Last Updated 6 October 2022

In France, the dominant religion is Catholicism but the state is strongly secular. Freedom of religion or belief is supported but its importance is secondary to the freedom and rights of all citizens and public order and morality. France suffered two terrorist attacks in 2015: first in January against the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo supposedly in response to the magazine “insulting Islam,” and a Jewish supermarket; second in November coordinated attacks by ISIS against indiscriminate targets across Paris.

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Constitution and government

The French Constitution1 was adopted in 1958 declaring France a secular state and guaranteeing religious freedom and equality. Article 1 states,

“France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion. It shall respect all beliefs.”

The Constitution and other laws, including the 1905 “Law on the Separation of the Churches and the State,”2; ensure state secularism (laїcité) and protect freedom of religion or belief. The Constitution also guarantees the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, and the government generally respects these rights in practice. As the guarantor of freedom of religion or belief, the state must ensure that everyone can practice their;

The French secular state maintains relations with religious institutions. Within the Ministry of the Interior, the central office for religions is responsible for relations with religious authorities. The government maintains a dialogue with the relevant representatives to ensure that religious practices are undertaken in accordance with Republican laws. For instance, religious authorities were consulted during the COVID-19 crisis to define the health protocol in places of worship.4 The Inter-ministerial Committee on Secularism, under the direction of the French Prime Minister, also ensures the application of secularism through analyses, research, and recommendations. The President of the Republic habitually presents his or her wishes to the religious authorities each year.5

However, a 2020 bill “strengthening the respect for the principles of the Republic,”6 has faced criticism and has been denounced by civil society organizations and religious leaders as rolling back the rights to freedom of worship and freedom of opinion.7; Purportedly aimed at reducing radical Islamism and separatism in France, the bill imposes more control on the neutrality of public services, the transparency of organizations and their financing, and other issues such as homeschooling or polygamy.8 However, some of the principles included in the bill are argued to leave too much room for interpretation and risk “undermining fundamental freedoms such as freedom of worship, association, education, and even freedom of opinion,” according to the President of the Conference of Bishops of France, the President of the Protestant Federation of France, and the President of the Assembly of Orthodox Bishops of France.9

Local exceptions

There are some exceptions to the policy of strict secularism. Notably, the law of 1905 does not completely apply to all French regions and territories.10 Because the regions of Alsace and Lorraine (now known as Alsace-Moselle) were part of the German Empire during the passage of the 1905 law, members of Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Jewish groups there may choose to allocate a portion of their income tax to their religious group. Local governments may also provide financial support for building religious edifices.

The French Overseas Departments and Territories, which include island territories in the Atlantic, Caribbean, Pacific, and Indian oceans, are also not subject to the 1905 law and may provide funding for religious groups within their territories.11 French Guiana, which is governed under the colonial laws of Charles X, may provide subsidies to the Catholic Church.12;

The French government maintains all the Roman Catholic churches built before 1905, however they are under the ownership of the French government. No other religious buildings are maintained in this way.

Use of religious symbols

In accordance with the principle of state secularism, civil servants are prohibited from displaying religious symbols in the exercise of their profession. Although sparking many debates amongst French politics, neutrality has not been imposed for civilians using public services, but the full veil – niqab – has been prohibited in public spaces since 2010.13 In 2019, French senators also adopted a bill forbidding the wearing of religious symbols by parents accompanying school trips.14

Education & Children’s rights

Free and secular education is guaranteed by the French Constitution. The preamble to the French Constitution specifies that “the organization of free and secular compulsory public education at all levels is a duty of the State.” Public education must respect the principle of neutrality; staff cannot display religious characteristics in the exercise of their function, there is no religious instruction, and proselytism is strictly prohibited. Religious education has been part of the school curriculum since 1986, but is provided within the framework of existing school subjects that teach “the key elements of the history of ideas, religious facts and conviction.” However, in line with the freedom of conscience, public education has the duty to respect and protect the free exercise by students of their religious obligations.15

Private schools are authorized in France, but remain regulated by the State.16 Amongst the 12,500 private establishments in France schooling 2 million children, more than 80% are state-subsidized. To receive state funding, they have to welcome children without distinction of origin, opinion or belief and provide education in accordance with the rules and programs of public education.17 They can provide religious education in addition to the national curriculum, but it must remain optional for children. Private schools without state contract are free to choose their curriculum, but are under the control of the government for health and safety issues, respect for public morals and teachers’ diplomas.18

Family, community and society

Some religious restrictions

In 2010, France banned the wearing of the face-veil (niqab) in public, along with other face coverings, explained in terms of maintaining social cohesion and disempowering potential terrorists.19 In July 2014, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that it was within the margin of freedom under European human rights legislation.20{%22itemid%22:[%22003-4809142-5861661%22]} The ruling was widely condemned by human rights monitors.21; The French government has also prohibited or limited the activities of religious groups considered to be cults, such as Scientology and Jehovah’s Witnesses.22;

Discrimination and violence against religious minorities, particularly Muslims, is a persistent phenomenon in France and has increased in the recent years, notably after the 2015 terrorist attacks and the during the COVID-19 pandemic.23 In a survey published in 2019, 40% of French Muslims testified to having experienced racist behavior in the past five years.24 A 2022 study conducted by the Institut français d’opinion publique (IFOP) also revealed that “68% of French people of Jewish faith or culture say that they have already been teased and harassed and 20% say they have been victims of physical aggression at least once in their life.”25

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Freedom of expression is guaranteed under the French Constitution, but journalists have recently been victims of police violence during protests, including injuries by rubber bullets and tear gas canisters, while others have had their equipment taken.26

Freedom of press and media independence are also threatened by the vertical concentration of information, as a group of 10 billionaires controls 81% of the circulation of national dailies, 95 % of that of generalist national weeklies, 57% audience share in TV and 47% audience share in radio.27

Freedom of assembly

The right of peaceful assembly is guaranteed by law in France. Any assembly must have been authorized by public authorities at least 48 hours in advance, requiring organizers to give their contact details and the information about the assembly. Since the “Gilets Jaunes” protests in 2018/2019 and the unusual violence from the protesters and the police, the right of assembly has become a sensitive topic in France. The Law Enforcement Commission of Enquiry has released its recommendations on protest policing, including the prohibition of the use of rubber bullets.28 To increase the efficiency of protest policing, the French government attempted to pass a law forbidding the public diffusion of images of the police in 2020. After the controversial text sparked numerous protests across France, the government modified the law, and the reformed version was voted in 2021.29 Notably, the strict restrictions during the COVID-19 crisis have sparked renewed criticism of restrictions placed on freedom of assembly, as only religious organizations were allowed to gather.30,the%20protection%20of%20his%20interests


15, 16, 17

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