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Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

You might not have thought about it too much as you enjoyed an extra day off work, but it is perhaps unexpected that France - proudly secular since 1905 - has so many public holidays based around Catholic festivals.

Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?
Photo by Valery HACHE / AFP

Reader question: Why does France have Catholic holidays like Ascension, Assumption and Toussaints? I thought it was supposed to be a secular republic?

The French Republic is very proud of its secular principles but yet as some readers observed, many public holidays are linked to Catholic celebrations, a reminder of its religious history.

Roughly half of the public holidays in France represent Catholic events: Easter, Ascension (May 26th), Assumption (August 15th), Pentecost (for some people), All Saints’ day (November 1st) and of course Christmas.

If you live in Alsace-Moselle (formerly Alsace-Lorraine) you get two extra holidays, both religious ones – Good Friday (the Friday before Easter) and St Stephen’s Day (December 26th) – more on why that is later.

France’s secular stance takes its roots in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 but was formally codified into law in 1905. 

France does not recognise, pay or subsidise any religion. So French local and national governments are not allowed to finance churches, mosques, synagogues or temples, and religious symbolism is not allowed in State buildings or for representatives of the State.

It is these rules that mean that, for example, French primary schools don’t perform nativity plays at Christmas and French female police officers are not permitted to wear the Muslim headscarf while on duty.

EXPLAINED What does France’s secularism really mean?

The flip side of this is that freedom of worship is also protected in the 1905 law, and everyone is allowed to practice whatever religion they choose in their private life.

The only exception to the secular rules are the three departments of Alsace-Moselle. When the 1905 law was passed the region was part of Germany and only became French again at the end of World War I. As part of the compromise agreed, today bishops, priests, rabbis and pastors have the status of civil servants and the state pays for the maintenance of religious buildings. Religious education in public schools is also preserved.

So all that seems to pretty strongly suggest that Catholic festivals should play no part in France’s holiday calendar and only the secular events – such as the Fête nationale on July 14th or VE Day on May 8th – should remain.

However, by the time secularism was formally codified into law in 1905 there was already a fairly fixed calendar of holidays and festivals – although this had already been slimmed down under the Napoleonic government in 1802 – and suddenly axing popular festivals was likely to go down pretty badly with the population at large.

Essentially then, this was a pragmatic compromise between tradition and secularism and over the years politicians have been understandably reluctant to tell the French they must lose their holidays.

But it’s noticeable that all the religious festivals in the calendar are Christian ones, and while this may reflect France’s history it’s not so representative of the current demographics, where an estimated 10 percent of the population either practice the Muslim faith or have a Muslim family background.

So could we see a scenario when we knock Ascension on the head but make Eid a public holiday?

It’s theoretically possible – in 2015 the French parliament voted through an amendment that would allow the départments of France’s Overseas Territories (Martinique, Gaudeloupe, Mayotte, Réunion and French Guiana) to switch a Catholic bank holiday for another religious celebration to suit different faiths in the local population.

However none of the overseas départements has yet made that move. 

A fresh amendment would be required to make the same move in mainland France, and there appears to be little political appetite for that at present.

What are France’s public holidays? 

  • January 1st: New Year’s Day
  • Good Friday (the Friday before Easter Monday, only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)
  • Easter Monday (movable date)
  • May 1st: May Day
  • May 8th: VE Day
  • May 26th: Ascension Day
  • Pentecost (movable date and no longer an official holiday)
  • July 14th – Bastille Day
  • August 15th – Assumption
  • November 1st – All Saints
  • November 11th – Armistice Day
  • December 25th – Christmas
  • December 26th – St Stephen’s Day (only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)

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JOHN LICHFIELD

OPINION: Macron’s pension reform is wildly unpopular and badly timed – but essential for France

One thing that everyone can agree on is that Emmanuel Macron's new pension reforms are likely to be highly unpopular and lead to strikes and demonstrations - so why is he doing it? John Lichfield looks at the president's thinking and why France, in fact, needs this reform.

OPINION: Macron's pension reform is wildly unpopular and badly timed - but essential for France

The Belgians do it until they are 65. The Germans keep going until they are 65 and 7 months. The British manage it until they are 66. But the French – in theory – stop at 62 (and French train drivers give up much younger than that).

We are talking, of course, of work and the minimum legal age at which European countries can retire on a full state pension.  

President Emmanuel Macron is about to declare war on the French people. He thinks that they should work longer. An overwhelming majority of French people – at least 70 percent according to recent polls – believe that they should not.

President Macron decided on Wednesday night to push ahead rapidly with a new version of the pension reform which was abandoned (when close to enactment) in March 2020 because of the Covid pandemic.

Militant trades unions have – by coincidence – organised over 200 demonstrations across the country today to protest against several things, including Macron’s desire to delay the retirement age. That is just a taste of the mayhem to come.

Remember the long rail and power worker strikes of 2019? Or the protests of 1995 which almost brought France to its knees? They were both about pension reform.

You can hear John talking more about pension reform in the latest episode of Talking France – download it HERE, find it on Spotify, Apple or Google podcasts or listen on the link below.

After a meeting with senior ministers and leaders of his centrist alliance, Macron has, for now, put aside the idea of imposing pension reform by Christmas by parliamentary putsch. He will allow two months for discussions on detail – but no negotiation on fundamentals – with the unions.

 A draft law to increase gradually the minimum retirement age to 65, or maybe 64, will be presented in December and pushed through by February. The 2023 budget plan published this week assumes that the first stage in delayed retirement will take effect from July.

Macron no longer has a majority in the national assembly to be sure of enacting pension reform by normal vote. He let it be known today that the government will use, if necessary, its powers under Article 49.3 of the constitution. This allows the government to pass one piece of general legislation by decree in each annual session (and an unlimited amount of financial legislation).

READ ALSO What is Article 49.3? 

Opposition members could block a new pensions law by supporting a vote of no confidence (as is their constitutional right). In that case, Macron warned today, he will dissolve the assembly and force new parliamentary elections (as is his constitutional right).

In other words, Macron is ready to play hard ball.

But does it make sense to play hard ball in such hard times?

My favourite French left-wing politician, François Ruffin, the deputy for the Somme (who is sometime annoying but often practical and sensible) describes Macron’s approach as “an act of madness”.

Ruffin said: “After two years of the Covid crisis, with people exhausted, with Emmanuel Macron re-elected without any momentum or enthusiasm, when people don’t know whether they can pay their bills…in this time of exasperation and democracy fatigue, he is going to defy the vast majority of French people – 70 percent to 80 percent according to the polls – and impose pension reform by force.”

So why is Macron doing it? And why now? The first question is easier to answer than the second.

There are two strong arguments for pension reform in France.

As people live longer, a supposedly self-financing system will start to run into deficit next year. According to the official projections, short-falls as high as €10 billion by 2027 and €20 billion by 2032 will have to be paid out of  taxation or state borrowing.

In other words the pension system – in which pensions are supposedly paid from workers’ and bosses’ contributions – will start to limit other spending or swell the French deficit and debt.

Secondly, there is a strong, economic argument that France should work for longer. It is unsustainable for the French to retire three years (at least) earlier than their European partners and competitors.  

France is not a “lazy” country. Those French people who do work do so very productively.  But, taken as a whole, France works less hours than other nations – partly because of the 35 hour week, partly through unemployment but mostly because of the early minimum retirement age.

According to a OECD study, France worked 630 hours a year per inhabitant in 2018, including children and the retired. Germany worked 722 hours per inhabitant; the UK 808 hours, and the USA 826. 

Macron argues that France can only afford its generous social model and can only compete successfully with its European partners and global rivals if – as a nation – if it puts in more hours.

Both these arguments are admittedly open to challenge. The state pension fund deficit is not as big as was once feared. There is actually a surplus this year because so many old people died during the Covid pandemic. In the long run, however, the deficits will grow.

The economic argument can also be quibbled with. Many French people already work beyond 62; many other older people would like to work but can’t find jobs.

In the medium to long term, however, the arguments for pension reform are as powerful as Macron says. But that leaves the question: “why now?” 

Does not France, and the world, have problems enough this winter without Macron picking a huge new fight on the French retirement age?

The President argues that he was given a “mandate” for pension reform by his victory in the presidential election in April. That is dubious. It would be more accurate to say that he lost his parliamentary majority in June because voters detested the idea of working for longer and Macron failed to make the argument why they should.

Now, after a period of drift, the President has decreed that pensions will be the ground on which he fights for a domestic legacy.

Despite a first term disrupted by Covid, despite the loss of his parliamentary majority, Macron wants to be the first President for half a century to leave France stronger than he found it – whether France likes it or not.

Let battle commence.

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