Is the French State Really ‘Secular’? Some Reflections on Municipal Laïcité

Rennes City Hall on Place de la Mairie . Rennes, Brittany, FranceHow is laïcité – official state secularism – practiced in contemporary France? In this post, the Centre for Religion, Conflict and Globalisation’s Dr. Julia Martínez-Ariño discusses recent research in the cities of Rennes, Bordeaux and Toulouse to suggest that laïcité takes many forms in French municipalities – including the recognition and support of ‘religious’ actors and institutions.

On April 9, 2018, Président Emmanuel Macron addressed the Bishops’ Conference of France at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris. His speech – which proposed a reconsideration of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the French state, ultimately advocating for the Church to take on a greater role in public and political life – generated strong reactions from his political opponents. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, founder of the La France Insoumise movement, for example, posted a video on social media accusing Macron of contradicting the principle of laïcité and the separation of church and state, as established in France by the 1905 law.

For some, Macron’s intervention appears completely at odds with French state secularism. For others, however, it may be seen as just another example of the existing arrangements and forms of interaction and cooperation ongoing between public and religious authorities in contemporary France. To avoid being trapped in this dichotomy, it is important to keep in mind that laïcité can be understood in multiple and changing ways (Baubérot, 2015). Consequently, there is also not just one way of enacting or “practising” it.

Adopting an historical perspective is one strategy by which to analyse changes in the meaning(s) and practice(s) of state secularism over time. Another option is to examine concrete practices, so as to compare the reality on the ground with predominant representations and discourses about state secularism. In this sense, cities are good observatories. It is primarily in urban contexts that we see populations rapidly diversifying, citizens first getting in contact with state institutions, religious claims being raised, and state authorities offering responses to those claims. But how do municipal authorities in France handle religious issues? Do they adhere to a stance of strict state neutrality and zero contact with religious organisations? Or, by contrast, do they seek to establish channels of communication and partnership with ‘religious’ persons and organisations?

Municipal responses to religious diversity

In recent research in the cities of Rennes, Bordeaux and Toulouse, I observed the myriad ways in which ‘religion’ and ‘religious diversity’ are governed in contemporary France. Municipal authorities navigate the constraints established by the 1905 law and other legal regulations to respond to the requests related to religious practices posed by the cities’ inhabitants. Religious actors, in their turn, while wanting to maintain their independence from civil authorities in internal matters, turn to local state actors when their religious practice is affected by municipal competences or when local conditions interfere with or hinder it.

Three concrete examples from my research in the French cities of Rennes, Bordeaux and Toulouse are illustrative of the recurrent interactions between religious and state actors in France: 1) symbolic gestures made by urban politicians that recognise religious diversity in public; 2) municipal measures to support religious groups with financial or other forms of material resources; and 3) consultative bodies where religious and political authorities meet.

First, symbolic gestures are usually discursive resources used to grant recognition and legitimacy to certain groups and interests. In cases of symbolic gestures made by urban politicians to recognise religious diversity in public, these can take different forms. Two examples from my research serve as illustrations of this. The first is a speech given by the Mayor of Rennes on the opening of a new consultative body to discuss the municipal implementation of laïcité in 2015. On that occasion, she acknowledged the diversity of the population of the city, including its religious diversity. While this might, at first glance, seem either obvious or irrelevant, in France such a statement cannot be taken for granted. In a context where the citizenry of the Republic is understood to be indivisible, statements that recognise different intermediary affiliations, be they religious or ethnic, are not always welcomed (Bowen, 2017). As the French Minister of Education put it that same year, “the Republic does not acknowledge and will never acknowledge Muslim, Jewish, Christian or Atheist students; it only acknowledges future citizens.”

Another example of such a symbolic gesture is the presence of a municipal politician at a religious group’s major festival or celebration. This may happen when a religious community or group organises an event and invites representatives of the municipality to be part of the celebration, be it out of pure courtesy or as a means to, for example, achieve more visibility and legitimacy. In Bordeaux, for instance, a deputy mayor of the municipal government attended the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation that took place in the city. The mere presence of the politician in such an event shows that religious groups and state actors do not ignore each other. What is more, in his speech during the event, the deputy mayor acknowledged and celebrated the contribution that Protestants had made to the history of the Republic and to the city of Bordeaux, including five former mayors who were Protestants. Moreover, he went on to highlight some of the values that, for him, constitute the Protestant ethic, namely openness, tolerance and dialogue. This is just a small sign of recognition. Yet, it shows that there can be a wide range of interpretations and forms of enacting laïcité.

Second, despite Article 2 of the 1905 law stating that “The Republic neither acknowledges, nor pays for nor subsidises any form of worship,” there are many ways in which religious groups receive government funds at the local level. Much of this remains unnoticed because the money flows through indirect channels rather than direct budget transfers for religious activities. Examples of these are found in a wide range of domains of municipal intervention. One simple example would be the logistic support of municipal services to the organisation of “cultural” activities by religious groups. Another example of indirect support would be the help offered to spread information about interreligious encounters through municipal channels. These are rather small indirect ways of supporting the activities of religious organisations, which are often done (or justified) through their “cultural” character.

In other cases, however, state support to religious groups through municipal interventions is more evident. The most visible example is the funding of places of worship, which seems, at first glance, to contradict the spirit of laïcité. This includes both Catholic and minority faith buildings. Catholic churches built prior to 1905 that are considered “historical monuments” belong to the municipalities and are maintained by them. In the case of minority religions, there are fewer cases of historical buildings. However, some municipal governments have adopted measures to balance the situation. For example, in the city of Rennes, the municipality has built, funded and owns Islamic and Buddhist “cultural” centres. While these are meant to serve as spaces for cultural activities and the promotion of Islamic and Buddhist culture among the general population, they also include spaces for worship. In the beginning, when the first Islamic cultural centre was built in 1980, there was public contestation. And while the case reached the Conseil d’état, the main administrative court in France, its decision against the building was grounded on regulations about urban planning and distribution of public soil and not on grounds of laïcité, the 1905 law and the funding of religious groups.

Finally, all three cities in my study, Rennes, Bordeaux and Toulouse, have set up consultative bodies where religious actors are invited by the mayor to participate in and discuss current issues. The Comité Consultatif Laïcité de Rennes, Bordeaux Partage and Toulouse Fraternité – Conseil de la Laïcité are just three examples of a much broader trend of formal cooperation between state and religious actors in France. These bodies differ in their composition, rationale and motivations, and impact on urban policy. However, all three constitute participatory bodies where representatives of religious groups encounter representatives of the local state, and sometimes other secular and secularist groups, to represent the interests of the groups of the population they are deemed to represent. Although widespread in French and European cities, these governance settings do not remain uncontested. In the case of France, for example, small secularist (and atheist) groups, such as La Libre Pensée, have declined the invitation to participate in such bodies, arguing that the presence of religious authorities violates the 1905 law. These bodies are established, among other things, to promote laïcité. But isn’t the institutionalised interaction between religions and state actors to promote laïcité a contradiction in itself? For some, it is; for others, not at all.

Are French municipalities challenging state secularism?

Having read these examples of municipal measures governing religion and religious diversity, some questions come to mind: do these measures violate the 1905 law separating church and state in France? Are local state authorities challenging state secularism?

As we have seen, local state actors not only publicly recognise the presence of religious diversity in their localities, but provide religious groups with material resources, and engage them in public discussions and consultations about matters related to the municipal deployment of laïcité and the contributions that religions can make to promote mutual understanding and well living together. Do such measures challenge state secularism and violate the 1905 law?

This question is for the courts to decide. Until now, few of these policy measures have been questioned legally. However, beyond legal concerns and decisions, the question of whether the policies adopted by municipal governments in France to address religious issues challenges mainstream understandings of state secularism is a more complex one. I would argue that, in fact, they are precisely that: practices of laïcité. What these measures show is that there is not just one simple reading of laïcité. Interpretations of state secularism vary. Some of these measures may expand the meanings and limits of laïcité, while others may simply navigate the limits of the law using different strategies, including that of naming things “culture” instead of “religion.”

In light of this, then, Macron’s intervention can be seen as just one more example of the regular interactions between religious organisations and representatives of the state in France. The relevance and public visibility of the President’s intervention is, needless to say, of broader reach. Many of the policies I have investigated remain unnoticed or do not pass the boundaries of municipal debates and local press. They are often overshadowed by much more mediatised controversies and decisions, such as the (by now overruled) ban on use of the so-called “burkini” in municipal beaches in the summer of 2016, and the controversy around the presence of a statue of Jean Paul II in a public square in the municipality of Ploërmel. What in any case all these issues reveal is that state secularism and neutrality, the neutrality of public space, and other issues related to the public presence of religion remain both contested and contestable.



Baubérot, J. (2015). Les sept laïcités françaises: le modèle français de laïcité n’existe pas. Paris: Les Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme.

Bowen, J. R. (2017). French Republicanism and Pluralism. Accounting for Change in Diverse Societies. Retrieved from:

Biographical note

Dr. Julia Martínez-Ariño is Assistant Professor of Sociology of Religion at the University of Groningen. Her research interests include religious diversity, urban governance and state secularism.

Pic 1:
Rennes city hall.


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