Monday, December 12, 2005


The French people have spent over two hundred years moving religion to the private sphere and divorcing it from public life. There is separation of Church and State in France, and it didn't happen by accident. France is nominally a "Roman Catholic" country and is considered to be the Church's "eldest daughter". One will not see, however, a motto such as "In God We Trust" on coins or banknotes, nor will one hear the President of France saying "God bless you" (Dieu vous bénisse) during his Bastille Day or New Year's Day speeches, nor will one see the Ten Commandments displayed in any state building.

France has a long history. The French Revolution (begun in 1789) abolished the Concordat of 1516 between Pope Leo X and King Francis I of France, which among other measures had given the King the right to nominate bishops, abbots, and priors but reserved to the Pope the right of confirmation and special rights of appointment. When Napoleon Bonaparte was First Consul, just before the Empire (1804-1815), the Concordat of 1801 was signed. It was an agreement between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII that reestablished the Roman Catholic Church in France. The Concordat consolidated Napoleon's position, ended the royalist-clerical rebellion in Western France, reunited the clergy, and won the support of the large majority of peasant farmers. Roman Catholicism was recognized as the religion of most French citizens.

Then, at the end of the 19th century, along came the "Dreyfus Affair", a political scandal which bitterly divided France. In 1894 Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery officer in the French Army was charged with passing military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris and convicted of treason. He was innocent - his conviction rested on fake documents, a put-up job which higher-ups had tried to cover up. The Dreyfus Affair split France between the dreyfusards (who backed Dreyfus) and the antidreyfusards (those against him). There were several controversial issues (including but not limited to anti-Semitism) and the country was violently fractured for several years. Basically, the right wing (the antidreyfusards) supported a return to monarchy and clericalism – involving the Roman Catholic Church heavily in public life - while the left wing, far more anticlerical, supported the Third Republic on the dreyfusard side. To cut a long and fascinating story short, Dreyfus was pardoned in 1899, and reinstated in the Army.

The Dreyfus case happened at the end of a quarter century of often acrimonious but incisive debate about the place of religion in modern French life. It was clear to the French, at the beginning of the 20th century, that something had to be done to reduce the role of religion and reestablish the primacy of the Republic over Catholic, royalist France. The final version of the law separating Church and State was approved on July 3rd, 1905 by the Assemblée: 341 for vs 233 against) and by the Senat on December 6, 1905 (179 for; 103 against). The Parliamentary debates had lasted a total of ten months.

The Law separating Church and State was promulgated on December 9, 1905. It is still in effect today, one hundred years later. Last week France celebrated the centenary.

The following year (1906) saw the "inventories": all Church real estate, although belonging to the State, was placed at the disposal of the relevant religion; each edifice had to be inventoried, which led to violent demonstrations throughout France. The 1905 law was accepted by the various Protestant congregations and the Jews, but Catholics entered a kind of "resistance", which only ceased in 1924 when the Catholic hierarchy regained the right to manage the religion's assets directly.

There are forty-four (44) articles in the 1905 Law, which marks the foundation of French laicité. The first two are basic and are learned by all French schoolchildren:

Article 1: The Republic ensures the freedom of conscience. It guarantees the free exercise of religion. La République assure la liberté de conscience. Elle garantit le libre exercice des cultes.

Article 2: The Republic neither recognizes nor remunerates nor subsidizes any religion. (La République ne reconnaît, ne salarie ni ne subventionne aucun culte.

Since the passage of the 1905 law, religion in France has been considered private - and has no place in public life. That is why, for example, a young Muslim girl cannot wear her hijab to a state school and why a Sikh cannot wear his turban and why a Jew cannot wear his yarmulke (aka kippah) and why a Catholic cannot wear a conspicuous cross. Civil servants on the job are bound by the same restraints. The French feel that allowing the symbols of belief to be displayed in public, state buildings or by a civil servant is proselytization – or the intent to proselytize - for that religion. Eliminating the symbol simply eliminates any and all questions of indoctrination or influence or aggression on other individuals. In this way freedom to believe – and, importantly, not to believe - in any God or higher power whatsoever is guaranteed to all. Of course, one can wear what one wishes on the street, in the supermarket or at the opera. That is not the issue. Those are public places … but are not dependent on the Republic's finances, which is the issue. It couldn't be more clear.

It should be noted that when the time came a few years ago to draft the proposed European Constitution to be submitted to European citizens for approval, France voted against including a reference to Europe's Christian heritage, rather than for, as Poland did. This is in keeping with the spirit of the 1905 Law. Of course, there are certainly other observations to be made on the separation of Church and State as it is practiced in France. One: why, for example, are many national holidays – and the school vacations – based on traditionally Catholic/Christian holy days ? (Answer: because when the holiday/vacation was established, there was no significant Muslim presence in France, as there is nowadays.) Another: should government money be used to finance the construction of mosques and Sikh temples, so that Muslims and Sikhs can also benefit from certain dispositions of the 1905 Law pertaining to the upkeep of "cultural" venues ? (No clear answer to that one for the future, at least: for the moment, under the 1905 Law, the answer is "no".)

Recently on CNN, M. de Villepin termed "social unrest" the three weeks of civil disturbances France had just undergone. The centennial of the 1905 Law falls in the middle of French soul-searching as to the whys and wherefores of this unrest (aka "riots"). Several months previously the Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, had called for a "revision" to the 1905 Law to take into account the changes that have occurred during the past century, notably the immigration of millions of Muslims. He further set up a committee to "study" the 1905 Law and suggest certain "changes"; the committee is expected to make its views known sometime during the first half of 1906.

Along with immigration, the separation of Church and State is currently one of the major topics being debated in France. It is a very sensitive issue: last Saturday, thousands of people (12,000 say the organizers; 5,000 say the police) marched in the streets of Paris to preserve the Law of 1905. Even 500 or so Freemasons (francs-maçons), including the Grand Masters of the nine French lodges, came out in support of the separation of Church and State enshrined in the 1905 Law, which, they say, is "being threatened" (referring to Sarkozy's study group). This underlines the importance of the issue: Masons in the streets as a group are rare. The last time the Masons were out in such numbers was in 1994, when they demonstrated to protest possible changes to the Loi Falloux, a law relating to religious instruction in schools dating from … 1850.

Given current events and the tenor of present thinking in France, it is clear to Amerloque that the debates and discussions about the 1905 Law will increase in frequency, intensity and volume in 2006. Readers who love France and the French way of life should indeed take note.


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque


Blogger Moms' Style said...

I remember being taught an old French quotation, though I do not recall its author or exactly how it goes, but approximately it says, The people will be free only when the last king is hanged by the entrails of the last priest.

I did not understand its significance fully as a school girl. But living now in a quasi theocracy I see the power of the state reflected and magnified with the assistance of the church and vice-versa.

As always, thank you for your insightful postings. I appreciate the time and effort you put into your blog. I check it often.

2:06 PM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Mom's Style !

As always, thank you for your insightful postings. I appreciate the time and effort you put into your blog. I check it often.

Many thanks for your faithful readership … and your comments ! It's nice knowing you are out there …

I've linked to your new blog from this one. Is that OK with you ?


12:09 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Mom's Style !

The quote you mention is, in French:

Pendre le dernier roi avec les tripes du dernier prêtre.

It is attributed to one Jean Meslier (1664-1729), who was curé of Étrépigny (in the Ardennes) from 1689 to his death.

Another source of info on Meslier yields:

Jean Meslier (1678-1733) was a Roman Catholic priest who served as Vicar of Bue in Champagne, France for thirty years. Voltaire (1694-1778), the French deist who vigorously opposed Christianity and sought to fashion his own naturalistic religion, described Meslier as “the most singular phenomenon ever seen among all the meteors fatal to the Christian religion.”

By the way, Diderot (1713–84) had an interesting quote:

His hands would plait the priest’s guts, if he had no rope, to strangle kings.

(Et ses mains ourdiraient les entrailles du prêtre,
Au défaut d’un cordon pour étrangler les rois.

Denis Diderot, “Les Éleuthéromanes,” Poésies Diverses, p. 16 (1875).

Another version cited is: Let us strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest. (Et des boyaux du dernier prêtre / Serrons le cou du dernier roi.) which was attributed to Diderot by Jean-François de La Harpe, Cours de Littérature Ancienne et Moderne, vol. 3, book 4, chapter 3, p. 415 (1840).


8:35 AM  
Blogger blabla said...

Just to see if it works.

10:21 AM  
Blogger blabla said...

All right, sorry Amerloque, I'm a dumb technoincompetent. It appears that it works and that I can post under my pseudo.
So, well done for that very interesting post offering a good overview of the relation that France has with religion. As I yet told you yet, France and USA have the same goal. Being democracy they tend to be tolerant and to offer their citizens freedom of mind. But the solution is quite different regarding religion. When the States tolerate all the religion and their expression in the public environment, France forbids them all. The purpose is in both cases to avoid the preeminence of one religion under the others.

10:32 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi blabla !

Welcome !

When the States tolerate all the religion and their expression in the public environment, France forbids them all. The purpose is in both cases to avoid the preeminence of one religion under the others.

Very neatly summarized ! Amerloque hasn't dealt with the problem of cults (i.e., sectes en langue de Molière … ) (smile)

One thing Amerloque noted quite a few years ago … in French, it's:

a Catholic Church (une église catholique)


a Protestant Temple (un temple protestant)

Nominally Roman Catholic, the French call a Protestant church by another appellation. Wonder how that came about ?


8:11 AM  
Blogger blabla said...

About the "temples protestants", it could come from the "contre-réforme" that would have reserve the word "église" to the only communauty to them, the only legitimate, the catholic one. Eglise coming as you know from "ecclesia" in greek, which meens communauty, assembly.

8:47 AM  
Blogger Flocon said...

Regarding the quote about the priests'entrails and the last king, it has been used in Les Guignols de l'Info to mock Arlette laguillier and set her where she belongs... Nostalgic of the Terror times during the révolution Française...

4:08 PM  
Blogger blabla said...

Le curé Meslier has produced a rare and very harsh critic of the absolutism of Louis the 14th.

"Louis XIV surnommé le Grand, non véritablement pour les grandes et louables6 actions qu’il ait faites ,puisqu’il n’en a point fait qui soient véritablement dignes de ce nom, mais bien véritablement pour les grandes injustices, pour les grandes voleries7, pour les grandes usurpations, pour les grandes désolations, pour les grands ravages8 et pour les grands carnages9 d’hommes qu’il a fait faire de tous côtés, tant sur mer que sur terre."

That would have been difficult a few years before I guess...

3:52 AM  

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