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'Laicism' is good deal for Church

The state pays for the upkeep of all pre-1905 cathedrals and churches

Secularism, la laïcité, is one of the founding principles of the French Republic. The idea has its roots in the Revolution, and is one key difference between France and the UK.

Less obvious effects of it include the tradition of Wednesdays off in primary school, or the fact that France’s old churches belong to the state.

Fears that the principle is being watered down or is otherwise under threat are regularly raised, though some policies resulting from it have been accused of fostering intolerance of religious minorities.

President Sarkozy, a Catholic who has himself been accused of undermining secularism (eg. with remarks about France’s “Christian roots”), has called for a national debate on secularism this month, especially as concerns the role of Islam.

In doing so, he has been accused by political rival Dominique de Villepin and by MEP Vincent Peillon of making a scapegoat of Islam; some pundits have speculated that he is trying to capture the Front National vote.

This follows a controversial debate on “national identity” in 2009-10, the ban on the wearing of religious symbols in state schools in 2004 (remembered as a “headscarf ban”) and one on wearing burqas in public, in force this month.

Until the 1789 Revolution, France was a very Catholic country, known as “the eldest daughter of the Church” because of the conversion of Frankish king Clovis around the end of the fourth century.

To the French revolutionaries, however, the Church was closely linked to the kings, who claimed rule by divine right. The Church’s possessions were seized and monks and nuns evicted, and most of the convents sold off to the state’s benefit. Monasticism was banned, its vows being considered contrary to the rights of man.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789 provided for religious freedom, saying: “No one should be disquieted for his or her opinions, including religious ones, if their expression does not trouble public order” and the idea was put into the constitution in 1791 (as it is in the current one). In the 1790s, there were attempts by some revolutionaries to promote an atheistic “cult of reason” and one of worship of the “supreme being”, a deistic God, inspired by the ideas of the Enlightenment.

A Concordat under Napoleon in 1801 recognised Catholicism as the religion of the majority, but stated it was no longer the state religion. Laws were passed allowing for civil marriage and registering of births and deaths.

In 1881-82 the Jules Ferry laws set up free, secular, obligatory primary schooling, with a day off per week when parents could send their children to religious instruction classes run by the Church (le catéchisme) if they wished. There was to be no religious instruction in state schools.

The 1905 law on separation of Church and State said the State gave no special recognition to any religion and no religious ministers (priests, rabbis, etc) would be paid by it. State ownership of churches was also confirmed: the Culture Ministry is now responsible for the 87 cathedrals, and mairies for about 40,000 churches built before 1905.

This, however, turned out to a good deal for the Catholic Church, because the state pays for the upkeep of its old buildings, while the Church retains the use of them. This contrasts with the UK, where the Churches pay for the upkeep of their buildings. In fact this situation arose due to the Church’s initial refusal to set up “associations cultuelles” (religious associations) to which the State would have confided both ownership and upkeep responsibilities (whereas the Protestants and Jews went along with this).

Catholicism also does well out of the “secular” education system since the creation, in 1959, of private schools “under contract” with the state, in which the state pays teachers’ salaries as long as the national curriculum is followed for non-religious elements.

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