The French society : values and beliefs, etc... (#2) WARNING ! This is the MOST CONTROVERSIAL page of this site and the only one which generates hate mail to the webmaster. I am of course very sorry to observe that but there is nothing I can do : I try to give facts and I cannot change facts. May I ask angry readers to try to EXPLAIN why they are so upset, instead of being rude and/or aggressive. I'll try to improve the page if I see how I could do it. Thank you!

 Religion in France   The French fight against "sectes"
  • Religion is probably one the the major differences (if not the main one) between the USA and France. In the USA, a very religious country, it is normal and natural to express one's religious beliefs, when in France, it is considered a private domain and the French society rejects any form of community based on religion (communautarisme).
  • In the USA, all religions are welcome and the general view is that any religious belief, even unknown or strange, is the expression of a legitimate quest and must be protected in the name of religious freedom.
  • In France too, religious freedom is guaranteed by the Constitution and protected by the Republic but it must remain strictly in the private domain of the citizen : therefore, it is the duty of the Republic to ensure that no dangerous sect could develop under the name of religion and alienate people's liberty. It is therefore normal for the society to protect itself with an anti-sect regulation (see below) ; under this legislation, The Church of Scientology, Reverend Moon Church and others are illegal and many (Jehovah Witnesses, etc..) barely tolerated.
  • However, people in France do stand for their religious beliefs if they think they are threatened : in 1982-83, when the triumphant Socialist government considered changing the law organizing private (religious) schools, millions of people demonstrated in the streets and the government withdrew its project. But this was a rare example of situation where the church and the believers openly express their position on a subject. They generally don't : see ethical issues.
  • In French history, the most important dates are
    • Guerre des Religions 1562-1598 : a very cruel civil war, with the Massacre (of Protestants) de la Saint Barthélémy 1572, which ended with a truce between Catholics and Protestants
    • Révocation de l'Edit de Nantes 1685 : King Louis XIV revoked the truce, forcing the Huguenots to emigrate to Holland, Germany and America
    • Separation of Church and State : the 1905 Law is the basis of the French concept of "laïcité"
    • Peyrefitte brillantly shows how the long history of conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism explains the major traits of French society (role of the state, attitude toward money, responsibility vs. authority, etc...)
  • In Europe, France is probably the country which is the most attached to "laïcité" (secularity) (with Portugal) but it is not the only one : in 2006, in the project of European Constitution, a phrase in the preamble refering to "the Christian roots of Europe" proposed by some countries (like Poland) was refused by the others.
  • The French Constitution protects religious freedom and acknowledges any religious belief provided it respects the laws of the Republic ; it is largely accepted in France that certain movements, identified as "sectes", do not respect the liberty of their followers and are therefore dangerous for them. The word "secte" is very pejorative in French (it is like "cult").
  • To establish if a movement has a "sectarian" profile and to what extent, the criterias are of course difficult to specify and assess ; among them :
    • Mental destabilisation
    • Excessive financial demands
    • Cut-off from personal environment
    • Harm to physical integrity
    • Indoctrination of children
    • More or less anti-social declarations
    • Perturbation of public order
    • Numerous court cases
    • Not involved in the economic circuit
    • Attempts to infiltrate public authorities
  • A list of 172 sectarian movements (totalizing 400,000 adepts) has been published ; among them the most known are the Church of Scientology, Jehovah Witnesses, Rael, Heavens Love, Reverend Moon, Transcendental Meditation (maharishi). They are not considered like "religions" and, if authorized, are considered (taxwise) as commercial activities. For Scientology particularly, this tax treatment is of course a major blow.
  • France has developed an entire regulatory system to protect citizens against "sectes" :
    • Mission Interministérielle de Vigilance contre less Dérives Sectaires (inter-office agency to fight sects) established in the early 1990s to monitor the anti-sect policy
    • Parliamentary Report # 1687 on the financial situation and financial practices of sects (June 1999)
    • Anti-sect Law (May 5, 2001) including provisions allowing the dissolution of movements already sentenced by a court for sectarian misconduct and legalizing the crime of "mental manipulation"
    • "Watchdogs such as info-sectes (
  • For most Americans, all the above is an attack against religious freedom. For most of the French (the law did not raise any significant controversy), this is a protection of the society against cults which are dangerous for their followers and abuse their weakness or credulity. Both sides, French and Americans are probably equally convinced that the other one is not defending freedom.
  • More about religion.
  • Illustrating how religious the USA are, certain scenes are just unbelievable to French eyes : typically, the President of the USA openly praying on TV or the opening of a political Convention with a prayer.
   Free-masonry in France
  • Contrary to most European countries, where clergymen are often paid by the State, French churches receive no money from the state (except in Alsace, where the German system was established during the occupation after 1870 and except for the maintenance of churches built before 1905 which all belong to local authorities). See European compared situations. In the USA, churches receive a lot of money from the believers and tax exemptions from the State.
  • In France, religious observance is much lower than in the USA (less than 10% of Catholics go to church regularly) and the the role of the church is much less important in social and community life. Churches receive much less money from believers. As opposed to the USA, people see themselves primarily as French and secondarily as Christians (or Muslims) : see figures.
  • Religious beliefs are part of private life and, for this reason, it is illegal to collect data about them in the census. The answer to the question "Do you consider you belong to a religion and which one?" is (1999) : Catholic 54%, none 43%, Islam, Protestant and Jewish around 1% each. This figure takes into account the feeling of belonging to a religion. With a more neutral question ("In which religion wree you born?", INED 2005) the answers are : Catholic 80%, Islam 5%, Protestantism 2%, Jewish 1%, No Religion 102%.
  • In France the Minister of Interior's title is " Ministre de l'Intérieur et des Cultes ". Part of his duty is to ensure the respect of the principles of " laïcité " (secularity), a key-concept in France, with the official representative bodies of the main religions : Assemblée des Evêques (Catholic), Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France (Jewish), Fédération Protestante and recently Conseil Français du Culte Musulman (Muslim).
    Other religions are considered with caution and must demonstrate that they respect all French laws. There is a regulation against "sects".
  • For the French, the prohibition of the Islamic veil in schools (2004) is NOT a law AGAINST religious freedom, it is a law FOR religious freedom. It was approved by a majority of French : see a poll. In 2008, the HALDE (the French agency devoted to combating discrimination) ruled that the burqa violates French values and inhibits integration (NYT Oct.11, 2008). For President Nicolas Sarkozy, who addressed the Parliament in Versailles in June 2009, opposition to the burqa is not opposition to Muslims.  "The burqa is not a religious sign; it is a sign of the subjugation, of the submission of women. I want to say solemnly that it will not be welcome on our territory." Read why opposing burqa is NOT a religious matter on Harriet's blog.

DID YOU KNOW THAT ? In France, a symbol of religious intolerance is the story of the Chevalier (knight) de La Barre (1747-1766). He refused to remove his hat when crossing a procession and was sentenced to have his tongue cut out and to be burnt alive. By special leniency of the Parliament of Paris, he was only (!) beheaded. Voltaire fought for his memory and made his fate a symbol of religious intolerance. If you go to Montmartre you will see his name : the street leading to the top of the hill is the Rue du Chevalier de La Barre.

  • Free-masonry is another big difference between France and the USA. Contrary to English and American free-masonry, it has in France, very specific characteristics:
    • It is more divided between several rival organizations (see detail) and it is growing
    • It is less religious : most of them do not demand to believe in the existence of a god (of course you may but you do not have to)
  • For the latter reason, these organizations are not ackowledged by the Great United Lodge of England and therefore most French masons cannot attend ceremonies in Anglo-Saxon lodges (the reverse is not true and Anglo-Saxon masons are welcome to French lodges : who is the most respectful of religious freedom ?).
  • Free-masonry in France is split among several organizations ("obédiences") :
    • Grande Loge de France (G.L.F.) : approx 27,000 (men) members, deist
    • Grande Loge Féminine de France (G.L.F.F.) : 12,000 (women) members, very traditionalist
    • Droit Humain (D.H.) : approx 15,000 (men and women) members, close to GODF
    • Grande Loge Nationale Française (G.L.N.F.) : approx. 33,000 members, the only one acknowledged by the Great United Lodge of England
    • Grand Orient de France (G.O.D.F.) : approx 46,000 (men) members, very non-religious (" laïc "), split from English masonry in 1877
    • And several smaller organizations (Grande Loge Traditionnelle et Symbolique Opera, Grande Loge Feminine Memphis-Misraim, Grande Loge Nationale Française, Grande Loge Mixte Universelle,...).
  •  Temple Lafayette (G.O.D.F.), Paris (credit)
    The history of French free-masonry in a nutshell : many actors of the French Revolution were masons, masonry was instrumental for most of the major moves of the XIXth century : abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, free education, a secular state, etc... A century ago most left-wing politicians were masons. More recently, it was decisive in the abolition of the death penalty and the lagalization of abortion. During the occupation of France by the nazis, free-masons were persecuted like the Jews and the communists. Today, their influence is not negligible but is generally over-estimated.
To related pages : more about French society (#3), French politics (#1), French attitudes and French profiles (#4), ethical issues, etc..

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Harriet Welty Rochefort writes articles and books about France and the French. Order her books :

  • "French Toast, An American in Paris Celebrates The Maddening Mysteries of the French", St.Martin's Press, New York, 1999
  • "French Fried, The Culinary Capers of An American in Paris", St.Martin's Press, New York, 2001

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