The Illiberal Turn of French Laïcité
Philippe Portier 22 December 2020

On 9 December 1905 the French parliament promulgated the law “concerning the separation of Church and State,” which constitutes, according to the Council of State, the “keystone of laïcité in France.” The law famously aroused major opposition from many Catholics. However, it is often forgotten that its elaboration was not the product of a consensus within the republican political family: while republican parliamentarians were united by a common project, that of promoting freedom of conscience against political clericalism, they were fiercely divided on the practical modalities of its implementation.

They can be divided into two main camps. Some parliamentarians, represented by Emile Combes and, in a more radical way, by Maurice Allard, had set themselves up as defenders of a more substantial laïcité: their ambition was to have the State undertake a policy of authoritarian supervision of religious communities, and especially of the Catholic Church. This group had long wished to reinforce the supervision of religions set by the Concordat, the agreement Napoleon had reached with the Pope in 1801.

The others were led by Jean Jaurès and Aristide Briand, and backed a more procedural laïcité: while they shared the positivism of the time and believed that tomorrow history would make reason triumph, they believed that the State should uphold the pluralism of civil society. The separation of the Churches and the State that they envisioned should lead to a “liberal solution” that would grant religious citizens and their institutions freedom of organization and communication.

The second group prevailed[1]. The law of 1905 enshrined what the American political scientist Alfred Stepan called a twin tolerance: on the one hand, by excluding religions from the public sphere of the State, it ensured the sovereignty of politics; on the other, by protecting the religious sphere from any political interference, it preserved the independence of religions.

Where are we a century later? The French model of laïcité is no longer of the same nature. Under the aegis of the liberal Third Republic it was a system for the preservation of liberties; under the supervision of a State acting like a headmaster since the 2000s it has become a system attempting to unify behaviors.


The effervescence of religion

Since the end of the Second World War, the question of laïcité had no longer been the central issue in the public debate. It resurfaced in the early 1990s. The return of this question echoes the transformation of the religious landscapes: we dare to speak then, in contradiction with the Weberian prognosis, of a “reenchantment of the world”. The formula is probably exaggerated. Indeed, France still persists in the process of secularization accentuated by the revolution of the 1960s.  Surveys of European values clearly highlight this evolution. In 1981, French people declaring a religious affiliation represented 73% of the total population. These religious citizens were almost unanimously Catholic: 70%. Those without religion were distributed as follows: 18% say they are “indifferent;” 9% are convinced atheists. Four decades later, the non-religious have become the majority: they represent 58% of the population in 2018, with an increase in the proportion of atheists (21%). The group declaring a religious affiliation has not only decreased (42%), but it has also become more diversified: religious people other than Catholics now constitute 10% of the total population, with the Roman Catholic Church now accounting for only a small third (32%) of society.

This quantitative decrease in the number of religious citizens has not led to their social disappearance. One can even say, borrowing from a strong hypothesis made by José Casanova, that secularization has been accompanied by a movement of counter-secularization: religious citizens, faced with the dissolution of the axiological foundations of their world, are often tempted to repudiate the compromises they have made with modernity in order to withdraw into a faith that becomes synonymous with identity and self-affirmation. None of the religious groups were spared from this dynamic: neither the Catholics, as their mobilization at the time of the discussion of the Taubira law on the legalization of same-sex marriage or their reluctance to accept the State’s decision to suspend mass during the pandemic; nor the Jews, within whom orthodox and ultra-orthodox behaviors are progressing; nor the Protestants, whose mainline current finds itself in strong competition with the evangelical world. All these currents, in spite of their differences, form an alliance to counter the progression of cultural liberalism.

But religious resilience is found above all among Muslims. Their visibility is not only due to the fact that, as they represent 6-7% of the population, they are concentrated in circumscribed territories. It also stems from a change in behavior: the discretion of the 1970s was replaced by a clearer display of their religious belonging. Private observance has intensified: Muslims, especially in the younger generations, pray, do Ramadan and attend mosques more than in the past. But a public presence is also asserting itself: endowed with their own associations and organizations, they willingly claim specific rights, such as the right to be able to wear religious signs in the public space of the State, the right to have menus compatible with their food requirements in public catering (such as public schools), and finally the right not to be hurt by iconoclastic cartoons. Several researchers have added, such as Gilles Kepel and Bernard Rougier, that Islam has sometimes, over the last ten years or so, locked itself into a “separatist” practice: entire neighborhoods in certain suburban cities are now controlled by Salafist communities that impose their own laws on the populations. According to them, this constitutes a breeding ground for the attacks – thirty-five since 2015 – that have afflicted French society[2].


How can we become a society again?

Since the 1990s, a debate began in France on these manifestations of religion, before any other European country. History provides an explanation to this fast reaction. Both the history of modernity, as in France the Enlightenment was built against religion, and the history of colonization, as there is a specific dispute with Islam due in particular to the Algerian war. Is it possible, in a secularized society, to accept this manifest display of faith? This question has provoked two opposing reactions in the field of political thought: if their respective proponents both aim to strengthen social cohesion, they want to take different paths.

The first current of thought is based on the “integrationist” paradigm. Initially led by the sociologist Alain Touraine, and today by the historian Jean Baubérot, it is supported by a whole network of popular education associations such as La Ligue de l’Enseignement. Its theorists consider that society must be welcoming of difference for a philosophical reason, as the dynamics of equality, initiated by modernity, require that the first three generations of rights (civil rights, political rights, social rights) be complemented by a new generation of rights, that of cultural rights. The justification for these new rights also have a sociological cause. Indeed they assert that a society is more cohesive when it responds favorably to the demands for “recognition” expressed by its members. This current of “plural laïcité” was still at the forefront of the scene in the 1990s, but has been in a more defensive stance since the 2000s.

The second current, which has been on the rise for two decades, asserts a more “assimilationist” postulate. It finds many defenders today in authors such as Elisabeth Badinter and Marcel Gauchet, both members of the Printemps républicain, created in 2016, after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, the Hyper Casher and the Bataclan. This movement insists on on the ideas of “reason” and “nation” more than the former current, aims to promote a “laïcité of combat,” and believes that it is necessary to promote what citizens share in “common,” without hesitating to mask the singularities of the different faiths in the process. These goals signal a nostalgia for unity. It also reflects a dread of the violence that “communitarian” or “separatist” socializations would allegedly necessarily lead to. This mistrust of religious discourse largely stems from the 18th century. Religious discourses were considered then to have always made common cause with fanaticism and superstition, before being disciplined by the state.

A connection was established between the political sphere and the intellectual sphere. Beginning in the 2000s, the political milieu, which until then had been, even on the right, rather favorable to the system of recognition, opted massively in favor of a unitary conception of laïcité. By asserting the urgency of promoting the “values of the Republic,” Jacques Chirac launched a right-wing shift that François Baroin, in his 2003 report, significantly entitled Vers une nouvelle laïcité (Towards a New Laïcité). Manuel Valls, Socialist Prime Minister between 2014-2016, moved in the same direction under the presidency of François Hollande. President Macron himself has experienced this evolution. During the first phase of his five-year term he held a very open position and insisted on the fruitfulness of religious faith. He was moved by terrorist attacks such as the one in October 2020 against a teacher, Samuel Paty, decapitated for having shown Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Mohammed in class. As a result Macron has reoriented himself towards a less inclusive approach to religion and towards a more unitary conception of social issues, an evolution illustrated by his speeches since 2018, especially the one he delivered at Les Mureaux on October 2, 2020,


The extension of controls

These political evolutions were enshrined into law. In the past fifteen years now, new normative texts were added to the law of 1905. These changes were far from superficial as they modified the major stipulations inherited from the previous regime. Previously, laïcité was structured around the separation of spheres: “The State at home, the Church at home.” Today we have entered into a model of interpenetration. While the State gives Churches guarantees of recognition (especially in the financial field), it places them under its surveillance, in the name of the constantly reaffirmed objective of restoring the nation’s lost cohesion. This legal transformation has started before the Presidency of Emmanuel Macron. Among the many laws produced over the last few years, three deserve special attention, all of them concerning the individual expression of religious affiliations in the social space. The law of 15 March 2004 prohibits the wearing of conspicuous religious signs in public schools. The law of 11 October 2010 prohibits the concealment of the face (i.e., the wearing of full-face veils) in the public space (in public services, but also in streets, shops and theaters). The law “relating to work” of 8 August 2016 allows companies, under certain conditions, to set within their workplace “the principle of neutrality” and “to restrict the expression of their employees’ beliefs.”

These laws all have in common the significant extension of the domain of religious neutrality. Since the end of the 19th century, religious neutrality had only applied to civil servants while on duty. Neutrality now imposes itself fully (with the first two laws) or partially (with the third law) to ordinary citizens in places where individual rights used to be protected by the state. In this enterprise of concealment of religion, lawmakers largely rely on the concept of “safeguarding public order,” which is now assimilated, very liberally, with the concept of “minimum requirements of life in society.” In 2018, the government of Emmanuel Macron had drawn up a first bill that aimed to revising the law of 9 December 1905. An unexpected alliance of secular and religious forces led the government to withdraw it. The recent succession of attacks allowed it to return to this issue. A bill “guaranteeing the respect of republican principles” was presented to the Council of Ministers on 9 December 2020. It must now be examined by the chambers. The previous bills had limited sectoral scopes. The bill put forward by Prime Minister Jean Castex aims at a larger global reform that would, if passed, directly impact freedom of worship.

The bill urges “all citizens who compose its political body to adhere to the Republic,” and calls to fight against “communitarianism” and the “separatist dynamic” promoted by “Islamism.” It constitutes a break with the liberal order that came out of the Third Republic on several points. We should focus on three key aspects. The first one relates to individual liberties: the bill intends to consolidate a principle laid down by a 2013 legal precedent (but one that the government fears could be reversed). According to this principle, the execution of a public service mission, even when tasked to private sector companies, must be carried out by agents who respect religious neutrality. The second restriction concerns the freedom of families. The law of 28 March 1882, which is still codified in the Education Code, states that primary education could “be given either in public or free schools, or in families.” In addition to tightening controls on non-contractual schools, in line with the provisions of the Gatel Law of 13 April 2018, home schooling now requires an annually-renewed administrative authorization. Thirdly, freedom of association will be restricted. The Waldeck-Rousseau law of July 1, 1901 had allowed civil associations to operate completely independently. They are now obliged, if they want to obtain subsidies, to sign to a “contract of republican commitment.” The bill adds that they can also be dissolved as a result of the individual actions of their members, creating a form of quasi collective responsibility. In addition, by deciding to impose new operating rules on religious associations, the government intrusively intervened in a system of organization that the 1905 legislator had wished to entrust to the Churches themselves.

This transformation of the French model of laïcité ties itself with a major trend in French culture. Since the Enlightenment, it has associated religions with a form of alienation from which one needs to extricate onself in order to enter “the great diocese of emancipated minds.” But perhaps this trend is not unique to France. Almost everywhere now, in a world confronted with the rise of uncertainties driven by globalization and individualization, security is perceived as the end of political decision-making, when yesterday it was simply seen as the condition of freedom.



[1] Philippe Portier, L’Etat et les religions en France. Une sociologie historique de la laïcité, Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2016.

[2] Philippe Portier and Jean-Paul Willaime, La religion dans la France contemporaine. Entre sécularisation et recomposition, Paris, Armand Colin, 2021.


Philippe Portier is Professor at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (PSL).

Translation by François Valentin.


Cover Photo: Three feminist activists placard posters of a drawing by French cartoonist Charb to read “Laicite” – Montreuil, October 20, 2020 (AFP)

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