Religion, Political & Legal Structures

The current Constitution of France dates to 1958 and was authored during the government of President Charles de Gaulle. It is influenced by the revolutionary document, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen [Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen, 1789] which promotes the concept of natural human rights, that is, those rights that are universally valid at all times and in all places. Article 10 of the Déclaration states: “No one may be persecuted on account of his opinions, even religious ones, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by the law.”[1]

A 1905 law officially separated church and state, and the government grants no direct funding of any religious group (though officially recognized groups do receive certain tax exemptions, and churches and synagogues built prior to 1905 are maintained by the state). Following the 1905 Act, religion was understood be part of the private lives of French citizens, while its institutional roles were assumed by the state, especially in the realm of education.[2] The 1958 constitution ensures “the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race, or religion. It shall respect all beliefs.”[3] It is illegal to personally interfere with the religious belief or practice of another citizen, and racial or religiously motivated attacks against French citizens are punishable by law.

However, in the name of “public order,” various controversial laws and policies restrict the expression of religious identity and permit monitoring of minority religious groups. For example, a 2010  law forbids wearing garments that cover one’s face in public, referring specifically to forms of Islamic veiling (the niqab). Refusal to remove the face veil carries either a €150 fine or attendance at a course on French citizenship. A €30,000 fine is also given to anyone who coerces a woman to wear a face veil against her will, which is doubled if the woman is a minor. Public school students are barred from wearing any conspicuous religious symbols, which includes large Christian crosses, Islamic veils, Jewish skullcaps, or Sikh turbans.

In recent years, debate over public display of religious symbols has centered around the “burkini,” a swimsuit that includes a built-in, waterproof headscarf for those who keep their heads covered in public. In August 2016, a series of French towns attempted to ban the burkini from public beaches. Widespread public outrage changed the national conversation, however, when media reports emerged that a Nice police officer had attempted to physically remove a beachgoer’s burkini. Ultimately, the local bans were suspended by France’s highest court.



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[1] Bowen, Why The French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, The State, and Public Space, p. 22.

[2] Davie, “Religion and Laicite,” pp. 195–215.

[3] “France,” International Religious Freedom Report for 2012, U.S. State Department (2012),, accessed April 2, 2014.

Image Sources:

Declaration of the Rights of Man, by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier (1789), Wikimedia Commons

I“Minimum flesh required.” Photo by Bruno Sanchez-Andrade Nuño, Flickr Creative Commons.