Interview: Lucien Jaume on Laïcité and the French Presidential Election

8 April 2022

Lucien Jaume is a philosopher, political scientist and professor at Sciences Po who has contributed to the rediscovery of the French liberal tradition. The author of numerous books on the French political culture, the history of philosophy, Hobbes, Jacobinism, he has also published a major intellectual biography of Tocqueville translated into English – Tocqueville, The Aristocratic Sources of Liberty (Princeton University Press, 2013).

In this interview for Tocqueville21, editor Madeleine Rouot asked him to talk about his new book L’Eternel Défi: L’Etat et les religions en France des origines à nos jours (Tallandier, 2022), and to reflect on three main themes: the history of the relationship between the state and religions in France; the difference between American secularism and the French laïcité; finally, the future of the laïcité in the context of globalisation, and its place in the current presidential elections.


Madeleine Rouot (MR): At the beginning of your book, you explain that we cannot understand the meaning of French laïcité if it is taken as a pure abstraction. Instead, it must be studied historically, through the relationship between the state and religions in France since the 6th century. Could you give a brief historical sketch of this complex relationship?

Lucien Jaume (LJ): I believe that we can look at the very long introduction written by the principal author of the 1905 Law on the Separation of the Churches and the State, Aristide Briand. In it, he explains that we must go back to the 6th century, that is to say to Pepin the Short, the first king of the Franks to make an alliance with the pope in Rome. At that time, Pope Stephen II was surrounded by the Lombards and was therefore threatened in his territory, while Pepin the Short was seeking to further establish the legitimacy of the kingdom of the Franks. He thus agreed to deliver the pope from the attack of the Lombards. In return, the pope promised to take the Kingdom of the Franks under his spiritual protection. Thus began the great alliance between Rome and the French; an alliance that has endured to the present day. This is the crucial starting point from which Aristide Briand began his introduction. We see here how the two institutions, the Monarchy and the Church, proceeded from the same legitimacy, which is God. The king of France is king by the will of God. Indeed, the Church does not make the king, it only consecrates the king. On the other hand, the Catholic Church is made church through the will of Christ. It is written in the Gospels: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my church” – because, in French, Pierre (Peter) means a stone, a rock.

We see how these two forms of legitimacy, that emanate from the same source, necessarily lead to a form of competition and tension. For instance, the question of who is closer to God, between King Louis XIV and the principal Bishop of France, Bossuet, arises in the 17th century. De facto and de jure, the king controls the Church because there is a whole set of provisions that ensure that everything the Church does is done under the watch of the parliaments and the king himself. This alliance between the pope and the king led to very strong decisions being taken. For instance, Louis XIV expelled the Protestants at the request of Bossuet, a terrible act that still has repercussions today. France, therefore, comes from a context where the Catholic religion was very influential as it was supported by the state. Therefore, spiritual power is, from the outset, controlled by temporal power.

MR: What happened during the French Revolution? And what impact did it have on the 1905 law on the separation between the churches and the state?

LJ: The French Revolution nationalized the Church of France, meaning that it took away its territorial properties (10% of the kingdom), abolished its dioceses and replaced them with departments created by the Constituent Assembly; it made bishops and priests elected through census suffrage. According to the author of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (CCC), Jesus Christ is in complete agreement with the principles of 1789 and thus the Church’s role should be that of serving the revolutionary state. A schism ensued from this as half of the priests, and almost all bishops, refused to accept the CCC. It escalated into a civil war as the Vendée rose against the revolutionary state for the king and the Church. Then came the Concordat, which stemmed from Bonaparte’s wish to restore the Church to its rightful limits. He ordered the pope to dismiss 80 bishops, started to control the various appointments made by the pope, and imposed a catechism of himself based around the person of the Emperor and of his family. Once again, the state controlled the Catholic Church, which, in return, also benefited from it, as it was protected by the state and elevated above the Jews and the Protestants (who were included in the 1802 Concordat and 1808 for the Jews).

During the Third Republic, which constitutes the next step in our story, there were two separations; one in 1882 with the Jules Ferry laws, and the other in 1905. Indeed, Jules Ferry considered that he was carrying out a first separation by “separating the Church from the school”, as he said, while remaining in the Concordat. This separation was not only negative, it was also positive in that the schools found – or regained – their liberty. But the school reforms cannot be reduced to this. Jules Ferry wanted a “state morality” to be taught at school. He considered that the state was responsible for the fatherland of the souls (a “patrimoine des âmes“, as he explained in 1879), and, to a certain extent, he put the school in the place of the Church. Therefore, the republican school gave itself a true “spiritual power”, which continues to be the case today.

However, schools should not only teach “moral formulas”. It is clearly stated in the minister’s circulars that students should also be trained to reflect and criticize. As Alain (Emile Chartier) says: “to think is to say no”. This characterizes the French republican and secular ideology which establishes the authority of morality and republican doctrines in order to give rise to freedom of thought. In schools, this so-called authority aims to get pupils to examine everything including the very foundation of this authority.

MR: How is it possible to reconcile the spiritual power of the state in schools with a liberal conception that puts emphasis on freedom of thought?

LJ: What is liberal, and this is what I explain in L’individu effacé, is that this liberalism is a liberalism through the state and not against the state. This is France’s specificity. According to my research, there were three strands of liberalism in France. The first one, the one of the Coppet group associated with Benjamin Constant and Mme de Staël, was more individualistic but still constitutional. Then, there was the Catholic liberalism of Lacordaire and Montalembert, who accepted the principles of 1789 while remaining critical of the July Monarchy, which they accused of restraining freedom of the press and association. Finally, there was Orleanist liberalism, which is the strand of liberalism that eventually triumphed in France as we see today with Emmanuel Macron, and according to which the state should organize and define liberty.

In the school of Jules Ferry liberty is important. Children are called to liberty once they have been given reference points. It is then up to them to criticize, transgress and choose something else. I can give you a quote from Proudhon’s The Principle of Federation (Du principe fédératif, 1863): “authority without a liberty that discusses, resists or submits is an empty word. Liberty without a countervailing authority is nonsense.” Indeed, this is exactly what the current French crisis is about: many people who take to the streets demand liberty without a normative authority. At the core of the political crisis, there is a cultural crisis, in that the equation of freedom and authority no longer works or does not work well. This is linked to the evolution of mores, globalization, and a number of other factors that lead a number of French people to demand unlimited freedom (see, for instance, the gilet jaune movement).

MR: Therefore, with the 1905 law on separation liberalism eventually triumphed? 

LJ: It is amusing to see that the current law against “islamic separatism” (August 2021) moves away from the perspective of Aristide Briand, which was a liberal perspective. This law puts an end to some of the great traditional liberal principles, such as the fact that to found an association, one has to declare it, but does not need to be authorized. Today, surveillance takes place during worship, meaning that the police can enter any edifice and make sure that what is being said does not violate the principles of the Republic. What is dangerous is if this law falls into other hands, if police surveillance is fussy, then excesses become possible. Let us recall that Aristide Briand thought the law should always be interpreted in a liberal way. He believed that whenever there was some hesitation about the law on separation, the judge should remember that the liberal intention predominates. Currently, it is interpreted in a way that enables tutelage and a priori control. President Macron is right to request a law against Islamism. The issue comes from the fact that, in the French Law, the principle of equality prevents the legislator from passing laws that could directly target a particular religion or denomination. All denominations are placed on an equal footing: churches are just as much suspected as Salafists. As many jurists have pointed out, traditional liberalism is being seriously undermined.

MR: French laïcité is often criticised outside France, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries. Could you come back to a difference you note between the American and French conceptions of secularism?

LJ: First of all, I wanted to try to understand the concept of tolerance, where it came from and what its limits have been. I went back to Saint Augustine who became an opponent of tolerance after having long resisted a group that does not just differ theologically, but also sought to steer the Catholic Church in a different direction. In his struggle against the Donatists, Saint Augustine saw it necessary to adopt a position of intolerance and to give power to the Emperor to persecute the Donatists by torture, by violence, and by expulsing them from their edifices. Later, in the 15th and 16th centuries in France, defenders of tolerance like Pierre Bayle in Compel Them to Come In (Contrains-les d’entrer, 1686), would thus return to Saint Augustine in order to refute his arguments. The problem, according to Pierre Bayle, is that when we are compelled by force, then we are not obeying God, but rather obeying the one who compels us. And that is the source of this great idea of tolerance that consists in saying that the state cannot hold an exclusive claim to the truth when it comes to religion, and, as a result, the state should remain neutral. Nevertheless, we might expect that Pierre Bayle, who left France after the Protestants were expelled, would demand that the state be tolerant and that absolutism should not extend into the religious domain, but, in fact, he does not. Pierre Bayle believes that the absolute state is necessary: his religious toleration is accompanied by a political pessimism.

From a legal point of view, I considered that a distinction should be made between tolerance in our social relations, where we allow differences and disagreements, and institutional tolerance, which I thought could be observed in the United States. Indeed, I imagined that the United States had established tolerance, but I realised by reading the relevant legal experts that this idea is inappropriate given the reality in America – and by that, I mean the very powerful practice of judges. The important point is the First Amendment to the American Constitution, the idea that a wall of separation between Church and state is necessary. To create a wall of separation, as Jefferson said, means that the state should not be tolerant but rather rightful. To be rightful would include listening to complaints that come from religions and listening to all the demands that arise from society and that originate from all expressions of faith. Thus, it is not the lawmaker who guarantees the equal freedom of religions, but the judge. This implies an incessant dynamism because everything can always potentially be revised: religious liberties are extremely unstable because every demand can hope to be met and every right can be flexibly revised.

MR: And what about the French case?

LJ: In France also, the concept of tolerance is not the real question – especially if one wants to go deeper. Of course, given the laws about the veil at school and in the street, the French have been accused of intolerance. In France, instead of beginning from society, from expressions of society as in the United States, we begin from what the State dictates. Since the French Revolution, and even well before, since the Gallican liberties and the monarchy, the republican State dictates according to its principles and its values. The state, for example, dictates laïcité. That means that in the street, at school, or at work, we cannot show a sign of difference or other distinctive features. Yet, in the founding texts of the European Union – this time following a tradition of civic tolerance – it is written that each member of the Union has the right to publicly express its religious belonging. Nevertheless, when the affair of the veil in France blew up for the first time in 1989 and when the young women appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, its decision stated that the constitutional identity and the historic traditions of each member state of the Union had to be taken into account.

Effectively, in the French case, we encounter the problem of the revolutionary conception of citizenship, being at the same time abstract and universal by its compass. Since the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the citizen has no tie to profession, to geography, to sex, or to religious denomination. The citizen is an abstract being who – in order to be universal and not only “French” – draws its force from all the bonds that he has broken, all the corporate bodies that he has abandoned, and all the regional or religious identifications that he has given up. Burke, on the other hand, talked of the “Law of the English”!

MR: How does this idea of the republican citizen finds its way into French schools?

LJ: In the French case, the wearing of obvious or ostentatious (legal vocabulary) religious symbols means that the school is not the place for citizens, but the place for Jews, Protestants, Muslims, Catholics and the irreligious. This is unacceptable in the French tradition. To enter a school is to set aside the religion and the profession of one’s parents. Of course, this way of thinking contains an element of unavoidable hypocrisy. Social inequality, particularly, endures nonetheless, as the children of means will be at a different level from children from a poorer social background. It should be noted that another strand of thought in France (mainly protestant) believes that the laïcité is not “neutrality”, but the expression of religions so that a dialogue can arise between them. This is a minority strand, which aims to reconcile laïcité with the value of tolerance, and which asks that the history of religions be taught at school.

In the end, what our American friends have trouble understanding is that the highly abstract French view of the citizen is synonymous with liberty. In the French tradition, students can learn to no longer be Catholic, Jewish, or other, to no longer be dependent upon their religion or social class, and learn to think for themselves, thanks to laïcité, thanks to the authority of their instructors. They will be able to think for themselves only if this authority is first exercised.

MR: What do you think is the future of this laïque morality?

LJ: In the 2015 programme laid out by the minister of national education (revised in 2018), laïque moral instruction is still outlined. In that regard, there’s a continuity between the present day and the times of Jules Ferry’s reforms, while an emphasis is put on the equality of the sexes and on antiracism.

I believe that, in the current situation, we have problems to solve, and we are not doing as well as we could. We have intellectual and philosophical tasks to fulfil as well as political ones. Sometimes I joke that the Republic must remain republican, and it is only barely so now. We make concessions on practically every front. For instance, the National School of Administration (ENA) was founded by Charles de Gaulle after the Liberation of France to train administrators to be detached from individual interests and truly devoted to public welfare. We know now that the ENA mostly serves to train people who leave for the private sphere within two or three years. Some consider that the revolving door between public and private spheres is a good thing as it allows administrators to be aware of the broader business. Others think that these administrators are too compromised by private interests. Emmanuel Macron, who aims to replace the ENA with another system, is most likely of this opinion.  There are therefore tasks that I would call intellectual and philosophical that compound with and latch onto our political tasks. Perhaps we need to change our understanding of the Republic without opening the door to a broader relativism. Our great fear – and many political spectators play on this – is the disruption of national unity.

MR: And with the arrival of Islam in France, how can the conception of laïcité be adapted, considering that we are no longer dealing with the Catholic Church as an institution but with individuals, and as you show in your book, the state, throughout history, has never negotiated with individuals? 

LJ: On Islam in France, there are already two perspectives that are emerging: the view of institutionalization and the view of the action of intellectuals. From this point of view, I am relatively optimistic in the medium term. In France, we are dealing with a Sunni Islam and not a Shiite one. Shiite Islam has the equivalent of a Church with a hierarchy and a stable body. Sunni Islam simply has prayer leaders called imams but does not have the equivalent of a Church. So, they are communities of prayer, communities of individuals under the leadership of the imam. Thus, the problem that the French state had to deal with, in particular with the Minister of the Interior Jean-Pierre Chevènement and more recently with François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron, has been to constitute institutional partners by appealing to the various movements that exist in France. Indeed, Turkey and the different countries of the Arab-Muslim world send imams that they finance themselves, and who are therefore delegates of these countries, which creates an ideological diversity that does not show real convergence. The problem is therefore to make spokesmen appear. In accordance with the will of the Minister of the Interior Gérald Darmanin, a Forum of religious associations has been created, which will be a place for discussion and deliberation. What is debatable, however, is that this Forum was formed from recruitments organized by the prefects in the departments. The state is extremely interventionist, and this is a real problem. But this institutionalisation project still has a chance of being realized, we cannot do it otherwise.

Furthermore, there needs to be a stronger link between Muslim intellectuals and believers. As some of these intellectuals say – first and foremost the philosopher, writer and president of the Fondation de l’Islam de France, Ghaleb Bencheikh – it is absolutely necessary that those who know, those who read, those who are of Muslim religion and who want to advance Muslim thought, speak out. A historical, philological and hermeneutic critique of the Quran must take place as it did for the Bible. Intellectuals must have enough of an audience to talk to non-Muslim intellectuals, in order to have a mix of intellectuals. Finally, these intellectuals must be able to reach the believers through the imams, and indeed, it is absolutely necessary to train imams in France and to put an end to so-called consular imams, i.e. mainly delegates from Turkey, Tunisia, Algeria or Marocco. We must put an end to these delegations which carry an ideology that is often hostile to the values of the Republic.

MR: We can finish with a thought on the recent news in France, by mentioning the presidential elections, with some candidates who go as far as to demand that the veil be banned in all public spaces.

LJ: They primarily want to expel all foreigners, and they may also be able to take advantage of the law on separatism (so-called “law consolidating respect for the principles of the Republic”) that has just been passed and which allows for stricter restrictions on religion. Of course, the foreigners who will be targeted are Muslim foreigners. This goes very far because it consists in using the power of the state in a way that is quite questionable and contrary to the Constitution.

For the presidential election, I observe two things. I observe that in reality, the debate on laïcité is not taking place. On the other hand, we have two candidates who are not launching a debate on laïcité but are creating a dogma of what they believe Islamism to be. Marine Le Pen has recently revised her positions, saying that she no longer conflates Islamism and Islam and that she has no problem with the Muslim faith. However, Éric Zemmour believes that one cannot distinguish one from the other on the basis that, according to him, the Quran is in contradiction with democracy. To say that the Quran is opposed to democracy is, it seems to me, too absolute. On the one hand, the Quran is very multifaceted. Certainly, there are violent aspects in the Quran that can be opposed to tolerance and religious peace. But there are many other elements. For example, when God spoke to Mohammed, he said: “Who are you to want to convert others? This is not your mission, you are simply my spokesman”. On the other hand, we must remember that the Catholic Church was for a long time at odds with democracy, taking a position against freedom of thought and in favour of censorship. Today, it considers that democracy is a regime that is completely compatible and favourable to Christianity. To say that Islam is contrary to democracy is to lock out the future. Eric Zemmour intends to lock out the future at all costs, whereas there are a variety of other elements in the Quran and in the Muslim religion, and our task in France is to rely on the right elements to help believers develop them.  There is now talk of an “Islam of France” which could develop rootedness.

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