Secularism and Religious Freedom


A fundamental value and essential principle of the Republic, secularism is a French invention.


"France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic, guaranteeing that all citizens regardless of their origin, race or religion are treated as equals before the law and respecting all religious beliefs" states the Constitution of 1958. The “freedom to practice religion” has been recognised since 1905 when the Law on the Separation of the Church and State (la loi sur la séparation de l’Église et de l’État) came into effect. Far from being a weapon against religion, this text returned all religions to the private sector and established state secularism in the public sphere. The French State does not favour any one religion and guarantees their peaceful co-existence in respect of the laws and principles of the Republic.

In application of the secular principle, the law of 15 March 2004 prohibits all clothing or other attire displaying religious worship to be worn in schools.

The French Revolution

This undeniable event in our history put the end to a monarchy with divine rights. From this point on, France no longer saw itself as the “Eldest Daughter of the Church”. France established itself as a benchmark country for human rights and the concept of secularism progressively became one of its protective frameworks. On 12 July 1790, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy introduced an initial severance following the nationalisation of the Church’s properties. Secularism crossed a threshold with the Concordat of 1801, which placed the Church under the guardianship of state power, particularly creating civil marriage and the civil state.

The Jules Ferry Laws

The year 1882 was crucial because it marked the beginning of the separation of the School and the State. The Jules Ferry laws established free mandatory public education and secular instruction. Since this time, the question of secularism has remained closely tied to the sphere of schooling.

The Law of 1905

This law definitively sealed the separation between Church and State. It abolished the Concordat of 1801 and put an end to the system of “recognised religions”. It was also the beginning of so-called French secularism, which proclaimed the freedom of conscience and guaranteed the freedom to practice religion. One historical exception: this law does not apply in Alsace-Moselle.

Secularism Today

Excerpts from the 2014 guidance memo created by the Secularism Monitoring Centre (in French):

1. There is greater cultural diversity in France today than in the past, which is why the country needs secularism now more than ever, for it enables all citizens, whatever their philosophical or religious beliefs, to live together, enjoying freedom of conscience, freedom to practise a religion or to choose not to, equal rights and obligations, and republican fraternity.

Secularism is not an opinion among others, but rather the freedom to have an opinion. It is not a belief, but rather the principle authorizing all beliefs, providing they respect the principles of freedom of conscience and equal rights. For this reason, it is neither pro- nor anti-religious. On this basis, adherence to a faith or philosophical belief is entirely a question of freedom of conscience for every man or woman.

2. Secularism is facing new challenges that have arisen in recent decades, in the context of a rising tide of separatist claims and the misuse of secularism to stigmatize people. Republican secularism in France must draw strength from its heritage and rise to these challenges. The Monitoring Centre, with its wide range of members, has begun to examine the situation, in order to formulate opinions and recommendations.

Source : Website of the French Government