Thursday, September 13, 2012

Not Just the Separation of Church and State? Complexities in Understanding “Laïcité”

by Allyce Husband

Under the French constitution, individuals have a right to practice whichever religion they please. Religious freedom is protected.1  The United States also guarantees the freedom of religion under the First Amendment of the U.S Constitution, which states that the government cannot make a law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”2,3  A quick glance shows that these areas of the French and U.S. Constitution seem similar. Exploring the surrounding context, however, reveals that conflict exists between both parties over how these principles are interpreted. So what transpired between France and the United States, whom lately, are each others’ closest allies, to make them butt heads on a rather sensitive domestic policy?

In 2004, France enacted a law which stated, “In the schools, primary and public high schools, it is forbidden to wear signs or symbols of which a student ostensibly manifests a membership.”4  Symbols such as cross necklaces or turbans fall under this category. In 2010, subsequent French legislation declared that “no one can, in a public space, wear an item designed to cover their face.”5  While the context of the law did not explicitly mention the burqa, public and religious groups scrutinized the provision, judging it as an implicit attack upon religious freedom in France.

A burqa is a religious garment worn by Muslim women that reflects Islamic tradition. Not all Muslim women, however, wear a burqa. 6  Since the law forbids the wearing of garments that fully cover the face, tensions manifested, as the burqa fit this category.

In addition to scrutiny from public and religious groups in France, other international actors openly criticized the law. 7  Is the banning of face-covering garments in public places sending a discriminatory message to France’s Muslim community, and doesn’t the ban contradict the French constitution and freedom of religion? members of NGOs thought.8 

France’s law prohibiting individuals from wearing face-covering garments, seen as
the banning of the burqa, is still widely discussed in both the media and public sphere.
Image source:
Certain groups in France and around the world deemed the policy ‘repressive’, but the French government held a different outlook. The principle of laïcité, that the French state is separate from civil and religious society, and remains neutral on matters of religion, provides the context surrounding the 2004 and 2010 laws. On the subject of religious expression in France, French Minister of Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius proclaimed:
France is a republic laïque, but laïcité is not hostile to religions. On the contrary, it provides shared framework for the coexistence of different religious expression, or lack thereof, and for the free exercise of groups…I do not ignore that laïcité is from time to time transformed into a principle of exclusion. But it is a misinterpretation.9
According to Mr. Fabius’ statement, the bans are aimed at reinforcing the principle of laïcité10  and ensuring equality in matters of religious freedom. For critics in the international community, including the United States, it is difficult to fully comprehend his reasoning. Instead, the ban can seem like blatant repression, as we grew up learning that individuals in the U.S. can express themselves freely in whichever way that they like, regardless of the limitations of the First Amendment.

In July, 2012, the U.S. Department of State released its annual International Religious Freedom Report for 2011.11  The report, published annually, stems from the United States’ commitment to protecting and advocating for religious freedom around the world. That Washington’s profile on France stated, among positive developments, reports of discrimination, did not travel under the radar. Following its release, French headlines pronounced, “US Slams the Laws Against the Burqa”, and “Religious Liberty: Washington Corners France and Europe”, grabbing the attention of French political figures.

The U.S. and France aim to keep religion and the state in separate arenas in one form or the other; however, it appears that the concept of laïcité in France versus the United States’ understanding of the “separation of church and state” possess inherent differences, despite similarities within the literal constitutional text. While both ideas boast the promotion of religious freedom, the context which surrounds them, namely France’s ban on religious symbols in public places and the notion of religious freedom in the United States, renders them distinguishable.

1 International Religious Freedom Report for 2011: France country profile, U.S Department of State, published July 30, 2012, .

2United States Constitution,

3While individuals in the U.S. can believe as they choose, laws limit believers from acting on or practicing certain types of religious beliefs. An example is the outlawing of polygamy, a belief of certain Mormon sects.

4Code de l’education, article L. 141-5-1.

5Loi du 11 octobre 2010 inderdisant la dissimulation du visage dans l’espace publique, Vie Publique, published October 13, 2010,

6Less than 2,000 women in France wear a burqa. According to sociologist Dounia Bouzar, “Even if the figures seem likely, it is very difficult to precisely establish their number, notably because certain [wearers] never leave their house.” The government does not keep statistics on religion, but it is estimated that France has the largest Muslim population in Europe. International Religious Freedom Report for 2011: France country profile, U.S. Department of State, published July 30, 2012,

7CNN reports that the U.S. Department of State’s annual report on religious freedom says that countries are witnessing "growing xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and intolerance toward people considered 'the other’… there are a rising number of European countries, including Belgium and France, whose laws restricting dress adversely affected Muslims and others.”

8 The NGO SOS Racisme stated that the ban “contravened the constitution and European Convention on Human Rights.” Amnesty International believed that the ban would break international law, “violating the rights to freedom of expression.”

9French Minister of Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius, Press Conference, July 31, 2012,

10Another example of laicite, or the separation of civil and religious life, occurs in schools. Public schools do not make religion courses a mandatory part of their curriculum. Additionally, students, while allowed to exercise any religion they wish, are not allowed to interrupt classes to pray or ask for a special menu at their school cafeteria.

11International Religious Freedom Report for 2011: France country profile, U.S Department of State, published July 30, 2012,

Allyce Husband is a second year student in the Master of Arts in European Union Studies (MAEUS) degree program at the University of Illinois. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Communication and Psychology from the University of Illinois in 2011. This summer, Allyce worked for the U.S. Department of State as an intern at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, France. As an undergraduate, she studied abroad in Florence, Italy and will be spending the fall semester abroad at the University of Bologna in Bologna, Italy. Allyce was awarded a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship for Italian language study for the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 academic years. She was also awarded a summer FLAS Fellowship to study French in Paris prior to her internship. Her research interests have included immigration and the media. In her free time, Allyce loves to cook and travel.


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