Ideological Conflicts and the Institutionalization of Secularism (Laicite) in Modern France

Document Type : Research Paper


1 Professor, Department of Political Science, Faculty of Law & Political Science, University of Tehran, Iran

2 PhD in Political Science, Faculty of Law & Political Science, University of Tehran, Iran


Before the French Revolution of 1789, the Catholic Church had close relations with the absolutist state for several centuries. The church and the priests had remarkable privileges, and were part of the higher class in the society. One of the functions of this religious institution was to provide legitimacy for the new regime and making a holy halo around it and the ruling dynasties. This was the cause of the overspread dissatisfactions with such institutions in the eighteenth century, and during the French revolution. The authors’ main objective is to explain the relationship between the Catholic Church and the state before the French Revolution of 1789, as well as analyzing the religious policies of different post-revolution political regimes and the institutionalization of secularism (laicite) in France from the Third Republics to the 1980s. In the post-revolutionary secularization process, the Church became deformalized. The religious pluralism was recognized and concepts such as religious freedom, tolerance and the conscientious freedom were reflected in the legal documents of this period. The secularization was performed in a deficient and inadequate manner during those years. It was the same deficient process which became the basis of a historical tradition for complete secularization in modern France. Nevertheless, this process faced important challenges in the nineteenth century, because of the opposition of the Church, conservatives and the pro-Catholic monarchies. There was an intensive rivalry between the political and intellectual forces supporting the values of secularism and its opponents. Such rivalries finally led to the consolidation of the secularism in the Third Republic. Both the reforms and the secular-centered laws, including the Law of 1905, became the causes of widespread controversies in the French political sphere and in public domain.
In this conjuncture and even later on, the 1905 Law became the subject of contradictory interpretations based on different ideological and political intentions. While there were different forms of resistance to secularization, it could not be as effective as it seemed in the nineteenth century. The reason for this was the change in the balance of power in the realm@ of politics to the advantage of the secular forces. For this reason, the process of secularization witnessed remarkable progress in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was only during the Vichy regime and its Catholic-centered policies that the secular values were challenged by the specific religious policies in the twentieth century. After the collapse of the Vichy regime, the interim government and the Fourth Republic terminated the financial aid to the Catholic religious schools. Only in the short period of the Vichy regime this supportive policy was pursued, in contrast to the policy of the Third Republic. The portraits of the crucified Jesus and other religious symbols were taken from the public places.
For the first time, the concept of laique was put in the article first of the first chapter of the Fourth Republic constitution. This procedure was continued in the Fifth Republic and the process of the institutionalization of the secularization (laicite) was completed. De-formalization of religions, religious neutrality, ensuring freedom of conscience and religious liberty, the absence of religious prayers in the public schools, the restrictive financial aid to private religious schools, the ban on religious symbols in schools and state institutions were part of the French secularism (Laicite) until the 1980s. Later, these policies resurfaced with some limited changes.
The basic research question here is as follow: Which factors played the most important role in the formation and the institutionalization of the French secularism (Laicite)? The main finding of the article is that though the French Revolution developments provided a legal, ideological and historical background for the process of secularization, the change in political regimes and the Catholic-centered religious policies of the nineteenth century created challenges for this process. The prolonged political and ideological conflicts between the secular republicans, the Catholic Church and the Catholic-oriented conservatives played an important role in this process. Given the dominance of the republicans in the political space, such conflicts led to the institutionalization of secularism through a series of reforms and the 1905 Law in the Third Republic.


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