Secularism in France


03 Oct 2016 27 Feb 2017

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ESSAY QUESTION: Discuss the French 2004 Law which prohibits state school students from displaying any religious signs. Briefly introduce the law, explain the reasons why this law was adopted and show how it fits with the principle of secularism in the French Republic.

Since the French Revolution in 1789 and the law established in 1791, requiring the state to be neutral and all public and church matters to be totally separate, France has been considered a secular state. France has been incredibly strict on this law since it was established, believing that neutrality meant equality, which is one of the main principles in France. After a rather long period of time, the government in France eventually brought in a set of laws referred to as the Jules Ferry laws. These laws declare that all state schools are required, in buildings, staff and curriculum to be secular, no signs of religion to be shown at all. This led to the adoption of the 2004 law stating that all conspicuous signs of religion in school were to be banned. A law that arose from a crisis which started in the late 1980’s, where Muslim girls were wearing the headscarves which represented their religion in a state school. While mostly unopposed in France, the introduction of this law brought about some controversy, within France itself and around the neighbouring countries. This essay sets out to explain the 2004 law, and the reasons why it was adopted. It also intends to explore how this law fits in with France’s principles on secularity, and equality.

The law that president at the time, Jacques Chirac signed off on 15th of March 2004, came into effect on 2nd September 2004, the beginning of the new school year. This law prohibits any forms of religious signs being worn in schools. Because within the law itself, there is no referral to any specific signs, the law prohibits everything, including but not exclusive to, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish religious symbols. The official name for this law is, in English, Law No. 2004-228 of 15 March 2004 regulating, in accordance with the principle of secularism, the wearing of symbols or clothing denoting religious affiliation in schools, colleges and public high schools[1]. The title of the law itself is very specific, thereby tying off the loophole that existed in the previous laws, in which the crisis began in the first place.

The deep roots of the secular state of France comes from the French revolution in 1789. Before this period France was ruled by an absolute monarchy, meaning that the king and only the king had all the power to rule the country. There were no limits to how the king could rule, so frequently, kings abused that power. The king, during this period of time ruled, as he and the church believed, as a favour to God, and so the church was highly involved with the way the king ruled. After the revolution, the way the country was ruled was changed in a very large and impacting way, the state became secular, “the king now ruled by the will of the people, and not by the grace of god” (Jones 1994) France was also now ruled under the new constitution, as a constitutional monarchy, and as a republic. The people now had a rather large say in how their homeland was controlled. The constitutional monarchy brought in many new laws for how the king could rule for example, if a new law was to be passed it had to go through a series of councillors before it got to the king himself. This new constitution involved a bill for the new rights of men and citizens (excludes women and slaves). This allowed for all men and citizens to be born and remain free; this involves freedom of religion and freedom of speech, for all men and citizens to be equal; this involves equality of property ownership, and equal taxes, and lastly the republic is one and indivisible; which includes national sovereignty and the state being secular.

Nearly a century after the start of the revolution, new laws came into government by the means of a man called Jules Ferry. Ferry is best known for his educational laws, which were brought in in 1882. These laws state that education for state schools in France was to be free of charge and compulsory for children aged between six and thirteen years old, and all state schools had to be secular. “Ferry’s ‘schools without God’ were bitterly opposed by the churchmen… …Yet despite their contested beginnings the schools proved one of the most enduring cultural achievements of the early Third Republic.” (Jones 1994), this goes to show that although there was an opposition for these schools at first, they became very successful, and it was a strong support for the secularity principles of France.

This practice seemed to work without a hitch for over 100 years. In 1989, a problem occurred that needed to be addressed by bringing in a new law which eventually came into effect in 2004. The issue that arose was, in 1989 three young female students were expelled from their state school which they attended near Paris, for wearing their religious head scarves to school and refusing to remove them. They even persisted to wear them during physical activity periods, and this seemed to be extremely unnecessary. This seemingly harmless act in the students eyes, led to their expulsion. It was a complication, because teachers and headmasters did not know how to deal with this issue, as it had never occurred before, so it was decided upon as the students had broken the law they were to be expelled. Many people found this disciplinary act excessive, and it caused a great uproar, involving young female students all over the country to wear their headscarves to school as well. Because of the large scale of unhappiness of the people of France, the news was all over this case, which led the High Administrative Council to realise that some higher form of discipline had to happen to regain control of the state. This was the key issue that led to the development, and adoption of the law in 2004.

The students most likely thought their act was acceptable, because of one key mistake in the Jules Ferry Laws of 1882. These laws only refer to the buildings, curriculum and staff to be secular at all times. There is no mention of students at all. Therefore, the three students who inadvertently started the conflict in 1989 obviously saw this as a loop hole, and that nothing was wrong with what they were doing. Which in terms of the law, there wasn’t. It mostly came down to the fact that the French people had a very ‘set in stone’ opinion on the way the country should be, in regards to the way that they were interpreting the laws. The past events of the country led it to become secular, and the people of France believe that this consists of everything. Even as the new law has come in, there are still certain places which are not actually stated in the laws at all, like universities and private schools, the laws on this subject are rather specific.

The wearing of headscarves in public places in France could be viewed as a negative also because of the links that it has with Islamic fundamentalism. Though most of the 5 million Muslims, or 8.3%[2] of France’s population, practice moderate religion, there are is a small percent of those who are fundamentalists and are using the steady increase in the Muslim population to their advantage. France battles severely with the fear of having terrorist attacks on its hands from people of its own soil e.g. Algeria and also attacks from Saudi Arabia. Although there is an option for people to attend religious private schools in France, there have been some cases where organised Islamic militant groups have forced young female students to wear the headscarf to school in order to pressure other girls to do the same. There have also been cases of withholding these students from certain classes in school which the groups believe are against their beliefs. This is an example of another just reason of why the law was adopted.

On the other hand, although there were many reasons for adopting this law, there were also many reasons against. One of these reasons was, the adoption of this new law faced a lot of opposition from other nations- on an international level. One of the opposing nations was Britain. A great deal of British Muslims were against the adoption of this rule, many taking on the belief that it contradicted France’s law of religious freedoms. The British government were also on board “in condemning the French for trying to ban religious headwear and symbols in state schools” (Adenekan 2004). The ban faced all sorts of opposition, even from other religious divides in Britain, saying that it was among their basic rights as humans to wear symbols of their religion. Many believe that is part of their identity, and taking that away will cause divides in the community.

Another nation which is severely against the law is United States. The nation of the United States believes that students can wear their religious symbols in schools without challenging the secularity of the state. One of the biggest problems that America has with this law is that it does not allow the integration process, “In this view, banning headscarves in public schools is meaningless in the face of problems that are primarily social and economic.” (Vasse 2004). The United States holds a similar secular principle, but the primary purpose for this adoption was to make sure that the government would not interfere with church business, to keep religion protected from the state, not the other way around.

There were groups of people who were backing the law because of the women’s rights. They thought that the Muslim women who were having to wear the religious headscarves made the women inferior, as their rights were oppressed heavily by the men, and their religion. Some could argue the other side of this argument though, it is said that when the protests occurred when the law was first on the cards in 2004, the women who turned up to protest all claimed to wear their headscarf of their own free will. This shows the diversity of the way people reacted to this law being brought in, there were many reasons for the law to be brought in, and just as many reasons to oppose it.

The law fits in very well with the secularism principles of France, and a key example of this is the French motto itself, which is still used today in modern day society, Liberté, égalité, fraternité, meaning liberty equality and fraternity. The reasons for this law fitting in with these principles are stated under the declaration of rights for citizens and men that were established during the revolution in 1879. The first, Liberté, states that all men should have freedom of religion. The laws which France has relating to religion, is to ensure that all citizens and men have that right to their own religion. This way there is no stat church so no real pressure on citizens to conform to the normal religion. That in part is what this new law is trying to fit to, to make sure that students do not feel pressured, or offended for that fact, because everyone has different belief.

The option for religious students to go to a private religious school, means that there is no real excuse for the behaviour that caused the adoption of the law in the first place. The way that the French society stands, is that there is options for everyone, to fit with the principles that the state runs by, for religious freedom. There are those who will argue that people should be able to express their religious freedoms everywhere, but it is fair to say that this just does not simply fit with France’s secularity principles, if it was the case to express religion everywhere there would be too many complications.

It is clear to see from the evidence that France may have had no other choice but to adopt this law. As the only way to regain control of the country, and as a way to keep to the principles and practices of the French state. After the adoption of this law, there was talk of Germany taking on similar laws. It is plain to see that although there were many protests against the law at first, the country runs smoothly with it in place, and it creates a blanket of peace, and keeps the majority of people happy. The problem of religious symbols being worn in schools was resolved by the ruling of this law, which won in government by the majority of the vote. A country that has similar principles as France is New Zealand. In New Zealand there is more leniency within the laws, as in New Zealand it is not against the law to wear religious symbols in public, but it is a secular country all the same.

“France is not the only Western country to insist on the separation of church and state - but it does so more militantly than any other” (Astier 2004). This is reflected in the current events of France. After the introduction of this law, it was thought that the conflict of the wearing of religious symbols in public schools was resolved. But recent news stories have revealed a new perception on what religious symbols actually are, and how other innocent pieces of clothing and appearances are being viewed. A very recent news story on BBC states how “France is facing a fresh backlash against its strict secular policy after it emerged a 15-year-old Muslim girl was sent home from school because she was wearing a long black skirt.” But the harsh reality is, how can a long skirt be considered a religious symbol? There are plenty of non-religious people who wear skirts, whether they be long or short, as an everyday item of clothing. The real questions are ‘where is the line defined with the extent of what a religious symbol is?’ and ‘when is enough, enough?’


Adenekan, Shola. 2004. British criticism of headscarf ban. February 12. Accessed May 03, 2015.

Astier, Henri. 2004. The deep roots of French secularism. September 01. Accessed April 13, 2015.

Britannica, Encyclopaedia. n.d. Jules Ferry. Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. Accessed April 29, 2015.

France, Law department of. 2004. Law No. 2004-228 of 15 March 2004 regulating, in accordance with the principle of secularism, the wearing of symbols or clothing denoting religious affiliation in schools, colleges and public high schools. 09 01. Accessed 04 30, 2015.

Jones, Colin. 1994. Cambridge Illustrated History Of France. Cambridge University Press.

Lyon, Dawn, and Deborah Spini. 2004. UNVEILING THE HEADSCARF DEBATE. Legislative note, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Unknown. 2015. France outcry over Muslim schoolgirl's skirt ban. 04 29. Accessed 05 01, 2015.

—. 2004. French MPs back headscarf ban. 02 10. Accessed 04 29, 2015.

—. n.d. The official website of france. Accessed 04 30, 2015.

Vasse, Justin. 2004. Veiled meanng: The French Law banning religous symbols in public schools. Research report, Washington: The Brookings Institute.


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