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France PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 25 November 2009 03:25
Religious Freedom Ranking:
2.5 out of 5 stars: Needs Improvement

Although the nation has a strong tradition of political liberty and separation of church and state, its suspicion of religious activism has led to a troubling attitude of repression toward minority religious groups. “Sect” members face discrimination, Muslims, Sikhs and Jews are not allowed to wear religious head-coverings in public schools, and the government’s attitude has contributed to social violence directed against several minority religions.

Due to France’s long history of colonization, the country now has a large multi-cultural population. Notably, it is home to over 5 million people of Arab and African descent. Furthermore, France still has several territories making a combined 26 regions. Four of these- French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique and Réunion- are not located in Europe.

France has a population of 64.7 million people. Although the government does not record statistics on religious affiliation, a poll in the Catholic publication La Croix estimated that 64 percent of the population is at least nominally Roman Catholic. Islam is the second largest religion in the country with 8 to 10 percent of the population. Less than five percent of the population is Protestant, Buddhist, Jewish, Evangelical, Jehovah’s Witness, Orthodox Christian, Scientologist, Mormon, and Sikh.

The Preamble to the Constitution of 1958 reaffirms the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789 which acknowledges universal human equality and forbids discrimination on the basis of opinion. The Constitution declares France to be a secular state with separation of church and state and declares that "all citizens shall be equal before the law, without distinction of origin, race, or religion." (Article 77) Generally, the government and its laws contribute to the free expression of religion. However, some laws and policies restrict religious demonstration in public and others restrict and monitor minority religious groups.

Private schools, including religious schools, are subsidized by the state. Central or local governments own and maintain many religious properties which were constructed before 1905, the date of the law separating church and state. In three departments of Alsace and Lorraine, the Jewish, Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed churches enjoy a special legal status whereby adherents of these faiths may choose to have a portion of their income tax payments allocated to their church.

In recent years, French society has experienced a rising tide of xenophobia and racism, exemplified in the increasing popularity of the National Front which has caused concern amongst human rights activists. Rising anti-Semitism has expressed itself in anti-Semitic literature and revisionist historical writing concerning the Holocaust. However, the Jewish Community Protection Service has reported that anti-Semitic incidents have decreased 70 percent since 2010. The U.S. State Department still lists several incidents of violence and intolerance towards Muslims, Jews, and Jehovah’s Witnesses in its 2010 International Report on Religious Freedom.

In early March 2004, the French legislature passed a controversial bill banning certain religious attire in state schools. In line with recommendations from a committee set up by President Jacques Chirac, the law prohibits Muslim headscarves, Jewish skull caps, large Christian crosses and other conspicuous religious ornamentation. The ban could possibly apply to beards and bandanas considered religious in nature. The measure has been widely criticized by Muslim, Jewish, and Catholic leaders both in France and internationally. While the bill enjoyed wide support amongst the general population, thousands of people have protested its passage in Paris and other cities. Furthermore, new legislation has been proposed that would ban the wearing of headscarves in public. Muslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders have spoken out against the proposed legislation. The Council of State, the country’s highest administrative body, has issued advisory opinions twice about the legality of the legislation. Public debate on this issue was exacerbated in 2009 when President Sarkozy said that burqas were “not welcome on French soil.”

An atmosphere of hostility has increasingly been directed at new and small religious movements. The government and the media have both assumed a hostile stance toward "sects." In 1996, a Parliamentary Commission on Sects, charged with assessing potential dangers to French society posed by religious sects outside of the mainstream, issued a report identifying 172 groups as sects. This report was followed by a negative article in Le Monde declaring that "something must be done about sects." Shortly after this, the Unification Church headquarters in Paris was firebombed. Scientologists reported government job discrimination and were prevented from conducting peaceful demonstrations in public places where police had allowed other groups to express their grievances.

The Vice President of the Commission on Sects stated that sects can be identified by certain characteristics, including mental manipulation of members, especially when it pertains to matters of money and sex, and cultivation of an anti-social mentality that leads to rupture with the family. The commission cited the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have been active in France since the 1890's, as a "criminal sect" because of its prohibition of blood transfusions.

Measures have been taken by the French government to curtail religious discrimination amongst police and local governments. In 2009 the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights released a report listing several new anti-discriminatory initiatives the government had taken. Among them were required training courses for police officers and classes for police captains.

According to a report by Willy Fautre of Human Rights Without Frontiers:

Anticult movements are now officially carrying out the anti-cult policy decided by the government and the have started their war against "cults." Inquiry commissions on the fiscal, financial and patrimonial situation of cults and a commission on compulsory education of home-schooled children whose parents are in a sect have already been set up. The French Minister of Justice has ordered the magistrates to cooperate with the Interministerial Mission. The Minister of Education is hunting teachers who belong to one of 172 cults. A hysterical anti-cult climate fueled by the media and the anti-cult movements is currently developing throughout civil society in France.

On May 30, 2001, the National Assembly passed an anti-sect bill entitled: "A bill directed to the reinforcement of prevention and repression of cultic movements which undermine human rights and fundamental freedoms." The bill was signed into law on June 14, 2001.

Among other provisions, the bill empowers a court to dissolve the legal personality of a so-called "sect," thereby preventing it from owning or renting property, publishing its teachings, renting public places for religious services or meetings, operating schools or seminaries, and other activities essential to religious practice, worship and observance. The bill also stipulates that a person who attempts the "open or disguised maintenance or revival" of a dissolved sect "shall be punished by three years imprisonment and a fine of 300,000 francs." Section 6 of this legislation creates a new crime, "the fraudulent abuse of… a person in a state of psychological or physical subjection resulting from… techniques likely to alter his judgment..."


For more information:

2010 US State Department International Religious Freedom Report on France

France - New World Encyclopedia

France Country Profile- BBC News

French religious symbol ban draws widespread Australian Broadcast News

An Open Letter to the President of France concerning "A bill directed to the reinforcement of prevention and repression of cultic movements which undermine human rights and fundamental freedoms." (passed by the French legislature May 30, 2001)

Coordination of Associations and People for Freedom of Conscience

Last Updated on Wednesday, 08 February 2012 18:23