eurel     Sociological and legal data on religions in Europe and beyond
You are here : Home » France » Law and religion » General overview

General overview

Principle of laïcité

Secularity (laïcité) is an organising principle of public authorities, fruit of a historical evolution resulting from the French Revolution. Since 1789, Article 10 of the Declaration of the Rights (...)

Secularity (laïcité) is an organising principle of public authorities, fruit of a historical evolution resulting from the French Revolution. Since 1789, Article 10 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen has proclaimed religious freedom, with it being enshrined in the 1791 Constitution. At the end of the nineteenth century, education acts made schooling free, secular and compulsory. The Law of 9 December 1905 put an end to the public service of recognised faiths. Without explicitly citing the notion of laïcité, it defines its contours by enunciating the principle of separation of churches and the state (Article 2) and by reaffirming the guarantee of freedom of conscience and free religious practice (Article 1). Laïcité became a constitutional principle with Article 1 of the 1946 Constitution and today the first article of the 1958 Constitution lays down that: “France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic. It ensures equality before the law for all citizens without distinction of origin, race or religion. It respects all beliefs. (...)”.

As a principle of mutual independence between the political power and the different spiritual or religious movements, laïcité thus contains several dimensions, as recalled by the Council of State in its public report of 2004: neutrality of the French State, freedom of religion and respect for pluralism.

- The principle of the neutrality of public services is closely related to the guarantee of equal treatment of citizens. If they have freedom of conscience, the agents of public services cannot, as part of their professional activity, express philosophical, religious or political opinions. Case law (Council of State Opinion of 3 May 2000, Miss Marteaux, no. 217017) has consistently upheld the ban on public officials wearing any distinctive religious signs.

- Freedom of religion is a fundamental freedom whose manifestations may however be limited for reasons of public order. As in other European countries, it is in France largely framed by international law and in particular by the case law of the European Court of Human Rights.

- Secularity and the fact that the State “does not recognise any faith” (Article 2 of the Law of 1905) does not mean that the latter ignores the religious phenomenon, but rather that it must respect all beliefs. It is a guarantor of religious pluralism and acts positively to promote equality between faiths.

D 18 April 2013    AFrançoise Curtit

Organization of religious communities : general regime

Faiths are organised under different legal forms. The Law of 9 December 1905 envisages the constitution of religious associations, “associations formed to provide for the expenses, maintenance and (...)

Faiths are organised under different legal forms. The Law of 9 December 1905 envisages the constitution of religious associations, “associations formed to provide for the expenses, maintenance and public exercise of a faith” (Article 18), which are created in accordance with the common law on associations (Law of 1 July 1901). The Catholic Church refused this status on the grounds that it did not respect the hierarchical organisation of the Church and, from 1924 onwards, it created for its part diocesan associations placed under the authority of the bishop. These two types of associations have as exclusive aim practising a faith and they cannot receive public subsidies. They do, however, benefit from a number of tax benefits (on the question of funding, see the section “Funding faiths”). Faiths may also have recourse to other legal forms: common law associations (Law of 1901), foundations... which may have in full or in part a religious purpose.

Concerning the ownership of buildings of worship, the 1905 Law (Article 12 et seq.) acknowledged ownership by départements and communes of buildings belonging to them at that time, as well as buildings belonging to former public institutions of worship not claimed by a religious association (as in the case of Catholic buildings). The law of 2 January 1907 on public religious practice provides nevertheless that the buildings (mainly Catholic) belonging to the public domain “are left at the disposal of the faithful and of ministers of religion for the practice of their religion” (Article 5). Protestant and Jewish faiths which have formed religious associations have received full ownership of the buildings previously belonging to former public establishments, these buildings being the subject of legal assignment to the faith concerned. Buildings of worship built after 1905 belong to the private individuals who built or acquired them. This plurality of ownership systems for buildings of worship has resulted in a multiplicity of rules applicable to their maintenance and conservation.

D 19 April 2013    AFrançoise Curtit

Principle of non-discrimination and faith-based organizations

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 26 August 1789, then the constitutions of 27 October 1946 and 4 October 1958, lay down a principle of equality before the law that (...)

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 26 August 1789, then the constitutions of 27 October 1946 and 4 October 1958, lay down a principle of equality before the law that prohibits differences in treatment between persons, notably if based on religion or beliefs. French legislation on discrimination developed in the main by transposing Community directives (Law of 16 November 2001, supplemented by the laws of 17 January 2002 and 27 May 2008). Discrimination is punishable under criminal law (Penal Code, Articles 225-1 et seq.) and the Labour Code punishes any act of workplace discrimination (Labour Code, Articles L.1131-1 et seq.). In this area, possible differences in treatment must be justified by the nature of the task to be accomplished, to respond to an essential and crucial professional requirement and be proportionate to the desired objective (Labour Code, Articles L. 1133-1 and L. 1321-3). Case law on religious discrimination is relatively scarce.

In transposing Community directives, French laws have not retained any exceptions to equal treatment based on convictions or religion (Article 4 of Directive 2000/78) and this issue has anyway not been the subject of debate. Case law has, however, acknowledged on several occasions that a company with a religious ethos is not committing discrimination by choosing its staff according to a criterion of religious conformity (Court of Cassation, Assembly of 19 May 1978, Dame Roy, no. 76-41.211; Social Chamber, 20 November 1986, Fischer, no. 84-43.243).

The powers yielded by the High Authority against Discrimination and for Equality (HALDE), created in 2005, were transferred in May 2011 to the Defender of Human Rights, a new, independent constitutional authority with particular expertise in the fight against discrimination.

D 21 April 2013    AFrançoise Curtit

Wearing religious symbols

Following the report by the Committee for Reflection on the Application of the Principle of Secularity in the Republic (“Stasi Report”), Parliament passed the Act of 15 March 2004 governing the (...)

Following the report by the Committee for Reflection on the Application of the Principle of Secularity in the Republic (“Stasi Report”), Parliament passed the Act of 15 March 2004 governing the wearing of signs or clothing denoting religious affiliation in state primary and secondary schools. A Circular of 18 May 2004 specifies the conditions for its implementation (on this, see the topic Religion and Society).

Following up on the work undertaken by the Fact-finding Mission on the Practice of Wearing the Full Veil on French Territory (see Current Debates – October 2010), Law no. 2010-1192 of 11 October 2010, banning concealment of the face in public, aims to ban the full veil in all public places (on public streets, places open to the public and those assigned to a public service, Article 2). Failing to observe this ban is sanctioned by a fine of maximum 150 euros; this can be supplemented or substituted by the obligation to undertake a citizenship course (Article 3). In addition, the law punishes the act of any person imposing on one or more other people, due to their gender, concealment of their face using threat, violence, force, abuse of authority or abuse of power (one year imprisonment and 30,000 euros fine, Article 4).

The Circular of 2 March 2011 specifies the conditions of application of this ban (scope of application of the law, conduct to uphold in public service and information for the public).

In its decision no. 2010-613 DC of 7 October 2010, the Constitutional Council considered that “the legislator assessed that such practices [concealment of the face] can constitute a danger for public safety and ignore the minimal requirements for life in society; [it] also considered that women concealing their face, voluntarily or not, are being placed in a position of exclusion and inferiority that is obviously incompatible with the constitutional principles of freedom and equality”. It determines that this law enacts a conciliation which is "not patently disproportionate" between safeguarding public order and guaranteeing constitutionally protected rights. (See also, on the first judgments of the Court of Cassation on the wearing of a full veil, the section Current Debates, March 2013).

D 22 April 2013    AFrançoise Curtit

The central bureau of religions

The Bureau central des cultes (Central bureau of religions) of the Ministry of the Interior manages the relations of the State with the authorities representing the different religious bodies.
To (...)

The Bureau central des cultes (Central bureau of religions) of the Ministry of the Interior manages the relations of the State with the authorities representing the different religious bodies.
To learn more on the history and the missions of this administration, please read the document (in French) written by Bertrand GAUME, former head of the Central bureau of religions.

D 23 April 2013   

Organising the faiths: local systems

Historical reasons and people’s desire to hold onto the specific legal characteristics of their locality have led to the maintenance of different local law statutes which continue to coexist (...)

Historical reasons and people’s desire to hold onto the specific legal characteristics of their locality have led to the maintenance of different local law statutes which continue to coexist alongside the Law of 1905.

- Local law in Alsace-Moselle

The départements of the Lower Rhine, Upper Rhine and Moselle (Alsace-Moselle) became French once again in 1918, after nearly 50 years’ annexation by Germany. The former legislation on faiths, which had remained applicable under the German system, was maintained in force by the Act of 1 June 1924: Law of 18 Germinal year X (1801 Concordat and Organic Articles of the Catholic faith and Protestant faiths) and by Order of 25 May 1844 (Jewish faith). Neither the Act of 1901, nor that of 1905, therefore apply in these three départements and this exception, which was maintained after the Second World War, persists today.

The local law on faiths is characterised by a system of recognised faiths for the Catholic Church, Lutheran and Reformed Protestant churches and the Jewish faith. Organised under public law, they can be funded by the state and local communities and their ministers of worship are paid for by the state. Other denominations are organised in line with registered association status in local law and may be subsidised voluntarily by public authorities.

In terms of education, public authorities are required to organise confessional religious instruction integrated into the curricula of primary, secondary and vocational educational institutions. Parents who so desire can exempt their children from religious education.

- Systems in the overseas territories

In religious matters, several legal systems apply in the various overseas communities. According to the provisions of the Decree of 6 February 1911, the general scheme of the Law of 9 December 1905 applies in Martinique, Guadeloupe and La Réunion.

In Guyana, a Royal Order of 27 August 1828 organises just the Catholic faith. Its ministers are paid for by the département, which further maintains its buildings of worship. Other faiths are managed within the Decree-Law of 16 January 1939 (Mandel Decree).

This same decree-law applies in French Polynesia (Tahiti and Marquesas Islands), Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, Wallis and Futuna and in New Caledonia. In these territories, faiths are formed into “religious missions”, endowed with a management board.

The Decree of 16 January 1939 applies in Mayotte too, yet with some particularities; the Muslim faith, in the majority in this territory, organises its activities within the framework of associations regulated by the Law of 1 July 1901.

For further details, see the Circular of 25 August 2011 (in French) on the regulation of faiths in the overseas territories and the regulation of faiths in the overseas territories, summary table.
See also the article by Anne Fornerod, "Après le droit alsacien-moselan, le droit des cultes guyanais devant le Conseil constitutionnel français", ORELA, July 2017.

D 6 July 2017    AFrançoise Curtit

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

Follow us:
© 2002-2020 eurel - Contact