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Francemarker is a country where freedom of thought and of religion are preserved, in virtue of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The Republic is based on the principle of laïcité (or "freedom of conscience", including the lack thereof) enforced by the 1880s Jules Ferry laws and the 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State. Roman Catholicism, the religion of a majority of French people, is no longer considered a state religion, as it was before the 1789 Revolution and throughout the various, non-republican regimes of the 19th century (the Restoration, the July Monarchy and the Second French Empire).

Legal status and brief history

France guarantees freedom of religion as a constitutional right and the government generally respects this right in practice. A long history of violent conflict between groups led the state to break its ties to the Catholic Church early in the last century and adopt a strong commitment to maintaining a totally secular public sector.

Catholicism as a state religion

Catholicism is the primary religion in France. During the Ancien Régime, France had traditionally been considered the Church's eldest daughter, and the King of France always maintained close links to the Pope. This led to various conflicts, in particular during the Reformation between Catholics and Huguenots. Although a strong Protestant population resided in France, they were persecuted by the state. These wars continued throughout the 16th century, with the notorious 1572 St. Bartholomew's Day massacre as its bleakest moment, until the 1598 Edict of Nantes issued by Henry IV. For the first time, Calvinists (Huguenots) were considered by the state as more than mere schism and heretics. The Edict of Nantes thus opened a path for secularism and tolerance. In offering general freedom of conscience to individuals, the edict offered many specific concessions to the Protestants: amnesty, the reinstatement of their civil rights, including the right to work in any field or for the State and to bring grievances directly to the king.

The 1598 Edict also granted the Protestants fifty places of safety (places de sureté), which were military strongholds such as La Rochellemarker for which the king paid 180,000 écus a year, along with a further 150 emergency forts (places de refuge), to be maintained at the Huguenots' own expense. Such an innovative act of toleration stood virtually alone in a Europe where standard practice forced the subjects of a ruler to follow whatever religion that the ruler formally adopted— the application of the principle of cuius regio, eius religio.However, religious conflicts resumed in the end of the 17th century, when Louis XIV, the "Sun King", initiated the persecution of Huguenots by the dragonnades, created in 1681, who intimidated the Protestants into converting to Catholicism. He made this policy official with the 1685 revocation of the Edict of Nantes. As a result, a large number of Protestants — estimates range from 200,000 to 500,000 — left France during the following two decades, seeking asylum in Englandmarker, the United Provinces, Denmarkmarker, the Habsburg's Holy Roman Empire and European colonies in North America and South-Africa. On January 17, 1686, Louis XIV himself claimed that out of a Huguenot population of 800,000 to 900,000, only 1,000 to 1,500 had remained in France. A Camisard Huguenot rebellion broke out in 1702 in the Cevennes mountains.The 1685 revocation of the Edict of Nantes created a state of affairs in France similar to that of virtually every other European country of the period, where only the majority state religion was tolerated. The experiment of religious toleration in Europe was effectively ended for the time being. In practice, the revocation caused France to suffer a kind of brain drain, as it lost a large number of skilled craftsmen, including key designers such as Daniel Marot. Upon leaving France, Huguenots took with them knowledge of important techniques and production — which had a significant effect on the quality of the silk, plate glass, silversmithing for which the Huguenots were renowned, and cabinet making industries of those regions to which they relocated. Some rulers, such as Frederick Wilhelm of Brandenburg, who issued the Edict of Potsdam, encouraged the Protestants to flee

French Revolution

Bourbon Restoration

After the Bourbon Restoration and the coming to power of the Ultra-royalists in the Chambre introuvable, Roman Catholicism again became the state religion of France. Under Villèle's ultra-royalist government, the Chamber voted the 1830 Anti-Sacrilege Act.

Third Republic

A 1905 law instituted the separation of Church and State and prohibited the government from recognising, salarying or subsidising any religion. However by the Briand-Ceretti Agreement the state subsequently re-acquired a role in the appointment of Catholic bishops which it has conserved. In the preceding situation, established 1801–1808 by the Concordat, the State used to support the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, the Calvinist Church and the Jewish religion and provided for public religious educations in those religions. For historical reasons, this situation is still current in Alsace-Moselle, which was a German region in 1905: The national government salaries clergy from those four religions as state civil servants, and provides for non-compulsory religious education in those religions in public schools and universities. Also, for similar historical reasons, in French Guianamarker, Catholic priests are civil servants of the local government.

Religious buildings built prior to 1905 at taxpayers' expense are retained by the local and national government, but may be used at no expense by religious organizations. As a consequence, most Catholic churches are owned by the government. The government, since 1905, has been prohibited from owning any pre-1905 publicly built edifices, and thus religions must build and support all religious buildings at their own expense. Some local governments de facto subsidize prayer rooms as part of greater "cultural associations".

An ongoing topic of controversy is whether the separation of Church and State should be weakened so that the government should be able to subsidize Muslim prayer rooms and the formation of imams. Advocates of such measures, such as Nicolas Sarkozy, declare that they would incite the Muslim population to better integrate into the fabric of French society. Opponents contend that the state should not fund religions. Furthermore, the state ban on wearing conspicuous religious symbols, such as the islamic female headscarf, in public schools has alienated some French Muslims, provoked minor street protests and drawn some international criticism.

Religious organizations are not required to register, but may if they wish to apply for tax-exempt status or to gain official recognition. The 1901 and 1905 laws define two categories under which religious groups may register: "associations cultuelles" (associations of worship, which are exempt from certain taxes) and "associations culturelles" (cultural associations, which are not exempt from these taxes). Associations in these two categories are subject to certain management and financial disclosure requirements. An association of worship may organize only religious activities, loosely defined as liturgical services and practices, but no social or diaconal ones. A cultural association may engage in social as well as in profit-making activity. Although a cultural association is not exempt from taxes, it may receive government subsidies for its cultural and educational operations, such as schools. Religious groups normally register under both of these categories; all churches run strictly religious activities through its association of worship and operate a school under its cultural association. In accordance with the provisions of Title IV, Art. 19 of the Law of December 9, 1905, these associations of worship must be exclusively for the purpose of religious ministries, ie: the performance of religious ceremonies and services, the acquisition and maintenance of buildings of worship, the wages and the theological education of their ministers of religion.

Under the 1905 statute, religious groups must apply with the local prefecture to be recognized as an association of worship and receive tax-exempt status. The prefecture reviews the submitted documentation regarding the association's purpose for existence. To qualify, the group's purpose must be solely the practice of some form of religious ministries.

According to the Ministry of the Interior, 109 of 1,138 Protestant associations, 15 of 147 Jewish associations, and approximately 30 of 1,050 Muslim associations have tax-free status. Approximately 100 Catholic associations are tax-exempt; a representative of the Ministry of Interior reports that the number of nontax-exempt Catholic associations is too numerous to estimate accurately. More than 50 associations of the Jehovah's Witnesses have tax-free status.

According to the 1905 law, associations of worship are not taxed on the donations that they receive. However, the prefecture may decide to review a group's status if the association receives a large donation or legacy that comes to the attention of the tax authorities. If the prefecture determines that the association is not in fact in conformity with the 1905 law, its status may be changed, and it may be required to pay taxes at a rate of 70 percent on the present and past donations that fall within a legal category close to that of inheritance.

Social religions

Religion is traditionally considered a private matter and depending on the context, it may be considered inquisitive to enter religious discussions. Communautarisme, meaning the forming of ethnic or religious communities separate from mainstream life, is much present but often considered suspicious. The separation of religion from government power is legally referred to as laïcité, in force since the Jules Ferry laws passed at the end of the 19th century and the 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State.

Left wing politicians generally do not discuss their religious beliefs and seldom use religious arguments in political debates, with the notable exception of Jacques Delors. Centrist politicians such as François Bayrou or conservative politicians such as Union for a Popular Movement member Christine Boutin (see PACS civil union) are much more open about faith.

Religious expressions and Biblical references are coming back in public rhetoric and during the 2007 presidential campaign, Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal, both raised as Roman Catholics, made a number of references to their faiths. For the first time ever, the French media asked all candidates to declare their religious affiliations; out of 12 candidates, all but one accepted to answer. One of the more significant signs of change is on the left: the anti-globalisation activist José Bové feels close to Christianity, Marie-Georges Buffet, head of the fading French Communist Party strongly opposes any anti-religious interpretations of French secularism . However, both of them stop short of self-identifying as believers.Nicolas Sarkozy sees France's main religions as positive contributions to French society. He was elected on a platform proposing a modernisation of the Republic’s century-old principle of secularism. He visited the pope in December 2007 and publicly acknowledged France's Christian roots, while highlighting the importance of freedom of thought , hinting that faith should come back into the public sphere.

Islamic fundamentalism is considered by some to be a threat for the cohesion of the French society, although many, including the Canard Enchaîné, Libération and other left-wing newspapers claim that the Minister of Interior overplays the threat in order to justify certain policies. Reasons for tensions include the desire of a very few imams and other Muslims not to abide by French laws, regulations and customs. Following rare cases of conflicts about Muslim girls breaching school dress regulations or refusing to attend certain classes, the French government adopted in 2004 the very controversial French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools. On the other hand, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has created the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), which has been widely criticized by secular-minded politicians (mainly by supporters of Jacques Chirac) as a sign of Sarkozy's alleged multiculturalism. These tensions echo earlier quarrels with respect to the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in French society and the influence of the Pope in French public affairs (see gallicanism vs ultramontanism.)

The French public and government pay attention to certain minority religious groups, considered as cults and indeed has set up a Parliamentary Commission about Cults in France, which issues a yearly report. This is particularly the case since a much-publicized series of mass murders and suicides inside the Order of the Solar Temple in 1995. Public concerns include the well-being and education of children in cults that isolate themselves from the community, the advocacy of medical practices generally considered hazardous, the defrauding of members by greedy leaders and sexual abuse. Such concerns have resulted in the foundation of commissions charged with the monitoring of possibly dangerous cults as well as the enactment of legislation easing the prosecution of criminal organizations.


The French government does not keep statistics on religious adherence, nor on ethnicity or on political affiliation. However, some unofficial survey estimates exist:

  • The 2003 CIA World Factbook lists the religion of France as: Roman Catholic 83-88%, Protestant 2%, Jewish 1%,
  • In a 2003 poll 41% of the respondents said that the existence of God was "excluded" or "unlikely". 33% declared that "atheist" described them rather or very well, and 51% for "Christian". When questioned about their religion, 62% answered Roman Catholic, 6% Muslim, 2% Protestant, 1% Jewish, 2% "other religions" (except for Orthodox or Buddhist, which were negligible), 26% "no religion" and 1% declined to answer. The discrepancy between the number of "atheists" (33%) and the number of with "no religion" (26%) may be attributed to people who feel culturally close to a religion, follow its moral values and traditions, but do not believe in God.

  • An October 2006 CSA poll addressed solely to Catholics established that 17% of French Catholics (who comprise 52% of the population) didn't believe in God. Among the believers, most (79%) described Him as a "force, energy, or spirit" and only 18% as a personal god. In other words, if one excludes people who call themselves "Catholic" but do not believe in a personal god, only 9% of the French population can be called Catholic.

  • A December 2006 poll by Harris Interactive, published in The Financial Times, found that 32% of the French population described themselves as agnostic, a further 32% as atheist and only 27% believed in any type of God or supreme being.

  • A January 2007 poll found that 51% of the French population describe themselves as Catholics (and only half of those said they believed in God), 31% as atheists, 4% as Muslims, 3% as Protestants and 1% as Jews.

  • This January 2007 poll mentioned in the International Religious Freedom Report 2007 by US Department of State, shows that 51 percent of respondents indicate they are Catholic, even if they never attend religious services. Another 31 percent of those polled state that they have no religious affiliation. Among Catholics, only 8 percent attend Mass weekly, one third do so "occasionally," and 46 percent attend "only for baptisms, weddings, and funerals." Only 52 percent of declared Catholics believe that the existence of God is "certain or possible." On the other hand, as many as half of churchgoing Catholics are traditionalist who attend services with the Society of St. Pius X and other hard-line Catholic organizations. [175169]

  • There are an estimated five to six million individuals of Muslim origin in the country (8 to 10 percent of the population), although estimates of how many of these are practicing vary widely. According to a 2004 survey, 36 percent of Muslims identify themselves as regularly observing traditional rites and practices. However, according to press reports of a September 2006 poll, 88 percent of Muslim respondents report that they were observing the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a marked increase over previously recorded levels of observance. According to press reports, there are more than 2,000 mosques in the country. Protestants make up 3 percent of the population, the Jewish and Buddhist faiths each represent 1 percent, and those of the Sikh faith less than 1 percent.

  • According to the Eurobarometer Poll 2005,
    • 34% of French citizens responded that "they believe there is a God".
    • 27% answered that "they believe there is some sort of spirit or life force".
    • 33% answered that "they do not believe there is any sort of spirit, God, or life force".

Cults and new religious movements in France

France created in 2006 the first French parliamentary commission on cult activities which led to a report registering a number of cults considered as dangerous. Supporters of such movements have criticized the report on the grounds of the respect of religious freedom. Proponents of the measure contend that only dangerous cults have been listed as such, and state secularism insures religious freedom in France.

According to French sociologist Régis Dericquebourg, in 2003, the main religious minorities are the Jehovah's Witnesses (130,000), Adventists, Evangelists (Assemblies of God, Christian Open Door...), Mormons (31,000) Scientologists (4,000) and Soka Gakkai. Many groups have around 1,000 members (including Antoinism, Christian Science, Invitation to Life, Raëlian movement, Mandarom, Hare Krishna), Unification Church (400). There are no longer members of the Family (formerly Children of God). According to the 2007 edition of the Quid, other notable religious minorities include New Apostolic Church (20,000), Universal White Brotherhood (20,000), Sukyo Mahikari (15,000—20,000), New Acropolis (10,000), Universal Alliance (1,000), Grail Movement (950).

See also



  1. The Secular Principle by Jean Baubérot
  2. Spielvogel, Western Civilization — Volume II: Since 1500 (5th Edition, 2003) p.410
  3. One Hundred Years of French Secularism by Mélina Gazsi
  4. Nicolas Sarkozy au Mont Saint Michel
  5. Jeanne d'Arc, son modèle
  6. Profession de foi des candidats RELIGION, de RTL - L'actu - RTL - Législatives et Présidentielle 2007
  7. Religion : Les candidats font leur profession de foi - France
  8. Religions, République, intégration, Sarkozy s'explique
  9. Sarkozy breaks French taboo on church and politics
  10. Portrait des catholiques, sondage exclusif CSA/Le Monde des religions, October 18-25, 2006
  11. Religion Important for Americans, Italians, Angus Reid Global Monitor, December 30, 2006
  12. Franţa nu mai e o ţară catolică (France is no longer a Catholic country), Cotidianul, 2007-01-11; "France 'no longer a Catholic country'", Daily Telegraph, 10 January 2007
  13. International Religious Freedom Report 2007 by US Department of State

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