority and the freedom to believe, or not to believe.
In the future, a third part of this study will develop a critical approach to so-called ‘political  religions’ a term that historians have used to designate fascism, sometimes national socialism, and even communism. The study will question the validity of this label, discuss the theses of historians, and examine their relevance today.

Emeritus CNRS research director at CEVIPOF, Lucien Jaume teaches political philosophy at Sciences Po.  The author of an intellectual biography of Tocqueville awarded by the French Academy, he is also the author of ‘Le religieux et le politique dans la Révolution française — L’idée de régénération’ [Religion and politics in the French Revolution – the idea of regeneration] (PUF, 2015), ‘Robespierre et l’Être suprême, ou de l’usage du religieux en révolution’ [Robespierre and the Supreme Being, or the use of religion in revolution] (Revue des Deux Mondes, 2015) and ’Observations sur l’esprit terroriste : 1793 et 2015′ [Observations on the terrorist spirit: 1793 and 2015] (Revue des Deux Mondes, 2016), making him one of the leading experts on the modern relationship between politics and religion.