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Is there still debate in France over the place of religion?

Bernard Gorce and Mélinée Le Priol - La Croix International - Thu, May 10th 2018

Most of the world of politics admits that there needs to be discussion between the State and religions

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Emmanuel Macron’s long address to Catholics on the evening of  Monday April 9 in Paris sparked sharp reactions from part of the political class.

This is a two-part opinion piece on the place of religion in French society, following Macron’s speech.

In the first part, Bernard Gorce interviews Alain Christnacht, a member of the Observatoire de la laïcité (Observatory of Secularism). In the second part, Mélinée Le Priol interviews Valentine Zuber, historian, director of studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études.

 A secular dialogue that is widely accepted today

Alain Christnacht, member of the Observatoire de la laïcité (Observatory of Secularism).

The principle of the relations between the State and religions must be distinguished from the forms they can take.

There are certainly personalities who refuse the principle of any dialogue with religions. That’s often a posture. It can also be a republican and strict Jacobin position. It’s that of Jean-Luc Melanchon, which I don’t view as that of the majority.

Most of the world of politics admits that there needs to be discussion between the State and religions. There was a time when separation meant absence of dialogue, but we have gone a long way since then.

In February 2002, Lionel Jospin created an institution for dialogue with the Catholic Church. That institution still meets. This secular dialogue seems to me to be widely accepted today.

On the other hand, there may be debate on the forms these relations need to take. That question is being raised particularly today with Islam, which various governments have been trying to structure since the 1980s. I remember the warnings by Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, who thought that a form of concordat was being recreated.

Where relations with the Catholics are concerned, there exists a certain residual anti-clericalism, but I am globally optimistic. The meeting at the Bernardins was a very good experience, and I appreciated the speech of the president, who showed a form of recognition of Catholics’ contribution to society, of their right to expression.

The president took care to mention the other religions and did not establish a hierarchy between the contribution of the spiritual and that of an agnostic humanism. Do not overinterpret the hostile reactions.

What sparked tension in the discussions was the mention of the “degraded … relationship” between State and Church that needs to be “repaired”. The word relationship is ambiguous. If it’s an organic, institutional link, it’s contrary to the principle of secularism. The word “relations” would have sparked less reaction.

Next, the term “degraded” raises questions. Blunders have certainly been made in recent years. I’m thinking for example of the audition, reported as disrespectful, of the representatives of the religions at the National Assembly during the debates on “marriage for all”. Should we generalize it to the State for that?

What appears degraded today is less the relations with the authorities than the relations between the church and part of society. That’s a totally different issue.

Finally, I think the hostile reactions those statements may have aroused must not be overinterpreted. All of this is occurring in a tense political and social context.

It seems to me that the head of State’s recognition of the contribution of religions to French society can gain the approval of most of the world of politics and public opinion, on the imperative condition of admitting that the contribution of humanists, agnostics and atheists is just as precious.



Difficulty in accepting pluralism

Valentine Zuber, historian, director of studies at the École Pratique des Hautes Études

Since the Third Republic and its policy of secularization, the debate on secularism has not stopped re-emerging in France, and always in just as conflictual a manner. I think our country has difficulty accepting pluralism and thereby, a certain relativizing of the truth.

This difficulty appeared during the wars of religion. Contrary to most other European countries, France was the scene of confrontation between a Catholic majority and quite a sizeable Protestant minority, as well as small Jewish communities.

The tension between this de facto pluralism and a political unity project too often accompanied by persecution – which manifested itself under the Old Regime in the maxim “One king, one law, one faith,” runs through the entire history of France.

Where President Macron’s speech to the Bernardins on Monday is concerned, hasty, political interpretations have been made, despite the president’s very measured statements. When Jean-Luc Melanchon wrote on Twitter that the relationship between Church and State was “cut” in 1905, that was a singularly skewed interpretation of the 1905 law.

What that law put in place was a legal separation, in other words, an institutional non-recognition and a non-subsidizing of churches by the State. That never stopped relations from continuing between the French State and religions, which remain as legitimate as any other collective expression.

What has worried those who today call for the exclusion of religion from the public place is the return of a strictly political religiousness that would, they feel, endanger the historically acquired values of emancipation.

I think that is why the debate around Catholicism and Islam has been fraught with tension. Their disharmonious discourses, particularly on personal morality, are sometimes in contradiction with the predominantly liberal values advocated in our society today.

I do not think we’ll arrive at a significant appeasement on these questions, at least not soon. On one hand, personalities like Emmanuel Macron place emphasis on secularism as a guarantee of freedom of religion, belief and expression.

On the other hand, a much more defensive conception sees in secularism the possibility to neutralize necessarily “obscurantist” religious demands.

However, I am not certain that that exclusive, intolerant vision is shared by most French people. One has rather the impression of a little “Parisian/media” game played by loudly speaking people whose statements sometimes border on demagoguery, especially when they play on social fears in the face of the rapid ongoing changes.

It’s not secularism that is in danger, if one thinks about it… It’s rather the possibility of publicly voicing our disagreements that is under threat from by these exclusively secular conceptions.

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