By Patricia Duval
Attorney at Law – France
Specialist in European and international Human Rights law
Master in Public Law and European Union Law, La Sorbonne, Paris
Secularism of the French institutions has been achieved through a long process starting with the French Revolution of 1789 and continuing through the enactment of the 1905 law consecrating the separation of Church and State. This transitional and confrontational period eventually resulted in the 1905 law, which has ensured secularity and neutrality of the French institutions and equality of all religions before the law.
This law, which has guaranteed freedom of conscience and freedom of cult, has been the end of an evolution designed at extracting the Catholic Church from the State institutions. During this evolution, the Republicans, who harbored anti-clerical sentiments based on the Church’s cooperative relationship with the former Monarchy and its abuses, as well as its omnipotence in the French institutions, opposed supporters of the Catholic Church, especially the legitimist Catholics, partisans of the legitimate king.
This opposition materialized in particular in the conflict concerning education, and the Catholic Church’s omnipresence in the education system.
Finally, in the 1880s, Minister of Public Education Jules Ferry had laws enacted ensuring free, mandatory and secular education.
However, this was followed by a period of extreme repression of Catholic communities when the President of Council (equivalent to Prime Minister) was Emile Combes, a former Doctor in Theology and apostate, who was a radical anti-clerical.
In 1904, a law was enacted to prohibit teaching to all congregations, authorized or not, even those which had existed for over a century. A total of around 15,000 charities of congregations – schools, community clinics or charity homes – had been closed down since 1901, and around 30,000 clerics forced to exile. The Chartreuse Order of cloistered monks (The Carthusians), founded in 1084, was evacuated by the army. In May 1904, diplomatic relationships with the Vatican were broken off.
Combes was applauded for his extreme measures by the Republican partisans of what they called “Total Secularism” (“Laïcité intégrale”) and who nicknamed him “Little Father Combes” (“Petit père Combes”).
In December 1905, the bill of separation of Churches and State, initially proposed by Combes in a version that was very severe for all denominations, even minorities, but modified under the influence of the more moderate Member of Parliament, President of the Commission in charge of reviewing the draft bill, Aristide Briand, was enacted.
The partisans of secularism were themselves divided into two camps: the followers of Emile Combes, who aimed at eradicating Religion and others, like Aristide Briand, who wanted to declare the neutrality of State towards all creeds and to guarantee freedom of conscience pursuant to the Declaration of Human Rights and Rights of the Citizens enacted in 1789.
Thereafter, after some difficulties of application of the 1905 law due to the refusal of Vatican of some of its provisions, French society started to reconcile and the religious congregations which had been closed down started to form again. In 1920, France restored its diplomatic relationships with the Holy See.
It should be underlined that during this whole evolution, the excesses committed against religious communities included restrictions to religious expression, including the eradication of religious symbols from public places with the systematic destruction of way-side crosses in the countryside, prohibition of religious processions and prohibition of clerical robes.
During the vote of the 1905 law, Charles Chabert, Member of Parliament, proposed an amendment to allow Priests to wear a clerical robe only during the exercise of their functions.
Chabert explained his amendment in the following way:
“Isn’t the clerical robe essentially a symbol? Isn’t its wearing primarily a confessional manifestation? The Catholics themselves admit that the robe is a lively preaching, a permanent act of proselytizing. Matters of conscience stay in the conscience: this is the spirit of the law we are drawing up. But the robe in public, this is matters of conscience in the street! And this is why it is our duty to prohibit it if we want to be consistent with ourselves.”
Chabert further explained:
“Sirs, the robe not only makes the priest a captive of his Bishop: it makes him a captive of his long clerical teachings, a captive of his narrow environment, a captive of his own ignorance, I would nearly say of his own stupidity.”
Finally, Aristide Briand, Rapporteur for the law, spoke up, stating that the Commission had decided, after thorough deliberations, not to include any provision in the bill concerning clerical robes. He explained that it seemed to the Commission that the law would be exposed to critics of intolerance and even to ridicule by imposing such restrictions on clerical robes while its purpose was to install confessional freedom. Briand also noted that it would be rash to attribute the prestige of religion in the French countryside to the mere cut of the clerical robe and that the influence of the Church had other reasons, less easy to destroy, otherwise freethinkers would have already won.
Chabert’s amendment was finally rejected and no provision was included in the 1905 law concerning clerical robes.
It should be underlined here that nearly a century later, the same kind of arguments have been used to ban wearing of conspicuous religious insignias and attire in public schools. The same specter of proselytizing through the wearing of a garment that was deemed ridiculous by Aristide Briand, has been used with the Muslim veil. Who can reasonably believe that the sight of a Muslim veil would make non-Muslim girls convert to Islam? Like Briand stated, there has to be deeper reasons to conversion. Yet, this argument has been admitted as valid in all the debates and by all the French institutions to a lesser or greater degree.
And it seems that the partisans of “Total Secularism” are back in power.
A new Circular was enacted on 22 March 2012 by the French Ministry of National Education addressed to education authorities of primary and high schools entitled “Prevention and Fight against Sectarian Risks”.
This Circular provides for the identification of “sectarian risks” by the National Education personnel. A “sectarian risk” is so defined in the Circular:
“A situation of sectarian risk, for a child, is therefore the one in which some views and practices are imposed on him with the exception of any other views or practice. This situation is likely to harm his intellectual development, his social integration and finally his attainment of autonomy. The risk concerns not only the content of the knowledge passed on, the possibility of access to the values and pluralism of democratic societies, but also the possibility for the child to develop and exert a critical mind, an independent judgment. The context can be family, or even community: the child is then likely to be under the undue influence of views and practices threatening his education”.
Following the Circular definition any views could be said to be imposed on a child by his parents, and could be said to be undue because they are exclusive of any other beliefs. This is precisely what the right to educate a child in conformity with one’s own beliefs is all about.
However, National Education personnel have the duty to report on any child and family suspected of “sectarian drifts” due to the parents’ adherence to certain religious beliefs or worldviews.
With the start of the new school year in September 2013, another step has been taken with the introduction of a new subject entitled “secular morals” in the curriculums, and on 9 September 2013, the release of the Charter of Secularism to be posted in all primary and high public schools in France.
On 2 September, in an interview to the “Journal du Dimanche”, the Minister of Education announced that the mission of the subject on “secular morals” is the emancipation of pupils. He explained that in order to give them freedom of choice, the State has to be able to “snatch them away from any and all determinism”, including family influence.
This constitutes an outright violation of the pupils’ and their parents’ rights to freedom of religion or belief.
The Charter of Secularism provides that:
6. Secularism gives the pupils the conditions to forge their personality, exert their free will and learn about citizenship. It protects them from any proselytizing and pressure which would prevent them from making their own choices.
12. The teachings are secular. In order to ensure to pupils the most objective openness to the diversity of worldviews as well as to the scope and precision of knowledge, no subject is a priori excluded from scientific and educational questioning. No pupil can give a religious or political conviction as a reason for challenging a teacher’s right to deal with a subject in the curriculum. (underlining as in the original text)
This infers that teachers can speak about any religion and submit it to scientific questioning, and pupils who belong to the concerned faith are not allowed to counter the teacher’s views and express their beliefs.
This has actually been done for years now with the inclusion of anti-sect subjects in the school books or in the courses of civic education. Pupils have been put in the situation where their parents’ faith was criminalized and, as they had openly spoken about their religion to their mates, those started to take a distance from them. Some pupils have been summoned by the principal and pressured not to speak about their faith anymore.
This policy is an extremist interpretation of French secularism. Secularism is supposed to mean separation of State and religion and respect for all religious communities and beliefs per the French Constitution. It implies neutrality of the State and its public agents towards religions, in that the State should not favour or disfavour any religious movement.
However, the new interpretation of secularism by the French authorities extends it to the private sphere and imposes obligations to private persons, users of public services, unduly restricting their right to express their religious beliefs. This interference by the State cannot be justified and is not allowed under international human rights law.
All religious beliefs are actually targeted by this extreme and intolerant conception of Secularism. Back in 2008, at the time of the publication of his book “The French Revolution is not completed”, the Minister of Education, Vincent Peillon, stated: “We will never be able to build a country of freedom with the Catholic religion. As we cannot either adapt Protestantism to France like in other democracies, we have to invent a Republican religion. This Republican religion, which must accompany the material revolution, but which is a spiritual revolution, is Secularism.”
For years the French authorities have tried to export their policy at European level. In his book entitled “Imminent Apocalypse”, Georges Fenech, former President of MIVILUDES, explains:
“First I went to the Fundamental Rights Agency in Vienna (Austria) to propose them at a minimum, a European Program of Study on Sects and Minors, in order not to upset anybody. I was politely welcome but no action was ever taken to follow up on my initiative. Undoubtedly, the eternal strife between the Member States over the definition of a sect has been an insurmountable obstacle. I therefore had to change tactics and act directly at the Council of Europe, anti-Chamber of the European Parliament, at the very heart of the Strasbourg Institutions. To this end, I invited in Paris the President of the Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Mr. Pourgouridès, a Cyprus citizen who committed to definitely move in this direction. He kept his word by having a draft resolution voted, for which the report was entrusted to a French MP Rudy Salles from Alpes-Maritimes (South of France), a pioneer of the anti-sect struggle in France. During my meeting with the latter in Nice, I had no difficulty convincing him to work on it as a matter of emergency.”
As appears in UNADFI 2011 Activity Report, , MIVILUDES requested from FECRIS and UNADFI in February 2011 an inventory of the cases they heard of during the last 10 years linked to minors in sects. And in September 2011, Rudy Salles was appointed as Rapporteur for a report on this subject at the Council of Europe.
Hervé Machi, Secretary General of MIVILUDES, explained when he was heard in October 2012 by a Parliamentary Enquiry Commission on Health and Sects: “We are trying to instigate such [European] harmonization. We started to do it not through the issue of health but through the issue of minors by instigating a resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe which has been adopted… It is a French Member of Parliament Mr. Rudy Salles who works on the issue of the influence of sectarian movements on minors, in order to lead to the creation of a European Observatory on sectarian deviances and minors. For us it was a way to interest our European partners to the issue by touching them through a common denominator which is the protection of minors. Maybe this will be the beginning of a “ball of wool” which will lead our partners to show interest in sectarian deviances, also in the area of health.”
Hence the French authorities openly claim to be at the origin of this initiative and appointment to the Council of Europe in order to export their general policy towards minorities of religion or belief they derogatorily label “sectarian movements”.
In order to prepare his report, Mr. Salles organized a hearing of three experts in September 2012. Two of them were a representative from MIVILUDES and a representative of FECRIS from Ukraine.
In December 2012, he conducted a fact-finding mission to Sweden. MIVILUDES, in its 2009 Report, as it was already preparing for this minor issue, did an inventory of the approach of minors in sects in the various European countries. It reported that it was in majority a non issue in these countries and in particular that Sweden was too “liberal”. The Report pointed out its “very liberal view of movements which can carry sectarian risk” and the fact that it applied common law to religious communities.
In order to oppose this “liberal view”, in December 2012, Rudy Salles went to Sweden for a “fact finding mission” regarding “sects and minors” on behalf of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. He came out in the Swedish media with some strong statements criticizing Sweden for its liberal approach of the treatment of religious minorities alleging that some private schools might instil some harmful ideologies to children. The Swedish State Secretary at the Ministry of Education, Bertil Östberg, had to answer that he was in disagreement with Rudy Salles, that the Swedish system works and that there is an adequate control on the quality of the teachings in schools. He added that they have a government body to control schools and there is no need for a Parliamentary Enquiry Commission as suggested by Mr. Salles.
Rather than responding to an urging situation of minors in sects, Mr. Salles’ mission appears to be that of creating such a problem where it does not exist by “sensitizing” France’s European partners to the issue.
In April 2013, Rudy Salles sent a questionnaire to all the member states of the Council of Europe. This questionnaire contained very revealing questions, showing a willingness to get each of the EU countries to adopt a list and classification of new religious movements as “sects”, a stigmatization which has been strongly criticized by human rights institutions for years, to create Parliamentary Enquiry Commissions on these movements and to adopt specific repressive laws against the followers of new or minority religious movements and their children, which is contrary to the very commitment of the Council of Europe towards religious freedom through the European Convention.
Soon after receiving this questionnaire, the Russian Parliament created a “sect commission” inside the Duma. However, Russia should not be encouraged by the French in its repressive policy as it has already been sentenced by the European Court of Human Rights in its decision Jehovah’s Witnesses’ of Moscow v. the Russian Federation of 20 June 2010 for not respecting the rights of religious minorities. In this decision, the European Court reaffirmed the right for parents to ensure education of their children in conformity with their religious convictions by finding:
Both parents, even in a situation where they adhere to differing doctrines or beliefs, have the same right to raise their children in accordance with their religious or non-religious convictions and any disagreements between them in relation to the necessity and extent of the children’s participation in religious practices and education are private disputes that are to be resolved according to the procedure established in domestic family law.
In violation of international human rights standards, France is actually inciting countries like Russia to adopt measures to infringe the right to freedom of religion or belief of religious minorities and to overlook the European Court of Human Rights decisions.
This situation is of utmost concern and should be remedied.