La Laïcité – Secularism in France

During our two-day orientation, we spent a lot of time focusing on one of France’s most important rules in society: Secularism in the government and in schools. La Laïcité, or secularism, is something that is extremely important in French schools and in French society.

French is a secular country under the law. The two most domineering religions amongst citizens are Catholicism and Islam, though France identifies as a Secular country. You don’t see a politician in France tie his or her religion or personal beliefs into his or her politics when voting on laws that will affect everyone– at least not publicly; it is simply against the law. (For example, Nicholas Sarkozy, ex-president of France, passed a law banning the burqa in the public streets back in 2010 when I was studying in Caen. Sarkozy reasons that he did it for safety reasons, to protect citizens from potential terrorists who are hiding under the faceless robes as well as to protect women.)

Below is the translated document we received and discussed in depth, over and over again, during orientation. It lists all the rules, regulations, and details in the regulations of secularism in French schools.

La République est Laïque (The French Republic is Secular):

1. France is a secular, democratic, and social country, who assures equality under the law to all its citizens. France respects the beliefs of all people.

2. The Secular Republic organizes the separation of church and state. The state is neutral in regards to religious or spiritual convictions; there is no official religion of France.

3. Secularism guarantees freedom of conscious for all. Each person is at liberty to believe in anything or not to believe in anything at all.

4. Secularism permits the exercise of citizenship, while concealing the freedom of each individual with equality and brotherhood.

5. The French Republic assures respect of each of these principles in all educational establishments.

6. Secularism in schools offers students the chance to forge their own personality and citizenship. Secularism also gives students the chance to make their own choices in regards to religion.

7. Secularism assures access to a communal and shared culture.

8. Secularism permits students’ freedom of expression in the limit of respecting France’s values and convictions.

9. Secularism implies the rejection of all instances of violence and discrimination, guaranteeing equality between boys and girls as well as respect and understanding for all religions.

10. It is everyone’s responsibility to pass along a sense of worth to each and every student, in addition to all of the other principles of the French Republic.

11. Under no circumstance should an individual express his or her political or religious beliefs through speech or dress and any other matter whilst at work.

L’école est Laïque (School is Secular)

12. Teaching methods are secular. With the goal of guaranteeing students the most open, objective, and diverse views of the world, no subject that questions science shall be taught. No student may express a religious or political conviction in order to justify or answer a question.

13. Students may not use their religious affiliations or beliefs as an excuse to not conform to French laws.

14. In public schools, we respect secularism. It is forbidden to wear religious signs or symbols on school grounds.

15. Secularism is to be maintained in all school-related student activities.



I, along with many American assistants in France I have met, am torn on these French laws. It’s a very complicated set of regulations (and perhaps much too complicated for a single blog post), simply due to the fact that this absolutely does not exist to the same extreme in the United States. There are parts about these laws I feel are much better and more practical, and other parts I feel are actually more intolerant than in the states. Please note that while reading this I will express my own personal views and experiences. However, all of these opinions are my own, based on my own experiences– but also as someone who is aware of her privileges in life. I am going to try to keep this piece somewhat un-biased, but please realize that my feelings on La Laïcité are based on my own feelings and experiences of religious freedoms and politics in the United States.

Here is why France Has it Right (IMHO):

Even though the United States claims to be a country who claims to be tolerant and “separates the church and state,” we simply do not. For example, some politicians have no problem integrating American values with Christian values, and God, even though church and state are not supposed to mix. The United States has the word “God” and the slogan,”One Nation Under God,” in our Pledge of Allegiance and engrained within our Constitution; I understand and respect that these are important historical documents, and I understand that each person interprets “God” differently, whether it be in a religious manner or otherwise. However I think it is still wrong that the United States government politicians continuously reference, interpret, and justify their religious-based politics (even if it is an important part of their PERSONAL lives) with the reasoning being that “This is what our Founding Fathers wanted,” even though these documents were written over 300 years ago.

In France, marriage is a governmental institution, not a religious one. You need to be married in the town hall before you can be married in a church. France’s president recognized and passed same-sex marriage earlier this year– there was no vote or debate. Instead of having politicians debate and the citizens vote on whether or not two people have the right to love each other, Hollande simply passed the law, regardless of his own religious beliefs, because it is an equal right for all people. (And as I said before, marriage is not religiously-based in France, but it is a way for two people to unite their love and get a huge tax deduction).

Finally, during all of my time in France, I have never seen a commercial, advertisement or a protest questioning or discussing women’s reproductive rights, because in France these views are private and between women and their doctors– not politicians and the churches. My French friend explained to me, “In France, everyone is Pro-Choice because it’s the law.

Here is Why France Has it Wrong (IMHO):

I think la Laïcité denies the freedom of religious expression, and therefore creates more religious intolerances (and over the past four years, I’ve come to further support this statement and further question the legality and consistency of la laïcité.) Students and teachers, and citizens in the United States can wear their Islamic or Sikh head wraps wherever they go. People can also wear their religious crosses and Stars of David’s and display their religious-based tattoos. I believe that by displaying and discussing these differences rather than hiding them, we eliminate religious intolerance. I believe if we can be more open about religion, we can better understand different people and cultures; both France and the United States welcomes many immigrants with different religious practices and ways of life. Additionally, I believe French secular laws are racist and xenophobic, and that they wrongly target a very specific (and already oppressed) group of people. With the issues of the Burkini Bans in 2016, as well as France’s continuation of displaying crèches (nativity scenes) in the town halls, I find myself agreeing with the ideals of France’s secularism less and less.

What do you think about religious Secularism (la laïcité) in France?



13 thoughts on “La Laïcité – Secularism in France

  1. I’m coming at this very late in the game, but how do French schools justify their holiday schedules/public days off in relation to la laicite? It seems most public holidays revolve around the Catholic church and I can’t find anything specifically addressing it. It seems to me that if the schools were truly secular, holidays would be based on just regular intervals of time off to break up instruction. Since breaks are longer over there, perhaps they just tend to cover everyone’s needs in one break? Are there penalties for students who take an extra day off for a religious reason?

  2. Je crois que vous faites erreur en pensant que les lois relatives à la laïcité sont racistes et visent les peuples opprimés. Les lois sur la laïcité ont été encouragées de manière égale par la droite et la gauche, que l’on ne saurait en aucun cas qualifier de raciste !
    Au delà de cette pirouette un peu facile plusieurs arguments plaident contre votre analyse.

    D’abord,lors de sa première apparition légale en 1905, la laïcité était tournée contre la religion dominante, à savoir catholique particulièrement, avec la loi de séparation de l’église et de l’Etat. La motivation en était simple : le pouvoir doit venir du peuple, pas d’une entité mystique.

    Le Temporel aux gens d’Etat, le Spirituel à ceux d’église
    Aux politiques le pouvoir, aux religieux et leurs fidèles libres de pratiquer, l’Eglise.

    On est donc, dès l’origine, loin de la notion de racisme, parce que la loi ne vise pas une ethnie ou une nation particuliers, mais une religion, qui plus est dominante en son propre pays, et pour redonner plus de pouvoir aux électeurs eux mêmes majoritairement catholiques, plutôt qu’à un clergé.

    Ensuite, et corollaire de ce premier point, le fait de séparer fait religieux et fait politique, n’interdit en rien aux “peuples opprimés” de voter. N’oublions pas qu’en France le droit du sol commande à la nationalité, et donc au droit de vote, et que ça n’est pas parce que on limite le port de signes religieux dans des lieux publics, qu’on prive quiconque de droits civils ou politiques. Encore moins de convictions.

    Enfin dernier point, l’insistance qui peut vous paraître coupable, en France, à propos de la laïcité, tient en 2 idées simples :

    la première est que en opposition totale avec la loi de 1905, certains essaient de faire primer des exigences religieuses sur des textes de lois voulus par le peuple français, les électeurs suels souverain au sein de la République.
    Et ce que l’on a interdit à l’église catholique à l’époque, est également appliqué à d’autres religions qui seraient tentées par les mêmes travers.

    La seconde est que devant la montée en puissance des fondamentalismes, le port de certains signes religieux apparaît comme une véritable provocation, notamment en usant de tenues totalement inadaptées au climat de la France métropolitaine, et reléguant dans certains cas la Femme à une place peu enviable, ou en imposant dans certain cas à certains le port de tenues qu’ils ne souhaiteraient pas spontanément porter. Ce qui est donc absolument incompatible avec les lois de la République;

    La laïcité ne procède pas du racisme, c’est tout l’inverse. Elle vise l’absence de provocation, et le respect des croyances de chacun, dans un domaine privé qui ne s’imposerait à quiconque.

    Le gros défaut que l’on peut attribuer aux français n’est finalement pas de prôner la laïcité, puisque la loi de 1905 est toujours d’actualité, mais de créer des lois à chaque nouvel événement, ce qui peut passer pour de l’acharnement. Mais nous sommes ainsi faits, toujours à penser qu’une nouvelle réglementation va limiter l’apparition d’une difficulté.

    Les français sont loin d’être parfaits, mais racistes, rien n’est moins sûr !

    PS Sinon il n’existe plus de “huge” déduction fiscales lorsqu’on se marrie depuis 5 ou 6 ans…

    1. Merci de votre commentaire. Il est vrai que mes vues sur la laïcité se développent de plus en plus en tant que je reste plus longtemps en France. Je suis d’accord avec les faits que vous adressez en haut à props de l’histoire de la loi et de ses origines pour ne plus donner de pouvoir à l’église. Mais croyez-vous qu’aujourd’hui il y a certaines d’aspects à reconsidérer? Surtout à propos des symbols religieux à l’école. A mon avis d’avoir une salle de classe qui est tout le même est ennuyeuse, il faut mieux (à mon avis) pour tout le monde d’avoir le droit à s’exprimer dans n’importe quelle manière. Comme ça on peut apprendre un peu plus de nos voisins; comprendre les vues différentes et se discuter un peu.

      De plus, dans la religion catholique (soit dans le christianisme ) il n’est pas obligatoire de porter un croix par exemple (sauf si vous êtes une nonne ou un prêtre); mais dans la religion musulmane ou sikh il est souvent obligatoire de porter quelque chose sur la tête, ça veut dire quelque chose entièrement différente. A mon avis d’interdire quelque chose de cette manière, c’est mal. Il y a plein de gens qui disent que les femmes musulmanes n’ont pas le choix à porter ce qu’elles veulent, mais souvent ce n’est pas du tout le cas– c’est un choix. Pourquoi ne pas les demander?

    1. Thank you 🙂

      I think that I’ve lived in France a bit longer now my views have slightly changed but are more or less the same 🙂

  3. I don’t know if times, they have a changed, or if each Académie instructs assistants differently, but I learned nothing about secularism. In regards to holidays, the only instruction we received was to teach about American traditions.

    At Christmas, the students listened twice to a dramatic reading of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” that I found on youtube, with illustrations from one of the earliest books. The first time they just watched and listened; the second time they tried to fill in the blanks on the handouts I had given them of the poem. Then I shared with them different variations of the poem and divided the class into pairs. Each pair had to write their own “Twas the Night Before” poem. It was one of my most successful lessons of the entire year, with the students being really creative and stretching the limits of their English.

    I had planned on doing a Halloween lesson, but it didn’t really work with the timing of the Toussaint. All my lessons for the first six weeks or so were basically me introducing myself, the students asking me questions, me teaching American slang, and the students introducing themselves. No time for Halloween!

    The only other holiday we did in class was St. Patrick’s Day. My contact teacher was actually married to an Irish man, and they had lived in Ireland previously. I assisted with a large class of hers every week (an English drama class! an elective! with excited students!), and that week she taught us an Irish jig.

    1. Yeah, that’s interesting! I wonder if it depends on each academie! I am teaching Halloween after break, but we are just talking about it, not celebrating it. PS- great lesson plan ideas 🙂

  4. I think I have similar views as you do about the Laicite laws in France. I think that religion and government should be separate, and that US politicians often mix politics and religion innappropriatly. I think France is taking laïcité it to an extreme, though. I agree with you that being able to display religious symbols in the US does help people to accept and understand cultural differences. In my opinion, if the French want children to be truly equal in schools they should have a uniform. Otherwise the laws with the dress code are really just discriminatory against people coming from other cultures or with religious views.
    Things have actually changed since I was an assistant. They actually encouraged us to give lessons on the holidays we celebrate in our cultures including Halloween and Christmas. I agree that curriculums for children should not be based around holidays since there are students that don’t celebrate all holidays. The federally funded Head Start preschool program that I worked for in the US actually does not allow teachers to plan holiday units for this reason. I do think, though, that part of having a language assistant is for the cultural exchange and if an assistant is explaining how holidays are celebrated in his or her country the lesson could be interesting for students of all different backgrounds.

    1. Hey Mary! Great points! I’m glad for the most part we think the same. I really like your ideas about uniforms, because to me it just feels wrong to tell someone that they cannot wear their wraps or scarves, or Jewish head coverings– religion is a huge part of so many people’s lives. I had a lot of students who wore these things last year and I think learning more about their home lives made me understand them better.

      I agree that the whole point of having a language assistant is to integrate cultures- I actually am doing a Halloween lesson, but the biggest things they emphasized at our training a were to teach and not celebrate- so I guess there is a difference if we do it correctly. 🙂

      It was interesting in France’s rules of Secularism how being secular allows students to choose religion freely, but i feel that allowing students to express or talk about their religion would maybe help that more? I’m not sure- we could talk for ages about this!

      Bisous, xoxox

  5. intéressant.La question est pourquoi la France est un pays laÏque Nous avons connu les guerres de religions(la saint- barthélemy) En plus la révolution Française c,est faite contre la noblesse et le clergé.Pensez vous qu,un président Américain en 2013 pourrai être élue en Amérique si il disait au peuple Américain qu,il ne croit pas en dieu.Trouvez vous normal que la président Bush quand il était président faisait des prières avec ses ministres a la maison blanche.Pour ce qui est de la burqua en France la plupart des femmes qui la porte en public le font pour des raisons politique.De ce que je sais de l,islam et de mes amis musulman la burqua na rien de religieux .

    1. Bonjour, merci beaucoup pour votre commentaire ! Vous posez de tres bonnes questions. Vous avez raison, la France s’est etablie comme laique apres des centaines des guerres, etc !

      Malheureusement je crois que les Etats-Unis ne sont pas prets d’avoir un president qui ne croit pas en Dieu. A mon avis ca c’est un grand problem car comme j’explique dans mon blog, c’est tres difficile pour les politiciens de separer la religion et l’etat. De plus, de ne pas croire en Dieu est la troisieme plus populaire “religion” aux Etats-Unis; c’est tres commun mais pas accepte.

      Comme j’explique dans mon blog, la religion reste tres importante aux citoyens americains. Donc quand Bush fait des prieres a la maison blanche, sur la tele, etc. C’est normal, y a beaucoup de citoyens qui y apprecient et qui y sont d’accords, meme que je ne suis pas d’accord moi-meme et vraiment ses actions ne sont pas du tout la separation de l’eglise et de l’etat.

      Merci de m’expliquer un peu plus la burqua. L’annee derniere j’ai passe du temps parlant avec des femmes musalmanes. Elles m’ont expliquee un peu aussi le vrai sens de la burqua; c beaucoup plus complique et symolique que la majorite des gens y croient.

      Merci de commenter!

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