Religious freedom in France

Religious freedom in France

Freedom of religion is guaranteed in France by the constitutional rights set forth in the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

However, in recent years, some legislation and government actions were taken against some groups considered to be dangerous or criminal. Officials and associations fighting excesses of such groups, justified these measures by the need to have appropriate legal tools and the need to fight criminal organizations masquerading as legitimate religious groups. Critics contended that those actions unfairly targeted minority religions, jeopardized freedom of religion, and were motivated by prejudice. The matters were made even more complex by the fact that some of the groups involved are based in the United States, which prompted the intervention of the government of that country.


Use of language in French / English

There are several misleading false cognates between French and English regarding religion:
* The French "culte" means "(religious) worship", or, in a legal context, an organized "religion", taken in a broad sense. An "organisation cultuelle" is thus an organization that supports religious worship, not a "cult". As explained below, there are financial and other operational constraints for being recognized as an "association cultuelle" for tax purposes.
* The French "secte" can have the meaning of the English sect, especially when applied to Buddhism. However, in general parlance, it has the derogatory meaning of the English "cult".

Government and religious organizations

The relationship between government and religious organizations in France is defined by the 1905 "Law concerning the separation of the churches and the state" ("Loi concernant la séparation des Églises et de l'Etat"). Its first sentence is, though: :"The Republic assures freedom of conscience. It guarantees the free exercise of religious worship under the sole restrictions hereafter in the interest of public order. The Republic does not grant recognition nor pay nor subsidises any church." ("La République assure la liberté de conscience. Elle garantit le libre exercice des cultes sous les seules restrictions édictées ci-après dans l'intérêt de l'ordre public. La République ne reconnaît, ne salarie ni ne subventionne aucun culte.")

The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which is considered by legal authorities to have equal legal standing with the Constitution of France, states::"No one may be questioned about his opinions, [and the] same [for] religious [opinions] , provided that their manifestation does not trouble the public order established by the law."and::"The law has the right to ward [i.e., forbid] only actions [which are] harmful to the society. Any thing which is not warded [i.e., forbidden] by the law cannot be impeded, and no one can be constrained to do what it [i.e., the law] does not order."

Thus it follows that the French government cannot arbitrarily regulate and prohibit religious activity; it is strictly constrained to regulate it only to the extent that there is a need to safeguard public order and prohibit actions harmful to society (such as, for instance, human sacrifices).

The French concept of religious freedom did not grow out of an existing pluralism of religions but has its roots in a history with Roman Catholicism as the single official religion and including centuries of persecution of people not endorsing it, or straying from the most official line, from the Cathars to the Hugenots and the Jansenists – this lasted until the French Revolution.

French insistence on the lack of religion in all things public ("laïcité" or secularism) is a notable feature in the French ideal of citizenship. This concept of secularism, also plays a role in ongoing discussions about the wearing of scarves by Muslim women in public schools. In 2004, the French Parliament passed a law prohibiting the wearing of ostentatious religious garb in public primary and secondary schools; motivations included the tradition of keeping religious and political debates and proselytism out of such schools, as well as the preservation of the freedom of Muslim female students forced to wear certain costumes out of peer pressure. "See French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools."

The French Republic has always recognised individuals rather than groups and holds that its citizens' first allegiance is to society in general and not to a particular group, religious or otherwise; the opposing attitude, known as "communautarisme", is generally considered undesirable in political discourse in France. On the other hand, the state sees that it is also responsible to protect individuals from groups rather than to protect groups, religious or others.

Apart from special cases due to historical circumstances (the Alsace-Moselle and the military chaplaincy regimes), the French government is prohibited by law from granting official recognition to religion, and is also prohibited from subsidizing them or paying their personnel.However the government grants recognition to legal entities (associations) supporting religious activities. The difference is important, since the French government refuses to legally define what is a religion and what is not, and refuses to legally delimit the boundaries of religions. The state has a role in the appointment of bishops, directly in the case of Strasbourg and Metz, and indirectly (but with a rarely used power of veto)in that of other diocesan bishops. In consequence only suitable nationals are appointed and the episcopate does not reflect the ethnic diversity of practising Catholics in France.

Individuals organizing as groups with the exclusive purpose of worship ("associations cultuelles") may register as such and get significant tax exemptions set by law. Religious groups with non-worship (e.g. humanitarian) activities are free to get organized as associations with the usual tax exemptions granted to secular associations. These definitions are covered by an extensive body of jurisprudence (roughly, case law) which focuses on the activities of the groups from a financial point of view, and does, according to law, not take religious doctrine into account.

The population of France is roughly 70% Roman Catholic, 20% not religious, 10% Muslim; church attendance is low among Catholics, and polls indicate that a significant proportion of the population is atheist or agnostic. Since the French government does not collect data on religious preferences, all quoted numbers should be considered with caution.

Attitudes with respect to minority religions and cults in France

Since the 1970s and 1980s an increasing number of new religious movements have become active in France.


France, as well as other countries, was aware of various tragedies caused by groups labeled as "destructive cults" such as Jonestown, the Branch Davidians and Aum Shinrikyo, and, closer, the suicides and murders of the Order of the Solar Temple which happened in Quebec, Switzerland and France. Furthermore, some groups such as the Church of Scientology were accused of defrauding their members.

The population in general is not in favor of cults. In 2000, a representative 1000 person [ poll] indicated that the majority of the polled people considered cults a significant threat to democracy (73%), their family and friends (66%), and themselves (64%) and 86% (76% of adherents of other religions than Catholicism) favored legislation restricting cults.

Leaders of the French Protestant minority claim that freedom of religion was actually well protected in France and that cultural sensitivity and careful relationships with local authorities and other Christians could prevent most difficulties.
* Jean-Arnold de Clermont, president of the French Association of Protestants:::"I have no time for the idea that we live in a country that represses religious liberties. We continue to enjoy total freedom in setting up religious organizations as long as the existing legislation is known and applied."
*Stéphane Lauzet, the Nîmes-based general secretary of the French Evangelical Alliance (part of the World Evangelical Fellowship):::"Christian groups encounter problems mostly when they misunderstand or ignore the complex technicalities of French law. Even aggressive evangelists can work without any real problems as long as they stick to the law."

Complaints by minority religions and groups

Some groups have complained that, following from the publications of those reports and the enactment of the About-Picard law, they have suffered from discrimination by public authorities, private corporations and individuals.

The group " [ Coordination des Associations et Particuliers pour la Liberté de Conscience] ", founded in January 2002, requested::"the dissolution of the MILS as its very purpose, "to fight against sects," is an affront to the French Constitution which guarantees the religious neutrality of the State and the principle of separation of Church and State":"the repeal of any discriminatory law containing the word "cult," "sect," "cultic," or "sectarian" as laws should not specify groups as "sectarian" or "cultic" as, in a democracy, all individuals and groups should be treated equally and in the same manner." [] This group, however, has been qualified by an 2005 OSCE report as a partisan organization whose "allegations are essentially anonymous and thus of uncertain provenance and reliability." []

Some limited controversy occurred in France concerning alleged religious discrimination regarding the security measures that the French government has deployed for official visits of Chinese officials and for festivities organised in collaboration with China, including the exclusion of pro-Tibet and pro-Falun Gong protesters from the path of the Chinese officials [] [] [] . The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights denounced the warm welcome of president Jiang Zemin in France, which it denounced as being motivated by economic prospects of trade with China [] .Many French politicians have denounced what they considered to be an over-zealous security apparatus in those visits [] [] Similar controversial security measures have been implemented for the visit of US president George W. Bush, another foreign head of state controversial in France. []

Conflicts with minority religions of U.S. origin

Some American minority religions did have problems with officials caused by lack of cultural sensitivity and understanding of the French state's attitude to religion, which differs significantly from the U.S. attitude. [] Similarly, the recourses that several associations of American origin brought before U.S. authorities with respect to purely internal problems in France resulted in accusations by elected officials, government officials, editorialists and anti-cult movements of unwarranted meddling by a foreign government, as well as suspicions that some of these associations had used their financial clout to push U.S. authorities into acting in that respect (some of the lobbying actions considered normal in the United States would be considered inappropriate or even bordering on bribery in France).

An important point of French law is that the state neither grants nor withdraws recognition of "religions", but only acts with respect to associations (legal entities). The legal criteria applied do not question the religion's dogmas (except if these dogmas were against public order, say, if they advocated human sacrifices), but concern mostly financial operations. On several occasions, some groups have claimed that they had been officially recognized as religions (like the Jehovah Witnesses in 2000 [] ), or claimed that they were unfairly not recognized as religions. What these groups alluded to was whether some of the legal entities that they use to support religious activities were recognized as "associations cultuelles" under the 1905 law. However, such argumentation ignoring basic legal concepts of French law was used in order to lobby American lawmakers.

Another area of differences is the legal framework in which religions operate, which differs in some technical respects with the one in the US. One potential area of conflict is, e.g., the French definition of "association cultuelle" as an organization exclusively for worship purpose. Religious groups combining worship and humanitarian activities, as usual in many other countries, are not seen as "association cultuelle" but treated like secular non-profit organizations with respect to taxation issues. The usual solution to this issue, as applied by most religions, is to simply have separate associations for worship purposes and for other purposes; a separate association may be established for humanitarian activities, since these can get substantial tax advantages.

Another potential area of conflict is that general regulations in France make no exceptions for religious organizations — thus, they have to submit to, say, the same building or safety regulations as any other organizations.

Following the political debate over the past two years in France over the question of laïcité, some have alleged that religious organizations are often looked at with more suspicion than secular groups. In the words of pastor Jean-Arnold de Clermont, president of the French Protestant Federation (FPF)::"Some officials are looking more carefully and zealously at any domain that involves religion. It's not very serious and it's marginal but it's very annoying." []

Reports by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom

In its 2000 annual report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor of the U.S. Department of State, it was reported that "The ensuing publicity [by the release of a parliamentary report against "sectes"] contributed to an atmosphere of intolerance and bias against minority religions. Some religious groups reported that their members suffered increased intolerance after having been identified on the list."

In its 2004 annual report by the same commission it reports that " [...] official government initiatives and activities that targets "sects" or "cults" have fueled an atmosphere of intolerance toward members of minority religions in France. [...] These initiatives [the publication of reports characterizing specific groups as dangerous and the creating of agencies to monitor and fight these groups] and are particularly troubling because they are serving as models for countries in Eastern Europe where the rule of law and other human rights are much weaker than in France".

They conclude with an assessment that since the restructuring of the main agency concerned with this issue (referring to the new MIVILUDES replacing its predecessor, MILS), have reportedly improved religious freedoms in France. [ Download PDF]

In its February 2004 statement, the commission recommended that the U.S. government urge the government of France to ensure that any state regulations on public expression of religious belief or affiliation adhere strictly to international human rights norms and that the French government and legislature should be urged to reassess their initiatives in light of its international obligations to ensure that every person in France is guaranteed the freedom to manifest his or her religion or belief in public, or not to do so.

The Commission went on by giving advice to the French government that it should start to tackle immigration issues, which have been a topic of hot political debate for the past 25 years::"The Commission also stated that though increased immigration in France in recent years has created new challenges for the French government, including integration of these immigrants into French society as well as problems of public order, these challenges should be addressed directly [...] "

The commission did not include France in their 2005 report.

Government activities against cults

"See also About-Picard_law#Reactions "

Actions of the national government

In 1982 premier minister Pierre Mauroy requested a report on "sectes" which was delivered by Alain Vivien in 1983. The "Rapport Vivien" [] outlines problems of families, possible reasons for this sudden increase in such groups, sects as described by themselves and by others, the legal situation in France and abroad, and recommends some actions like education of children in the sense of laiceté, better information of the general public, mediation between families and adherents by a family court, help to French adherents abroad, attention on the rights of children. It concludes with the Voltaire quotation: "Que chacun dans sa loi cherche en paix la lumière." ("So that everyone within its law can search in peace for the light")

The National Assembly instituted the first Parliamentary Commission on Cults in France in 1995, headed by parliament members Alain Gest and Jacques Guyard, following the mass suicide of adepts of the Order of the Solar Temple.

On March 21, 2000, the Justice Court of Paris found Jacques Guyard guilty of defamation for having called Anthroposophy a "secte" ("cult") practicing "mental manipulation". He was fined FF 20,000 and ordered to pay FF 90,000 to the anthroposophical Federation of Steiner schools. The Court stated that "the investigation [of that parliamentary report] was not serious. It is proved that it only considered affidavits by alleged 'victims' of Anthroposophy but that neither the authors of these affidavits nor the alleged perpetrators were heard by the [parliamentary] commission". The Paris judges also decided to strip Guyard of his parliamentary immunity in connection with this case." (Le Monde March 23, 2000)

The most controversial part of the report was the appendix, where a list of purported cults compiled by the general information division of the French National Police ("Renseignements généraux") was reprinted. It contained 173 groups, including Jehovah's Witnesses, the Theological Institute of Nîmes (a fundamentalist Christian Bible college), and the Church of Scientology. Although this list has no statutory or regulatory importance, it is at the background of the criticism directed at France with respect to freedom of religion.

Major concerns listed in these official reports and other discussions include:
* the well-being of children raised in religious communities that isolate themselves from the rest of society, or, at least, ask their members to avoid social interaction with the rest of society;
* child abuse, especially abusive corporal punishment or sexual abuse;
* the defrauding of vulnerable members by the religious management;
* suicides and killings in destructive cults;
* the advocacy of medical practices that are generally considered unsafe, and the prohibition of some "mainstream" medical practices;
* the aggressive proselytizing of minors and vulnerable persons;
* the hidden influence peddling of certain groups in the administration and political circles.

The government of Alain Juppé created in 1996 the "Observatoire interministériel des sectes" ("interministerial board of observation of cults") which delivered yearly reports and out of which grew in 1998 the "Interministerial Mission in the Fight Against Sects/Cults" (MILS) headed by Alain Vivien, was formed in 1998 to coordinate government monitoring of "sectes". In February 1998 MILS released its annual report on the monitoring of sects.

The "Interministerial Mission in the Fight Against Sects/Cults" (MILS) headed by Alain Vivien, was formed in 1998 to coordinate government monitoring of "sectes" (name given to cults in France). In February 1998 MILS released its annual report on the monitoring of sects. The activities of the MILS and Alain Vivien's background as the head of an anti-cult organization raised serious concerns and critiques from several human rights organizations and government bodies (See also About-Picard law#Reactions). In 1999, Vivien was put under police protection following threats and the burglary of his home (L'Humanité, January 14, 1999; [] ).

Vivien resigned in June 2002 under criticism from groups targeted by the Report on Cult activities [] . The Church of Scientology alleged that MILS under Vivien's management had wasted taxpayers' money on trips around the world. [ [ Éthique et Liberté : Journal de l’Église de Scientologie - La MILS ] ] An interministerial working group was formed to determine the future parameters of the Government's monitoring of sects, called the "Interministerial Mission for Monitoring and Combatting Cultic Deviances" (MIVILUDES; [ official site] ).

Headed by Jean-Louis Langlais, senior civil servant at the Ministry of the Interior, MIVILUDES was charged with observing and analyzing movements that constitute a threat to public order or that violate French law, coordinating the appropriate response, informing the public about potential risks, and helping victims to receive aid. In its announcement of the formation of MIVILUDES, the Government acknowledged that its predecessor, MILS, had been criticized for certain actions abroad that could have been perceived as contrary to religious freedom. In an interview given in March 2003, Langlais emphasized that the issue at stake is not to fight "sects" as such but merely "deviances" these might have. However, he also admitted that it is difficult to define the concept of "deviances".

In May 2005 the former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin issued a circular indicating that the list of cults published on the parliamentary report should no longer be used to identify cults. [ [ Circulaire du 27 mai 2005 relative à la lutte contre les dérives sectaires] ]


In a number of cases, minority religious groups have litigated against the national or local governments, or against private organizations, which they deemed to have infringed on their rights because of religious prejudice.

*In 2001 the psychiatrist Jean-Marie Abgrall and called for by French justice as an expert concerning cult affairs won a court suit deposed against him by the Rael Movement (Belgian branch). The latter movement had seen two of its members convicted for child abuse [ [ Procès Raël contre Jean-Marie Abgrall] , Prevensectes fr icon]
* On December 18, 2002, the Court of Appeal of Versailles reversed a decision by a lower court and convicted Jean-Pierre Brard – a French deputy, "Journal 15-25 ans", and the director of publication of this magazine, of libeling the Jehovah's Witnesses. The court ordered that a communiqué drafted by it be published in "Journal 15-25 ans" as well as in a national daily paper and that the defendants pay €4,000 to the Christian Federation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The verdict related to a September 2001 report on sects published by Journal 15-25 ans, where Brard accused the Jehovah’s Witnesses of employing the same methods as international criminal organizations. In March 2003, Brard appealed the verdict to the Court of Cassation, which is the highest court in the country for such matters. []
* On November 6, 2002, the Auch court of large claims ordered the dissolution of an organization that had been explicitly created to prevent Jehovah’s Witnesses from constructing a place of worship in Berdues. The court found that the organization’s goal was to "hinder the free exercise of religion". []
* On October 17, 2002, the administrative court of Orléans annulled a municipal decision issued by the mayor of Sorel-Moussel, which granted him the preemptive right to purchase a plot of land that the local Jehovah’s Witness community had intended to buy and use for the construction of a house of worship. The court considered that the mayor had abused his right of preemption, since he exerted it without having an urbanization project prior to preemption. []
* On June 13, 2002, the administrative court of Poitiers annulled a municipal decision issued by the mayor of La Rochelle, which refused the use of a municipal room to the Jehovah's Witnesses on grounds that the Witnesses were listed in the 1995 parliamentary report; the court ruled that, while a mayor may refuse the use of a room for a motive of public order, the motive that he used in this case was not a motive of public order. []
* Associations of Jehovah's Witnesses have lost and won court cases regarding their tax-exempt status. "See main article Jehovah's Witnesses and governments#France."
*On March 21, 2000, the Justice Court of Paris found Jacques Guyard, one of the main author of the controversial parliamentary report against "sects" guilty of defamation for having called Anthroposophy a cult practicing "mental manipulation". He was fined, and his parliamentary immunity removed in connection with this case. (Le Monde March 23, 2000)

See also

* 1905 French law on the separation of Church and State
* Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
* European Convention on Human Rights
* Religious freedom
* Religious intolerance


External links

Official French government sites and documents

* [ Legifrance] – texts of laws and executive decisions
* [ Vivien Report 1983 (French)]
* [ Gent-Guyard Report 1995 (French)] [ unofficial translation]
* [ Guyard Report 1999, Cults and money (French)]
* [ The 2003 report of the French Mission on Cultic Deviances MIVILUDES (French)] [ unofficial translation]

Council of Europe

* [ Council of Europe: Resolution 1309 (2002) Freedom of religion and religious] minorities in France]
* [ Doc. 9612 Freedom of religion and religious minorities in France]
* [ Council of Europe: Recommendation 1412 (1999) Illegal activities of sects]

Private groups

* [ France and Religious Intolerance] Index of documents at the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights
* [ Discussion of MIVILUDES] (bulletin of the French Protestant Federation)
* [ Report On Discrimination Against Spiritual And Therapeutical Minorities In France] , by the "Coordination des Associations & Particuliers pour la Liberté de Conscience"
* [ Church Of Scientology Humans Rights office in France]
* [ Administrative Barriers Obstruct Evangelical Growth in France] "Christian Today", Feb 9, 2005
* [ "Under Suspicion: Faith in France" by George Thomas "CBN News," July 25, 2003] (contains criticism of nonexistent sections of the law)
* [ The "Viviengate"] – a criticism of Alain Vivien's action (in French)
* [ Bruno Fouchereau: "Secular society at stake. Europe resists American cults" (Monde diplomatique, June 2001)]
* [ Marci Hamilton: Why the U.S.'s International Religious Freedom Commission Is Harming Its Status In the World Community]
* [ French Views of Religious Freedom]
* [ Stephen A. Kent: The French and German versus American Debate Over New Religions, Scientology, and Human Rights]
* [ Robert Jacques: Religious liberty and French secularism]
* Introvigne, Massimo & Richardson, James T., "Western Europe, Postmodernity, and the Shadow of the French Revolution: A Response to Soper and Robbins", Symposium on Government Policy Toward Unconventional Religions in Europe, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 40 I.2 p.181, June 2001
* Introvigne, Massimo. & Richardson, James T., "Brainwashing" Theories in European Parliamentary and Administrative Reports on "Cults" and "Sects", Symposium on Government Policy Toward Unconventional Religions in Europe, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 40 I.2 p.43, June 2001
* Palmer, Susan J. "The secte Response to Religious Discrimination: Subversives, Martyrs, or Freedom Fighters in the French Sect Wars?", article published in the book edited by Phillip Charles Lucas & Thomas Robbins "New Religious Movements in the 21st Century" published by Routledge (2004) ISBN 0-415-96577-2
* Wybraniec, John & Finke Roger, "Religious Regulation and the Courts: The Judiciary's Changing Role in Protecting Minority Religions from Majoritarian Rule", Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol.40 I.3 p.427, September 2001
* [ Open letter to president Chirac by Scientology]
* [ Public reply by the French government to the open letter]

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