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Secularisation: France and Britain's diverging approaches

Secularisation: France and Britain's diverging approaches


mb6The French model of "laïcité" has to face new challenges, and thus, might have to change, while at the same time partisans of the disestablishing of the Church of England are claiming that the special treatment granted to the ‘national' church should belong to the past. In short, on both shores of the Channel, new social environments are threatening the old compromises.

spb1Why are the French and English models considered to be so different? Is there a different conception of the relations between the State and religion in general? This collaborative essay will offer no more than a French point of view on the relations between churches and State in England and France, plus an attempt to describe all the prejudices that such contrasting positions still give rise to.

To answer these questions we will firstly compare the historical background that led to the two systems. An explanation of the terms of the debate and of the reasoning of the protagonists will follow, putting into focus the social and political issues related to that matter in both countries, at a time where religion has also become a diplomatic question in Europe. Then in the conclusion we will try to emphasize the lessons that France and England could find in each other's experiences.

A historical view of secularisation in France and Great-Britain


Trying to offer a ‘short' history of the process of secularisation in France is not something easy. It is however necessary, in order to expose all the prejudices that a French student might have when analysing the English case. In France, the process of secularisation has more than anywhere else required a conflicting movement of emancipation of the State from the Catholic Church, as well as the contrary movement of liberation of the Churches from the State's patronage. A constant issue for the State had been, until the revolution, the nature of its relation to the Catholic Church. Since the Reformation in the 16th century, one more problem was to deal with religious diversity, given the fact that the Jews had always been regarded as an historic minority living separately from the rest of the society.

The first way to address the issue was found by the development of the ‘ Gallicanisme', that is to say the relative autonomy enjoyed by the French Catholic Church vis-à-vis Rome, through the subordination to the State though. The struggle of King Philippe le Bel (1268-1314) against the religious power has indeed more to do with an attempt to reinforce the power of the State at the Catholic Church's expense.

With the new context of the Reformation, the edict of Nantes in 1598 marked a change in the French policy towards religion, recognising the freedom of conscience, and establishing de facto a fragile distinction between citizenship and religious belonging. The revocation of the Edict in 1685 indirectly obliged different actors to consider the utility of new forms of relation between political power and religion, as a consequence of the impossibility of enforcing a pacified religious pluralism otherwise. Louis XIV decided however at that time that France should only be Catholic, despite the fact that ecision was obviously opposed to the ongoing process of religious diversification.


The first fundamental step on the way to secularisation: Revolution and First Empire

The real starting point of the secularist movement in France is the French Revolution. The famous statement of Mirabeau witnesses the beginning of a major change in the State's approach towards the religious question. He declared in substance that there is neither a national religion, nor a national conscience. In spite of this new idea, the Revolution eventually chose to intervene in the religious sphere, when the civil constitution of the Catholic clergy was adopted in 1791, pinpointing the persistence of the idea of national religion.

The great progress of the declaration of human rights, guaranteeing the freedom of conscience and of worship, and establishing the idea of equality of the citizens before the law was at the same time undermined by the troubles caused by the civil constitution of the clergy. Despite the widely shared beliefs in the philosophy of the Enlightenment, the social utility of religion was still too strong at that time to let the Church act independently vis-à-vis the State. The new republic's ambition was to build a new Man, helped by religion, and religion had thus to be reformed: the conception of secularism as a neutral behaviour of the State towards religion would only emerge at the end of the 19th century.

The Catholic priests were subjected to an oath of allegiance to the Constitution and to the Republic.  As those who refused represented a large part of the clergy, a schism was actually brought into the Catholic Church in France. I would like to recall here that the English bishops are still subjected to this obligation. Here is the content of the oath of loyalty: "I accept Your Majesty as the sole source of ecclesiastical, spiritual and temporal power." The so-called ‘constitutional' priests were given a wage directly from the State, until the constitution of 1795 decided that the Republic would not give any public salary to any cult any more. At that time, the registry office and marriage were secularised and would stay so.

In 1799, Napoleon clearly stated that the Revolution had reached an end. His program: stabilisation and order. As far as the religious sphere was concerned, a new concordat was concluded with the Pope in 1801, reunifying the Catholic Church in France, while the Catholic religion was officially recognised as ‘the religion of the large majority of the French people', thus marking a renewal of the traditional Gallicanisme. The State not only protected religion, but also controlled it, through the public organization of the ‘recognised' worships: the Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed churches, as well as Judaism a few years later.

At the same time nevertheless, the new civil code of 1804 greatly emancipated law from religious principles: based upon the idea of natural law, some of its articles were openly in contradiction with religious commands. To Jean Baubérot, a French specialist of the history of ‘laïcité' in France, the period that has just been described marks the first step of secularisation in this country: the State is only interested in the material welfare of its citizens, and should not therefore claim to be competent in religious matters by imposing any particular religious dogma. Here are the main features of this first stage:

The progressive emancipation of central institutions such as education, medicine or law corresponds to the development of the modern Nation-State.

Religion is however still considered as an institution whose social legitimacy is recognised. In this view, religion corresponds to a social need, and as such, is organised and protected as any public service under the State's control. Religion constitutes indeed the main basis of the public moral code, a necessity to guarantee public order and submission to the law.

Thirdly, religious pluralism is recognised: the existence of religious minorities is legitimated, while tolerance is granted to those religions whose worship is not officially organised. Moreover, religious indifference, or to put it differently, unbelief, is not condemned any more.

The second fundamental step: the Third republic

Regarding the second stage of secularisation in France, around the 1880's, its main features are: the general but progressive secularisation of state-controlled, compulsory and free education, at the expense of the church's schools and the development of a secularised public moral code. The government of the Third republic eventually took the plunge in 1905, when the law of separation between the State and the Churches was passed. This is a revolution that is characteristic of the French concept of ‘laicité'.

Religion loses its previous social and institutional legitimacy by becoming a private issue: religion is not considered as necessary to the process of moral socialisation. A secularised public moral code was from that moment on to be taught at school. The worships take the form of private associations, deprived of the financial support of the State and of their former privileges. Thirdly, the freedoms of worship and of conscience are better implemented for the State stops claiming it can recognise any worship. This is a momentous change in the French history of the State-Church relation: the State regards itself as unable to judge the quality of ‘religion' and refuses to give official labels of ‘authenticity' or to favour one religion.

In short, the State renounces its ambition to control and exploit religion while at the same time, the Catholic Church gives up its hegemonic institutional ambitions. This phenomenon marks the end of both State-Gallicanisme and Church-clericalism. From that moment on, the State's only duty as far as religion is concerned is to protect the right of practising any religion as long as this right does not cause trouble to public order. The importance of secularisation was perpetuated when the principle was displayed by the French constitution in 1946: article 1, title 1, "France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social democracy", a principle that was reaffirmed in 1958.

Some concessions to this absolute principle of separation between religion and the public sphere are however necessary. For instance, Church bells can be rung, but permission to do so has to come from the local public authority rather than from the priest. In order to grant freedom of belief, some people can ask for a priest for example, in some public institutions such as prisons, hospitals, army camps and boarding schools, if they were unable to attend religious services otherwise. An agreement was found under the terms of which the State would pay for this service in some cases, a concession that would cause many complications in the future.

The full separation of the State from the churches implies indeed that any kind of direct or indirect public subsidy for the benefit of any religion is strictly forbidden. But the 1905 law put aside the case of the religious buildings nationalised during the Revolution and after, which have remained State-property for their restoration. It means that all the Catholic Church's churches and cathedrals, built before 1905, are still nowadays the property of either the State or local public entities. Even more problematic is the change that occurred in 1987, when the religious associations in charge of the organization of public worship (association cultuelle) were given, from the point of view of taxation, equivalent status to associations officially recognised as public interest associations: this concretely means that they enjoy tax exemptions and other privileges, the problem being once again the issue of the social role of religion. Moreover, the status of ‘association cultuelle' is only given to religious organizations that have to be ‘recognised' as ‘religions' by the State....

And last but not least, the system of separation only concerns a part of the French territory, despite the constitutional principle of individual equality of the citizens anywhere on the Republic's territory. French Guyana, as well as the three continental departments Haut-Rhin, Bas-Rhin and Moselle, are still under the 1801 Concordat: the President of the Republic appoints the bishops, pays the clergy and the pensions....for the four ‘recognised' worships, excluding the Muslims for instance.... Moreover in these territories, religious education by state-paid teachers is given in state-run schools!


The British Case

Church and State in Britain: the legacy of the past

It goes without saying that the English case is even more paradoxical in the eyes of a French observer. None would indeed question the secular nature of the country, or of its political life, although England has its national Church! The Church of Ireland, covering Northern Ireland, was disestablished in 1869, as well as the Scottish Episcopal Church (Anglican) in 1921, whereas Wales simply ignores any kind of established Church. Regarding the Church of Scotland that is still established, it has a Presbyterian form, that is, no bishop, and the State has always recognised its complete freedom in all matters of doctrine, worship and Church government. To sum up, the Anglican church of England is confined to England, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, authorizing us to limit this study to secularisation in England and not in the United Kingdom.

As will be shown, the State/ Church relation in England through history shows many similarities when compared with the French experience, at least before the French revolution and the abolition of a monarchy based upon divine right. The official evangelisation of England started rather late, in 596 AD, with the arrival of St. Augustine, sent by Pope Gregory. In 973, the Archbishop of Canterbury crowned Edgar I, the first King of England: this ceremony is often considered as the first major act of the established Church of England. Under the Normans, the Church increased its influence over the State: the Archbishops took part in the prototype Parliaments of the 12th and 13th centuries. As they were often land-owning aristocrats, their political power was strong. King Henry VIII is responsible for the crucial incorporation of the Catholic Church in England: the Act of Supremacy ‘nationalised' the Church in 1534 at Rome's expense, because of political conflicts rather than theological issues.

The rise of the Reformation in Europe during the 16th century reinforced the ambiguity concerning the exact nature of the Church in England. Most people in England nevertheless consider their national church to belong to the Protestant tradition. In 1534 anyway, the King of England became the titular ‘Supreme head of the Church', and all the successors of Henry VIII after him have had to swear that they would ‘maintain in the UK the Protestant reformed Religion as established by law.' The ecclesiastical head of the Church remained however the Archbishop of Canterbury, and still is today. The Act of Settlement in 1701 stated clearly that from that moment on, the monarch would have to be a communicant of the Church of England, could not marry a Catholic...As supreme governor of the Church, the monarch has logically appointed the senior figures of the Church for centuries.

The English monarchs have been claiming for centuries that their power is based upon ‘Divine Permission.' It is moreover very interesting to notice that Henry VIII actually received the title of ‘Defender of the one true faith' from the Pope in Rome, for his defence of the Catholic faith against the attempts of Protestantism to spread in England. Despite the sudden, authoritarian but discreet conversion of the whole country to the Protestant religion a few years later, the English monarch still use nowadays this title of ‘Defender of the faith' conferred by the Pope centuries ago!

What is the result of centuries of close overlapping relations between State and Church on the structure of the Church today? The measures passed by the Church's central governing and legislative body, the General Synod, are actually scrutinised by Westminster's ecclesiastical committee, which can only accept or reject them, without the power to amend them. The monarch exercises their right to appoint the senior officers of the Church through the Prime Minister, despite the fact that the PM has not to be a Church's communicant, or even baptised!Church commissioners, including the Prime Minister and the Sport and Culture minister, manage the property and stock assets of the Anglican Church. These commissioners are accountable to Parliament, through their annual report.

To conclude, the Church of England seems to be organised as a public service. What we must consequently question is the fact that its ‘religious services' are far from interesting the majority of England's population. Andreas Whittam Smith, the former editor of the Independent newspaper, who heads the commissioners said for instance that "on present trends the Church of England's worshippers will decline from about 870,000 a week to 500,000 in 25 years' time "in a myriad of tiny congregations struggling to maintain their buildings in a thinly spread church crushed by the weight of its own heritage."

In order to underline the privileges enjoyed by the Church in comparison with the other religions in England, it is necessary to mention that British law especially protects the Anglican Church from any expression of discontent. The common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel limit free speech only when the Church of England is the subject! The close State-Church relation is finally explicit when considering the fact that the 16 main bishops have by right a seat and a vote, as ‘Lords Spiritual' in the House of Lords, whereas common clergy of the Church are not eligible to the House of Commons.


The Church of England: an established Church facing modernity and pluralism


Randall Thomas Davidson of Lambeth (1848-1930), former Archbishop of Canterbury, making the case for disestablishing the Church once declared: "What good will disestablishment do? The objections to the mere principle of a legally enshrined national religion and established church are clear. The most salient is that it privileges one part of the population, one institution and one set of beliefs. In denying equal rights to Britons of other beliefs this system of privilege is a denial of civil liberty. In privileging one belief and one religious institution, it undermines the idea and practise of pluralism. To say the least this does not fit well in a modern and mature liberal democracy."

Supporters of disestablishing the Anglican Church can be found even within the Church, as we have just seen, but this major change is not yet one of the top priorities of British government. On the one hand, the partisans of the established Church of England, rather right-wing, claim that it is one of the ‘three great pillars of British society', with the monarchy and the Parliament! It must be said moreover that for many specialists, the Anglican Church has enabled in Britain an internal ‘fragile theological alliance between Catholics and Protestants', this alliance depending ‘on the unifying force of establishment.'To put it differently, the established Church of England greatly contributed to social cohesion in Britain until the middle of the 20th century, when the loss of the British Empire was accompanied by a renewal of national identity.

This cause is however weakened in a modern, democratic, liberal, secular and multicultural Britain when extremists publicly state that a national religion constitutes ‘ a recognition of the supreme law of God'.This extreme statement resembles the intolerance that prevailed for a long time as far as politics and religion were concerned. In 1880 for instance, an atheist was elected to the House of Commons, but stopped from taking his seat since he refused to swear his loyalty to the Queen by ‘Almighty God'.

On the other hand, the current government and different lobbies, which criticize the presence of hereditary ‘Lords temporal' in the House of Lords, are also opposing the presence of Lords Spiritual in that House, because of a lack of democratic accountability. The cause of disestablishing the Church has now been on the political agenda since the mid-19th century, leading to success concerning the Church of Ireland for instance. The consensus on that question has not changed since the Thatcher government though: the Parliament will not disestablish the Church until the General Synod explicitly asks it to do so. Despite the fact that disestablishment is supported by most religious leaders outside the Church of England, by some prominent figures of both the Labour and the Conservative parties, and notably by the Christian Socialist Movement, of which the Prime Minister himself is an important member, nothing will change in the middle term. The Labour government has recently granted an exemption to the Church regarding the new human rights bill that aimed to limit discrimination from public authorities on grounds of gender or sexuality, indirectly reaffirming the public status of the established Church.

But some still believe it is worth struggling: the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association are leading a campaign whose only goal is...the secularisation of England! They oppose religious schools since they would be divisive, and demand the State to be blind to religion. They are asking for the complete separation between State and Church, the end of official representation of religions in Parliament, arguing that Britain is a painful exception among Western democracies, the end of religious oaths for public sector jobs; no privilege for religious associations in general, and the organization of a non-denominational education (since 1944, religious education has to be taught at school, and collective prayers are supposed to be organised theoretically). Blasphemy laws should be abolished, but Secularists do believe that the law should not permit incitement to religious hatred.

Let us now examine the concrete implications of these systems in both France and Great-Britain, from a social and political point of view, taking into account the fact that the relationship between the State and the Church has now become an international issue.


The social and political consequences of the two systems and the European issue


Before we consider the French case, let us have a look now at how Great Britain deals with pluralism, and particularly religious diversity, given the fact that England, just like France, is an age-old nation with a strong sense of national identity.


The British case: pluralism and integration by citizenship

British pluralism

The importance of policies related to the management of religious and ethno-religious diversity in England and Wales has increased in the recent decades. This is not only because the variety of faith traditions represented in the country has grown; nor simply because the number, for example of Buddhists, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs has expanded. It is firstly because these religions have imposed themselves in public life to the point where they can confidently demand "equal respect" and the equality of opportunity to practice their religion in private and in public.

For instance, in the Muslim community (which is very large in Great Britain, around 2 million Muslims), there is a large ethnical pluralism. The public image of Islam in Great Britain was traditionally the image of South Asia: of India, Bangladesh or Pakistan. Since the beginning of the 1980's, we have witnessed a change concerning the generations and their mentalities, as in the rest of Europe. The symbolic event that accelerated that change was the Rushdie affair (in France, it was the headscarf affair). The Rushdie affair marked indeed the insertion of a generation of new Britons into political life. Before, the question of Islam did not exist in public debate. We should recall that, whereas the Westphalia Treaty (1648) was implemented across Europe, that is to say the principle of a State with a single religion, England chose another direction. The British experience was one of religious pluralism, based on British, Welsh, Scottish and Irish plural nationalisms.

In England nowadays, concrete problems linked to the principle of religious pluralism are provoking a debate concerning the status of the Anglican Church, its nature and its significance for British society. England is currently trying to find solutions in order to institutionalise religious plurality, and consequently to re-envision the primacy of the Anglican Church. What is at stake is to succeed in inserting one more community into a society that has always been plural. From an institutional point of view or in public debates, it is only since the 1980's that the question of Islam has become important. Until that moment, the institutions used to deal with ethnical and racial matters. From then on, out of governmental institutions, cooperation between organizations of faith and an official network between religious representatives has been installed into public life. This system is now accepted as an "under-reference" by the Ministry every time there are political, social and economic matters, and when it is necessary to consult religious managers. It was under the Conservative Party, before 1997, that the first initiatives aiming at using religious representatives as political advisers took place. The decision came from the Foreign Office. Then, the Labour Party accepted to establish a relationship between the Home Office, the Education Office, and Muslim organizations. At a local level, a very long experience of collaboration exists with local organizations representing communities with local religious identities.

Integration by citizenship

The concept of citizenship in England does not have the same ideological significance as in France. When looking at the law, the concept of citizenship newly appeared in 1981 with the Nationality Act. Before the act, citizens were named a "subject of the monarchy". This old concept of subject is the base of the naturalization of the Commonwealth citizens. The immigrants from Commonwealth do not ask for their naturalization but for their registration as British citizens, as subjects of the Queen. As soon as they settle down in Great Britain, they obtain the right to vote and become eligible at local and national elections. An Indian citizen of Great Britain has more political rights than someone who has a European passport. It instantly gives many opportunities for taking part in the political life.

Religious education is compulsory in all British schools. This obligation is the result of an informal agreement between the churches since 1944. They were the first organizations responsible for education in Great Britain. Nowadays, the curriculum of religious education is elaborated through constant cooperation and collaboration between teachers, local governments and religious representatives. A pupil who does not want to follow the religious education or a teacher who refuses to give a religious teaching can abstain from doing so.

Since the 1970's religious education includes Christianity, Islam, Judaism and other religions. It is a plural education, which allows a school, depending on what religion is locally dominant, to decide for instance that mainly Muslim religious education and, for example, an instruction in Christianity as the minority religion will be given. Since 1970, the training of teachers has also changed. They receive a plural education and teach various religions. Atheism might soon be taught too. Today, about ten women wearing veils teach religious pluralism in British schools.

The British attitude related to the Islamic headscarf is particularly liberal. In Great Britain, no law exists concerning the wearing of religious signs. The Islamic headscarf is tolerated at school, in administrations and even for the police. Defending a "communitarian" approach about the question, the British do not understand the prohibition of religious signs in French schools. At the Home Office, it is repeated that it is not a problem. At the Education Office, no instructions about religious signs at school are given. It is the school director who decides the school rules. Furthermore, the Race Relations Act, the anti-discrimination law adopted in 1976 and amended in 2000, prevents administrations from prohibiting the wearing of religious signs. In the eyes of the law, this kind of prohibition is a priori interpreted as a discriminating measure. In administrations, shops and hospitals, it is not rare to see the staff wearing a headscarf or a turban. Nobody seems to pay attention to it.

As far as the law is concerned, legal traditions of Great Britain are very interesting and propose many possibilities of insertion and cultural pluralism. The judges pass flexible judgements always referring to the cultural specificities of the individual, of the family or of a community. If this cultural specificity includes a religious specificity, it works. However, the first criterion is cultural pluralism. It is the same in the education realm. In English, one says:    "People are different. If you treat them the same way, they are not treated in an egalitarian way". The cultural specificities are a decisive factor in family matters. Does it threaten public order? The British answer is a question of negotiation. A frontier exists, but it is not clarified and it is constantly in movement.  The British state refuses to interfere in affairs considered as totally private and look at it as a matter of fundamental individual freedom. To conclude, this tolerance is also a perfect illustration of British pragmatism: the state prefers not to face the debate of the headscarf because it fears to encourage religious passions just as it happened in France. This might be one fundamental explanation to the way Great-Britain deals with the religious issue. 

Before considering the other European systems, let us see how, on the other side of the Channel, France handles the issue of cultural and religious diversity, which was brought by decades of a considerable amount of immigration.


The French case: laïcité, immigration and the challenge of Muslim integration


‘Laïcité' and immigration in France

France's long-standing policies towards immigration and religion can be summed up in two principles: ‘laïcité' and assimilation. The roots of these two conceptions can be found in the 1905 law concerning the separation between the State and the Church, and in the French conception of citizenship.

First of all, in France, the concept of secularity is stricter than in Great Britain. One word can perfectly illustrate its specificity: the French word "laicité" does not have an equivalent in Great Britain. "Laïcité" is associated with Equality, one of the three pillars composing the French Republic's motto: "Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité". "Equality" is maybe the main goal and the main principle of the French Republic. "Equality between all the citizens without distinction of race, religion or origin".

This sentence means that all people are equal because of their common citizenship. And that is why in France the idea that we can make a distinction between the citizens concerning ethnic or religious criteria is not acceptable. Moreover, this conception of equality legitimates another concept concerning all the immigrants: Assimilation. While in Britain, prohibiting the wearing of religious signs is regarded as discriminative, in France, the same is considered as necessary to avoid discrimination. Indeed, a French citizen is supposed to be integrated first in the Nation, and then possibly to a community but in a private way. That is why assimilation sounds like a keyword in the French conception.

In Great Britain, as we have seen, the ethnic communities are recognized by the State. Immigrants can keep their cultures and their religion safe. Institutionalised ethnic solidarities are not forbidden. In France on the contrary, the migrants are strongly encouraged to give up their cultural differences, to a certain extent at least, and are expected to adopt the French culture. That means that immigrants have to be integrated into French society. Of course this is not something easy for some of the immigrants. In fact, it seems to be more and more difficult to implement the concept of assimilation, and some even think that it was just one more utopia.

In order to understand this problem, we will give a short history of immigration in France and focus on the specific case of the Muslims, which raises a deep problem nowadays. It is indeed considered as a threat to secularity.

Immigrants and the specific case of the Muslims in France

France is a country that has harboured a lot of immigrants, particularly since the Second World War. Most of them managed to be integrated, such as the Armenians or Italians. Those people live sometimes as separate communities in France but it doesn't represent a real threat to secularity because they all accepted the French culture and the secularity in school and public places.

The Muslim case is more problematic because they are often not very well integrated in the French society. Facing the lack of integration of the Muslims, assimilation appears as a big challenge, maybe as a utopia.

Progressively joined by their families, the North African immigrants have become more vocal and visible since the seventies. At the same time, the economic crisis increased their poverty, hence the development of a strong religious identity, a reaction to their feeling of discrimination.

The French Muslims have the right to practice their faith in dignity. But their recent presence in France is an obvious handicap. Because of the 1905 law of separation, the State cannot fund the building of new churches or mosques, and very often, the Muslims consider this lack of support from the state as a sort of discrimination. And the problem remains unsolved because the State does not want to intervene a new in the religious sphere. It would only react if the situation were to threaten public order. Unlike Jews or Protestants, they have until now had no official line of contact with the government and one result has been a stubbornly close relationship with their mother countries. Algeria for example funds around 200 mosques, and most Friday sermons in France are conducted in Arabic, even though ever fewer worshippers understand it.

Moreover, France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, around 5 million (900.000 Protestants and 600.000 Jewish). So, in France, the main issue is the integration of this massive Muslim community. As a matter of fact, it appears very difficult and the new law (that will definitively rule in September) will not help them to get their specificity in the French society truly recognised. Although this law will also forbid some students from wearing Jewish yarmulkes and large crucifixes, its main purpose is to stop the increasing use of the hijab, or headscarf, among Muslim schoolgirls.

In that respect, the attempt of the French concept of assimilation to oppose the more liberal multicultural philosophy that prevails in Great Britain can sometimes resemble a utopia: homogeneous societies seem to belong to the past.

Public opinion focuses on the question of the headscarf, which for the last 15 years has provided a succession of bitterly fought legal cases without ever being fully resolved. Traditionalist Muslims believe that the Koran instructs women to keep their heads covered when outside the precincts of the immediate family, and they view France's determination to impose its secular values on them as a religious affront.

The confusion over the status of headscarves owes much to the 1989 decision by the "Conseil d'Etat" -- France's highest administrative court --, which said that the wearing of signs intended to show a pupil's belonging to a religion was not necessarily a breach of the basic principle of secularity. Islamic headscarves only warranted a girl's exclusion from school if they were worn "in a way that is ostentatious or demonstrative", or if they obstructed the process of learning, the state council said. The resulting uncertainty has led to a succession of legal claims and counter-claims, most recently last month in the south-eastern city of Lyon. Around 100 girls have been excluded from schools for wearing headscarves since 1994, but in half the cases courts subsequently overturned the decision.

The issue of secularisation in both countries raises the wider question of how to deal with diversity within the frame of the nation-state.

A partial adaptation: affirmative action in France?

The strict and old ‘laïcité' in France appears more and more as an obsolete way of thinking compared to the reality of religious pluralism. We can see that some projects in France are trying to adapt the principle of equality concerning education, given the fact that the current system is unable to reduce social inequalities. For example, some people think of enforcing a system of affirmative action just like it is done at present in Science Po Paris. Nevertheless some French intellectuals or politicians refused this measure because to them, it is contrary to the concept of equality between all French citizens. But for others, it is just a way to give the same chances to everybody. The idea would not be to make everyone equal but to have a fairer system. Redefining the concept of equality might in the middle term have serious consequences on the way France deals with secularism.

France has now to face the difficult prospect of having to modify the pillars on which the Republic was built. But it is sometimes hard to give up the essence of the French Republic, which has become sacred and as such, has been celebrated as nowhere else in Europe.

France and Great Britain and the European context

In this part, we will first define what the Constitution project implies for the religious systems and then examine the place of religion in the other European countries to try and see which conception is the most used within the actual Union. The point is to show that France's conception on that matter is far from being a universal reference, as one could think at first.

The European Constitution issue

We have seen that Great Britain and France have very different conceptions of the place of religion towards the State, and that both these conceptions have good and bad sides from a practical point of view. In this last part, the matter is not to make a definitive statement on the efficiency of these two systems, but to examine their position in a European context. Which of the two systems is the most popular outside France and Great Britain? Is there any other alternative way to conciliate religious liberty and state independency than a strict « laïcité » or a tight cooperation?

The questions raised by secularization may seem a little « old-fashioned » at first sight for a French person: this problem was taken care of (for good ?) a century ago and has not been truly reevaluated since. But in the present context of the « constitutionalisation » of the European Union, this issue came to be once again a frontline one. It actually generated debates of the same importance as other major issues for Europe. This question is even more significant when it gets to elaborate the formal Constitution of the European Union: the 15 present countries have already proved that they had a different conception of the way the European Union should handle the religious question: Should the Constitution be entirely free of any religious background or should it on the contrary refer to a spiritual or religious corpus of values?

Many debates underlay the European Constitution issue; the religious matter appears to be one of them. Should the Constitution recognize Europe's Christian heritage or, on the other hand, clearly affirm its secular nature? The Convention's approval of Article 37 (article that echoes with Article 10 of Europe's Charter of Fundamental Rights), allow us to have a clear idea of the Union's definite Church-State relations policy. Religious freedom, individual conscience, equality of political and civil rights for every citizen regardless of their religion or conscience, are the first guiding principles presented in this Article.

The second principle acknowledges the distinction between religious communities and other groups such as associations and institutions. Reaffirming the idea according to which the separation of church and state does not mean mutual ignorance, the third principle establishes a « regular dialogue » between the Union and Europe's religious communities (as well as philosophical and non-confessional organizations). This dialogue's ambition is to prevent the isolation of churches in political ghettoes. The last principle is a reminder of the Union's original structure: the member states' laws are the natural boundaries that frame religious autonomy. Originalities within the member states will prevail: Poland and Italy can maintain their Concordat with the Catholic Church, France will not be compelled to abandon its separation of church and state system. This situation also means that the gravity point of religious-related debates is centered within the member states and not only at the Community level. Perhaps the most revealing aspects of Article 37 are to be found in what is not affirmed.

It is true that this question of referring or not to a certain spiritual heritage in the Constitution is a major issue for the EU. However, one must not forget that this European reference to religion will not interfere or compromise the national compromises. Article 37 and the European Union's goal is not about « harmonizing » the different European religious systems -as it is often the case when it comes to economic issues- but on the contrary to recognize the plurality of existing positions without making any statement on their value. That is why this problem should be taken as a conviction or spirituality question rather than as a strictly political issue: this reference to religion will have no direct impact within the States themselves.

The different systems existing in Europe.

Religion and politics are not strictly separated in the large majority of the European Union countries and of the 10 new member States that will soon join the Union. Religious freedom is nevertheless an official right in all of them. To get a better idea of this array of positions, here are the main ideas to remember about the constitutional place of religion in the 25 countries.

-A large majority of countries (15) refer to Christian values, and their cultural heritage is mentioned in the Constitution Preambles, or have a close relationship with one Church in particular (Ireland, Poland, Germany, Slovakia, Greece, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Italy, Denmark, Finland, Spain, Austria, Portugal and of course Great-Britain) but to very various extents.

-In 4 countries, the separation between state and church is more formal: France of course, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, and more recently Sweden too (the king of Sweden was the official head of Church until the secularization law in 2000).

-2 Eastern countries also have a proper separation of State and Church, Hungary and Slovenia.

-The 3 Baltic countries have religious freedom guaranteed at constitutional levels, but certain churches and communities are more privileged.

-Malta is the only country with an established State religion, Roman Catholicism.

These groups are purely functional, and the same principles can hide very different applications in practice. What is worth noticing is that there are plenty of options to organize the relationship between State and Church, and that these options are highly related to historical and cultural heritages. It is clear that all the systems of the 25 EU countries guarantee an extensive freedom of religion to all believers, but some of them can generate some problems on an international scale. Greece for instance, which has belonged to the EU since 1981,  has required for long that the religion of an individual be mentioned on his ID and passport, which was illegal in regard to international treaties.

The plurality of systems explains the fierce debate around article 37. The different countries have clearly shown that to them, giving up an historical position on religion is not a minor issue. That is when the problem gets more complicated. At the present time, around 8 to 10 countries want to refer to Christianity in the Constitution project. France and Turkey (which also has a strict separation of state and church, but is not to join the EU in May) are the only two countries to refuse any religious reference in the Constitution. They do not agree however on that matter for the same reasons: It is in Turkey's interest to maintain its religious neutrality as strong as possible to ever get a chance to enter the EU for good. Hence, France is basically the only European country today to refuse the religious reference strictly because of an intellectual conviction. The fact that France is that isolated in the EU on such a « miscellaneous » subject is highly significant for the fact that the French laïcité is not as much an exportable product as the other traditional republican principles. The same can be said for France's Jacobinism: our centralized system is more an exception than an example to follow for our neighbours.


The Observer recently reported that Mark Santer, Bishop of Birmingham, was himself in favour of radical changes in England: ‘I do not think as a matter of course that, in 100 or even 50 years' time, this country will still be a monarchy. We ought to prepare for that possibility by modifying the relationship with the State as to be relatively independent' In his view, the Queen will sooner or later abandon her role of titular head of the Church, and the Parliament should vote the disestablishment of the Church. Mark Santer is not the only one to underline the link between the monarchy and the Church in the definition of a national identity. Moreover the constant decrease affecting the religious practise among Anglicans suggests that the redefinition of Britain's national identity implies the disestablishment of the Anglican Church: "The coronation of 1953 was the last convincing expression of a common national faith; no one would claim that such an event is possible today. Establishment, in the full sense, is already over; since 1953, the Church has effectively halved in size. In 1960, more than half of all British babies were baptised; by 2000, the figure was around one-tenth."

The general phenomenon of secularisation affecting the whole British society will surely have a deep impact on the public service status granted to the Church, and it already has an effect on religious education at school. "While 19 per cent of Britons attended a weekly religious service in 1980, by 1999 that had fallen to 7 per cent - prompting some to argue that Religious Education should be scrapped as a compulsory subject. Secularists say there is little point trying to drum religion into sceptical children at school."As a consequence, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which monitors what is taught at school in England, plans to reform religious education, taking into account "a simple fact of modern life: that ours has become a secular society in which church-going is now a pastime for only a small minority. The beliefs of those who eschew religion, either for scientific or ethical reasons, therefore deserve the careful attention of future generations". Therefore, non-religious beliefs such as humanism, agnosticism and atheism would be taught alongside major faiths such as Christianity or Islam.

Well it seems that the French ‘laicité', that is the strict separation between religion and politics, is well adapted to a multicultural and multireligious environment. The absence of a ‘national' church in France deprives of their main argument those who claim to be discriminated. It is however not sufficient to prevent the strong Muslim minority from feeling like they have to struggle with a ‘Christian' society, showing thus the limits of the model. On the other hand, the English model offers the same opportunities for the religious minorities in spite of the fact that the Church of England is closely linked to the State. Nevertheless, the cause of the disestablishing of the national Church might soon be supported by wider parts of the English society. In the eyes of the Muslim community for instance, the road to privilege that led to the current situation of the Anglican Church may well one day have to reach an end, in the name of equality.

However, as French students, we cannot help thinking that the difficulties that we face in France regarding social integration of Muslim migrants might be partly explained by the illusions brought by the implementation of the French ‘laicité': they live in a secular Republic but have to deal with a society whose roots are Christian. In England at least, the existence of an established Christian national Church clearly shows to the new migrants that they enter a community whose identity is based among other things on Christianity as a culture, if not as a religion.

But here again, what has just been said must be balanced: two recent articles from the Guardian reported that a young Muslim schoolgirl has been expelled from school for 18 months already because she decided in September 2002 to wear a jellaba at school, that is a long, flowing gown. In spite of the claim from the staff that Denbigh High School's uniform policy takes into account all faiths and cultures, by being flexible and allowing the pupils to wear trousers, skirts, or a shalwar kameez, consisting of trousers and a tunic, Sabrina's lawyers still argue that her right to practise her religion is being infringed unlawfully!

Jean Bauberot, Histoire de la laicité française, collection Que sais-je ?, Le point des connaissances actuelles, PUF 2000

Mirabeau : « La religion n'est pas plus nationale que la conscience. »

The Structure of the Church in Britain, Britannia Internet Magazine

Church and State in Britain, Part 4, The road to privilege- a short history of the Church of England,

‘Cut church-State link, says bishop', Ben Summerskill, The Observer, Sunday March 10, 2002, Mark Santer, Bishop of Birmingham

For an example of the functioning of this institution, see ‘Bishops foil cash switch to fill pews', The Guardian, Stephen Bates, Thursday February 12, 2004

‘Bishops foil cash switch to fill pews', idem

Church and State in Britain,

Church and State in Britain,

‘Life after Anglicanism', Theo Hobson, The Guardian, Saturday January 24 2004. "For centuries, the Church uneasily reconciled the opposing visions of western Christianity. This was an incredible achievement, the ecclesiological equivalent of getting the lion and the lamb to chum up. And, of course, it took a royal ringmaster."

"the benefits of Anglicanism - its reasonability and its contribution to social cohesion - outweighed the objection. There was an empire to run; surely the establishment of this Church was excusable, even providential, in the circumstances?", ‘Life after Anglicanism', idem

And Mandell Creighton, former Bishop of London continues: « without the National Church there cannot be that. »

Church and State in Britain, idem

BBCi, Religion and ethics, Atheism, www.

cf. infra (conclusion)

cf.infra (conclusion)

Cut Church-State link, says Bishop', Ben Summerskill, The Observer, Sunday March 10, 2002, Mark Santer, Bishop of Birmingham

Life after Anglicanism', Theo Hobson, The Guardian, Saturday January 24 2004

‘Children to study atheism at school', Gaby Hinsliff, the Observer, Sunday February 15, 2004

Right to disbelieve, Christianity can live with atheism, the Observer, Sunday February 15, 2004

‘Schoolgirl who put her faith before her education', by Steven Morris, Friday February 13, 2004, and ‘Muslim girl in court challenge', Tuesday February 24, 2004

The WRW Dossier

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