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Laetitia Gaspar examines the principles of French secularism (Laïcité), its history, the challenges it faces, and the implications it has today.

This article first appeared in the December 2015 edition of the IHEYO Youth Speak newsletter.

LaïcitéFrance has a lot of singularities which contribute to its distinguished humanist fight. Many people discovered this in January 2015 after the Charlie Hebdo attacks by Islamist terrorists, and had a lot to say about it.  Indeed, my experience as a militant French secularist has taught me that there exist a lot of phantasms about French secularism among non-French people. There is an excessive idealization and prejudice, combined with “French bashing”, which results simply from a misunderstanding of the idea. Even in my own country this concept has not fully been understood by citizens. This is a country where people understand it as a French value, but not on the same scale as wine or champagne. They forget that it’s a juridical principle.

In this article I’ll use the term “Laïcité”, because the concept of Laïcité is a French invention, resulting from a huge historical context. Apart from that, one of the major sources of misunderstanding is due to the fact that there are no English words to accurately translate the concept of Laïcité. In fact, this term conveys a larger reality that the simple word “secularism” cannot. I will try to contextualize the long history of the fight for secularism in France, for a clearer understanding of French thought, and allow for appraisal and appreciation of the same.

Some authors say Laïcité cannot be reduced merely to the neutrality of the state, but involves four ‘cardinal principles’ : (1) ‘the independence of the political authorities and of different spiritual or religious persuasions (this signifies an absence of political intervention in religious matters and an absence of religious sway over political authority) (2) a guarantee of freedom of conscience and worship, which represents the ‘positive content’ of secularism; (3) a duty on the part of religions and their congregations to adapt, and conduct themselves in a moderate fashion, so as to make coexistence possible, in exchange for the guarantees and protections afforded to them by the state; (4) the need to live together and construct a common future – which leads to identifying secularism with the ‘republican pact’ in practice.

French secularism can be understood as a corollary of the three fundamental rights: Freedom (secularism is a guarantee of the freedom of consciousness), Equality (equality of all citizens regardless of their religious beliefs), and Fraternity (as Laïcité facilitates the possibility of people living together in a society) In this way, we can say it’s a founding principle of the French Republic. To simplify, it’s a universal principle in its philosophy with legal and constitutional translations.

In this article I would like to explain the meaning of Laïcité, its links with other French singularities such as the absence of specific blasphemy laws since the 18th century, and the French anticlerical culture, with its manifestation in the press. Lastly, of course I would like to talk about Charlie Hebdo which is an apt representative of this anti-conformist spirit.

Laïcité is the completion of a philosophical principle of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “social contract” which marks the end of centuries of wars between religions which punctuated the French history. The Declaration of Human Rights and Citizens of 1789 in its article 10, defines the Freedom of Religion – “No one may be disturbed on account of his opinions, even religious ones, as long as the manifestation of such opinions does not interfere with the established Law and Order” and in the following article (11) it declares the Freedom of Expression and Opinions “The free communication of ideas and of opinions is one of the most precious rights of man. Any citizen may therefore speak, write and publish freely, except what is tantamount to the abuse of this liberty in the cases determined by Law”. We must wait for the Constitution of 1795 to declare the separation between the State and the Church (art. 354 Title XIV). It’s also this same Constitution which imposed the fact that any religious principle can’t violate any ‘natural’ human right. To finish the Constitution of 1795 in its liberal spirit, one must recognize the freedom of press without limitations. Today, the Constitution of the 5th Republic in its 1st Article declares: “France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion. It shall respect all beliefs.”

If we analyze the Declaration of 1789, we notice that the Article 11 recognizes the freedom of consciousness or opinion, which means it does not solely include freedom of religion, but also the freedom to not believe, and assigns the same place to religious beliefs, atheism, philosophical or political opinions.

We should underline that, since the Revolution, the process of attaining secularism is the fruit of a long political fight between a Republican France and a Catholic France (to simplify). In 1885, the Jules Ferry’s law created public, free and laïc (secularist) instruction. It was free from any clerical authority and religious education. Finally, the Law of 9th December 1905 promulgated and organized the material separation between the State and the Church. It declares through Article 1 “The Republic ensures freedom of conscience. It guarantees the free exercise of religion subject to the sole restrictions enacted hereafter in the interest of public order”; Article 2 “The Republic does not recognize, remunerate or subsidize any religion.”

These Articles send us back to the four cardinal principles described in the introduction.  But Laïcité shouldn’t be confused with atheism of the State. It’s not an opinion or a belief apart from religions, or a non-believer posture of the State. It is a legal and constitutional principle which is to provide means to ‘live together’ in a society. On the other hand, anticlericalism is a political position and ‘blasphemous’ speech is protected as the freedom of expression. We can define blasphemy as “speech that insults the divinity, religion or what is considered respectable or sacred”, according to the dictionary of Larousse.

After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, a lot of people from all over the world denounced the blasphemous caricatures of the murdered. At the same time the Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, had firmly reminded people in various speeches that the blasphemy offence doesn’t exist in the French Republic. In fact, blasphemous speech is protected by the Freedom of Expression and more protected when, like in this case, it matters to the Freedom of Press.

One can’t speak about blasphemy without mentioning Chevalier de la Barre (Knight François-Jean Lefebvre de la Barre), who was given the death sentence for blasphemy and sacrilege in 1766 at the age of 20. At this time, France was a monarchy, and the French clergy was very powerful. The books of Enlightenment philosophers such as theEncyclopédie and Philosophical Dictionnary of Voltaire were prohibited. In this context, one morning of 1765, some crucifix profanations were discovered in the city of Abbeville. Quickly the investigations led to noble youth, and the Knight of La Barre, because some people accused him of boasting about the fact that he didn’t take off his hat in front of a religious procession, as per the Catholic custom at the time. Investigators found in his home a copy of the Philosophical Dictionnary of Voltaire. The young man pleaded innocence but the trial sentenced him to torture and to be burnt along with the copy of the Voltaire’s book. Normally, death penalty was not required for blasphemy, after the king Louis XIV pleaded for its abolition, but the king Louis XV refused to pardon the young noble.

Voltaire wrote some papers under pseudonyms to defend the Knight in 1766, but without success. He was tortured and burnt on the July 1, 1766. This case became a symbol of the absurdity of the blasphemy offence and the arbitrariness of the ‘justice’. A Declaration on July 30, 1766, overthrew the death penalty for blasphemy and sacrilege. Finally the French Revolution definitely abolished the blasphemy offence. The Declaration of Human Rights of 1789 protects individual citizens as human being, but not their religious beliefs.

Today there are still territorial exceptions to the blasphemy right. The region of Alsace-Moselle in the East of France still has a particular statute, where we find a blasphemy law (inherited from the German penal code). However, judges and people refuse to use it for lawsuits, and some jurists explain that it can’t be used even if we wanted it, because there is no French translation of this text. The Catholic clergy of Alsace-Moselle pleads for its abolition. To finish, if blasphemy law doesn’t exist, some laws protect against hateful speeches and discrimination toward people on the basis of race, ethnicity or religion.

Concerning the anticlericalism in France, it can recover three realities – Firstly, the systematic denunciation of the encroachment of the Spiritual in the Temporal. Secondly, it’s the opposition towards some actions of the clergy. Thirdly, it’s the opposition to religious beliefs in themselves. Since the Revolution, anticlerical humour is used in a lot of satirical newspapers, to denounce the power of the Church. Today it is still a French specificity to use pictures as a militant act. If we find satirical press in lot of societies, the satire is still marginal. In France, the political is at the center of satire. There is interpenetration between the religious fact and the political; religions are mocked as well as politicians.

Charlie Hebdo is with some other newspapers in the direct affiliation with the anticlerical and libertarian tradition, taken from the 19th century of anticlerical golden age. This century is known for the two socialist revolutions (1848 and the Commune of Paris of 1871), where anticlericalism was a central theme for the socialists, anarchists, radicals as well as republicans, who all denounced the actions of the “Clerical party” in the political sphere. It’s also during this century that the French Freethought Federation was created with the maxim “neither god, nor master, down with god-botherers and long life to the Social” which was used by famous politicians, artists and writers who fought for secularism and the law of 1905. Through this approach we can see the link between the anticlerical fight and the fight for a secular state. It’s what Charlie Hebdo defended.

To my mind the attacks of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 put an end to this libertarian French spirit, and more to the freedom of expression in general. Because if Charlie Hebdo mocked the religions in general, the accusation of Islamophobia underlined the fact that there is in France, nowadays, the growth of a Muslim clergy, which should be treated, criticized and mocked like all religions. The freedoms protect people and not their opinions, even if it upsets them. Charlie Hebdo faced some lawsuits from religious associations but it was never sentenced for their caricatures of religion.

To conclude, French Laïcité can appear as an ideal but it has never been fully respected, either by people or by the State. Some cultural associations continue to sue Charlie Hebdo for their religious caricatures (without success). Recent events in Paris have also raised concerns. However, the important thing here was to show that we all live in different countries with different secular traditions. One is not better than another, but as Humanists we must stay united when the fundamental liberties of citizens are attacked. We have this duty of solidarity even if we don’t share the point of view about how a country realizes its secularism. If we are not in agreement with the caricaturists, we must fight it in other ways, while fighting against obscurantism, religious fanaticism, human rights, freedom of consciousness and expression. A death sentence should not be awarded for exercising fully guaranteed fundamental liberties.

Laetitia is a Humanist living in France, and is a member of a feminist, secularist and universalist association Osez le Féminisme.

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