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EXPLAINED: What does laïcité (secularism) really mean in France?

Often at the centre of heated debates, France's state secularism is not always clearly understood by either its proponents or critics. Here's a look at what "laïcité" really means.

EXPLAINED: What does laïcité (secularism) really mean in France?
Three feminist activists placard posters of a drawing by French cartoonist Charb to read " Laicite " in Montreuil, on October 20th, 2020. Photo: AFP

Laîcité, usually translated as secularism, is in brief the principle that everyone in France has the freedom to worship as they choose – but the state itself remains strictly neutral and does not take part in any religious practices.

However that seemingly straightforward concept is the cause of an increasing number of battles and misunderstandings.

Here’s a closer look at what it means. 

What is the definition of secularism?

“There is no one single definition of the concept of secularism,” stated a report by France’s Conseil d’Etat, the legal advisor to the government, titled Un siècle de laïcité (One Century of secularism).

“Untranslatable in most languages, the concept of secularism refers, in the broad sense, to a loss of hold by religion on society,” they wrote.

The report was published in 2004, ahead of the 100-year-anniversary of the 1905 law that became the bedrock of French secularism by formally separating religious and State matters in France.

While that law – Law on Separation of the Churches and State – did not actually employ the term laïcité, it is the number one legal reference for the principle of secularism today in France.

A placard in Bordeaux reads “I write your name on my school book. Secularism, freedom of speech”, as people across  France paid homage on November 18th to history teacher Samuel Paty, two days after he was beheaded in a terrorist attack. Photo: AFP

Where does it come from? 

Secularism’s roots go back to French Revolution of 1789. Enlightenment thinkers felt reason and universal values had to be protected.

The 19th century saw a battle between the “two Frances”, with secular republicans struggling to contain the power of the dominant Catholic Church.

After 1862, when education became free and secular, that battle became a culture war. Secular schoolteachers – nicknamed the “Black Hussars of the Republic” after their black coats – took on the Catholic clergy for the hearts and minds of every village in France.

Laïcité was enshrined in the French Constitution in 1946. Article 1 states “La France est une République laïque” (France is a secular republic). 

Is it only French?

France’s secularism has influenced many countries including Mexico, which also used it to counter the power of the Catholic Church.  

But it was most whole-heartedly taken up in Muslim-majority Turkey by it modern founder Ataturk. Turkey’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has spent much of his 17 years in power trying to roll that back.

What exactly does it mean?

It’s a complicated matter, which is not made easier by the fact that there is no clear, simple definition of the term.

But secularism is a principle that is supposed to evolve with the times, legal scholars have stressed.

The French government has a website page dedicated to the question Qu’est-ce que la laïcité ? (What is secularism?). 

Their long explanation can be summed up in four core principles, collected from a 2013 legal decision by the French Constitutional Council, the body in charge of reviewing constitutionality of French laws. These are:

  • state neutrality;
  • respect for all beliefs and equality of all citizens before the law without distinction of religion;
  • freedom to worship;
  • the absence of official worship.

What does that mean in practice?

Secularism in France is a principle meant to guarantee freedom for each individual to believe whatever they want and exercise this right as they please without interference from the state.

At the same time, religion must be exercised in the private, not public, sphere.

The state must be neutral, which means that public officials cannot wear religious signs. Crosses, hijabs, kippahs and other religious clothing or symbols are therefore banned from public institutions such as schools and for public officials on duty (teachers, police officers, firefighters).

There are also no displays of religion in public institutions, so schools do not have prayer meetings, religious assemblies or religious events such as Nativity Plays at Christmas.

French rightwing opposition party Les Républicains’ then Vice-President Laurent Wauquiez in front of a nativity scene as he inaugurated a Christmas exhibition back in 2017 in Lyon. Photo: AFP

Are there exceptions?

In France, there are nearly always exceptions to a rule. Despite its strict secularism, French public holidays still mark Christian holidays including Christmas, Easter and more obscure ones like Assumption and Ascension Day.
 
At the same time, far-right party Rassemblement National has not yet succeeded in its mission to decorate French town and city halls with Christian cribs at Christmas. That said, official buildings such as mairies do put up decorations at Christmas, usually some nice twinkly lights that are festive without being overtly Christian.
 
Secular laws do not, however, apply in quite the same way in the eastern borderlands of Alsace-Lorraine, where Christian and Jewish clerics are paid by the state, for historical reasons linked to wars with Germany.
 
Is it changing in modern time?

French secularism has been on the defensive since the late 1980s with the emergence of identity politics, Christian and Jewish revivalism and most of all, radical Islam, given the movement of Muslims from its former colonies since the 1950s.

In 2004 France banned “the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols or garb” in state schools. It became known as “the French headscarf ban” abroad, though it applies to symbols of all religions.

In 2010 France banned the niqab, the full-face veil, in public places – although this law was eventually framed as a security concern and actually covers all full-face coverings.

Several local authorities had attempted to ban the burkini, the full-cover swimsuit, on their beaches, but this was overturned by the courts.

A Muslim woman hands out roses in Toulouse, southern France, during a gathering to pay tribute to the victims of the deadly attack of the headquarters of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, back in 2015. Photo: AFP

What does it NOT mean?

Secularism is often misunderstood in France today, even by government officials. In September, a French MP of ruling party La République en Marche caused a stir when she refused to participate in a parliamentary session together with a Muslim woman who was wearing the headscarf. 

While MPs and staff in public buildings in France are forbidden from wearing religious clothing, that rule does not apply to visitors, like the woman in question.
 
As a citizen and not a public official, she was exercising her right to religious freedom in accordance with French law cited above.

“The problem we are seeing today is that we want to impose neutrality on individuals, which is the opposite of laïcité,” said Rim-Sarah Alouane, a French legal scholar and law Phd candidate who specialises in religious freedom, human rights and civil liberties in France, Europe and North America.

Alouane told The Local she prefers not to translate laïcité to secularism, for accuracy purposes.

France’s interior minister also caused uproar when he said supermarket chains should abolish their separate food aisles for ethnic foods. The comment, which was hailed by some rightwing commentators as a bold defence of secularism, caused critics to call out the interior minister as misusing the core principle to further his own political agenda.
 
As private businesses supermarkets – and all other stores – are not bound to observe laïcité in the same way as government agencies and public officials.

ANALYSIS: Why does France’s interior minister think supermarket ethnic food isles are a threat to the nation?

Similarly, sports retailer Decathlon was attacked on the grounds of laïcité for offering a ‘running hijab’, although as a private business catering to private individuals it was perfectly entitled to offer the headgear.

“Interfering with religious matters in this way is in itself a violation of laïcité,” Alouane said then.

Laïcité is freedom.”

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FRANCE EXPLAINED

Can France’s Constitution be changed to add the right to abortion?

In the wake of the American Supreme Court's decision to end abortion rights for women in the US, French politicians from the centre and the left say they will move to have the right to terminate pregnancy enshrined in France's Constitution - so how easy is it to amend the Constitution in France?

Can France's Constitution be changed to add the right to abortion?

France’s first Constitution came into force in 1791, written by the French Revolutionaries and promising liberté, egalité and fraternité.

Those values are still very much in evidence in France today (in fact they’re carved into every public building) but in 1791 medicine involved bleeding, social networks meant gossiping with your neighbours over the wall and wigs made out of horsehair were very fashionable – in short, things change.

And the French constitution changes with them.

In fact, even talking about ‘the’ constitution is a little misleading, since France has had 15 different constitutions between the French Revolution of 1789 and the adoption of the current constitution in 1958 – the birth of the Fifth Republic.

Since 1958, there have also been 24 revisions to the constitution. Introducing it, then-President Charles du Gaulle said “the rest is a matter for men,” (we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he meant people, since women did have the vote by then) in other words, he envisaged that it would be revised when necessary.

So the short answer is that constitutional change in France is possible – and there is significant precedent for it – but there are several steps involved. 

What does it take to change the Constitution?

Changing the constitution in France requires Presidential approval, plus the approval of both houses of parliament (the Assemblée nationale and the Senate) and then the approval of the final text by a three-fifths majority of two parliaments.

The other option is a referendum, but only after the two assemblies have voted in favour.

In short, it needs to be an issue that has wide and cross-party support.

Articles 11 and 89 of the French constitution cover changes.

Article 11 allows for a constitutional referendum, which is a tool that is intended to give the people decisive power in legislative matters. A high-profile example of this is when former French President Charles de Gaulle employed Article 11 to to introduce the appointment of the president by direct universal suffrage in 1962, which modified then-Article 6 of the constitution. However, this method of changing the constitution is controversial, and can technically only be done for specific themes: the organisation of public authorities, economic and social reforms, or to ratify international treaties. Technically it does not require the referendum to first pass through parliament.

What did previous reforms cover?

Looking at the reforms in the last 60 years, the scope has been pretty wide.

The French Constitution was substantially amended to “take account of these new developments, needs, ideas, and values.” The goal of these amendments was to better “define and control the power of the executive, to increase the powers of Parliament, and to better assure the protection of fundamental rights.”

About 47 articles were amended or drafted, and some new provisions came into force immediately, such as the limitation to two consecutive presidential terms. 

Examples range from the 2000 Constitutional referendum where French people voted to shorten the presidential term from seven years to five years; the 2007 constitutional amendment to abolish the death penalty, and several amendments to adapt the French constitution to make it compatible with EU treaties such as the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties. 

Is a constitutional change more powerful than a law?

The most recent call for change – sparked by events in America – is to add the right to abortion into the constitution.

The right to abortion in France is protected by the “Veil law,” which was passed in 1975, so is there a benefit to adding it to the constitution as well?

Simply being a law does not give a definitive and irrevocable right to abortion in France and the law can be changed – parliament recently elongated the legal time limit for performing an abortion up to 14 weeks, which shows that under different circumstances lawmakers would be free to remove these provisions and chip away at the “Veil law.”

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What is the law on abortion in France?

If a majority of deputés agreed on a text banning abortion it could become law (although there are other procedural steps to pass through and such a decision would be challenged in the courts). Whereas, as outlined above, changing a constitutional right requires a much broader consensus from across the political spectrum.

In short, enshrining the right in the constitution would provide further protection for the right in the event of a future government that is anti-abortion – Marine Le Pen, who came second in the recent residential election has always been very vague on whether she supports the right to abortion, while many in her party are openly anti-abortion.

Why has France had so many constitutions?

The simple answer is that France’s many constitutions have reflected the shift between authoritarianism and republicanism throughout French history.

France is currently on its Fifth Republic, and its history since the French Revolution has also involved several periods of restoration of the monarchy and a brief period under an Emperor – all of these different regimes have required their own constitution.

READ MORE: Explained: What is the French Fifth Republic?

During the tumultuous revolutionary period, France had several constitutions, culminating in “Constitution of the Year XII,” which established the First French Empire. When the monarchy was restored, a new constitution codified the attempt to establish a constitutional monarchy.

France’s current constitution ushered in the Fifth Republic, largely at the behest of General Charles de Gaulle who was called to power during the May 1958 political crisis. One of the defining characteristics of the Fifth Republic is that it is a democracy, though the executive (the president) holds a significant amount of power.

So far, the Fifth Republic’s constitution has lasted 64 years, and should the Fifth Republic last until 2028, it will be the longest Republic – even longer than the Third Republic which endured from 1870 to 1940.

Could France have a new constitution in the future?

It is very possible. Former left-wing presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has proposed a Sixth Republic, which, according to France 24, would involve “proportional representation to make parliament more representative; giving citizens the power to initiate legislation and referendums, and to revoke their representatives; and scrapping special powers that currently give France’s executive right to pass legislation without parliamentary approval.” 

Mélenchon failed in his 2022 presidential bid however, so the Fifth Republic is still – for the moment – on course to beat that longevity record.

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