Can You Practice Islam Freely In France?

2 hands palms facing up praying over Koran main

French laws have decreased the ability to freely practice Islam in France while Muslims (since the 1960s) are a growing population in the country. The country has a strong tradition, known as “laïcité, of separation of church and state. It does fund religious institutions in various respects, which in practice favors Catholicism. France has passed various laws banning the public expression of religious belief and limiting separatism.

Catholic Church Days

In the days of Marie “let them eat cake” Antoinette, there were three social classes (estates) in France. The church (Catholic Church), nobles, and the commoners. Then, the French Revolution happened, and Marie lost her head (literally).  The church had problems too.

The Church was targeted both as a privileged institution seen as too powerful and corrupt as well as out of date in a more rational (Enlightenment) age.  Church property was seized. 

And, eventually, all types of religious dress (such as priest garments) were banned. The revolutionary motto “liberty, equality, fraternity” was taken rather literally. Religion was attacked as one more artificial way to divide French citizens.  

Catholicism was too popular, however, to totally replace it with reason and rule by the people.  Napoleon recognized Catholicism as the “religion of the vast majority of French citizens” as long as the Church swore allegiance to the government.  So, a middle path was settled upon.

20th Century: Separation of Church and State 

Nonetheless, a strong sentiment remained supporting the separation of church and state. This principle became known as “laïcité” (from “laity” or “the people” themselves).  

In 1905, church and state were officially separated.  This was enshrined in  Article 1 of the French Constitution and in the 1905 Law on Separation of the Churches and State.  

Religious belief was protected but it was a private matter.  This became an important part of French culture, including secular schools.  We can compare this to the United States where religious expression in public is popular, including opening legislative hearings with a prayer. 

Religious Favoritism In Practice? 

France did not totally separate church and state.  Historical religious buildings such as Notre Dame became the property of the state. A special exemption is in place for the region of Alsace–Lorraine and in overseas schools

France also funds parochial schools at home though they (at least technically) must follow a secular curriculum.  France remains culturally Catholic, including following a holiday schedule that matches those of Catholic holidays.  

Catholics have the benefit of a range of historical buildings, which the state funds. Meanwhile, a growing Muslim population must privately fund mosques since Islam was barely a presence in France when the ban on state funding new religious buildings was put in place.  The net result here is a type of de facto favoritism of Catholicism over Islam.  

Conflict Over Islam 

The rise of Islam in France was largely a result of the decolonization of overseas territories in the 1960s.  A large migration of Muslims from North Africa and a new generation of French Muslims led to a growing population in once Catholic-dominated France.  

This led to cultural conflict, including concerns that Muslims were not appropriately “French.”  For instance, in 1989, so-called “headscarf affairs” arose where several Muslim girls were expelled from school because their headscarves were held to be a violation of laïcité and school neutrality.  The French government determined the headscarves were cultural, not religious.  

The matter came up again in 2004 and the French parliament banned so-called “ostensible” religious expressions in public schools.  The ban would apply to the Islamic hijab, Jewish kippa, Sikh turbans, and large Christian crosses.  A 2010 law banned face coverings in public spaces. 

I would contrast this to my experience living in New York City where I frequently come upon fully veiled women in public places. The necessity of such garb is greatly debated among Muslims.  But, it is protected in this country both as a matter of self-expression and as an exercise of religious belief.    

The ban on face coverings was defended both as a security measure and as a move to support gender equality.  Bans on “burkini” bathing suits, however, were struck down by the courts.  This one-piece bathing suit worn by many Muslim women for modesty reasons was deemed protected by religious freedom.  And, “public order” was not a justifiable reason to have such a ban.  

Islam in France Today 

As with the funding of religious buildings, it is questionable how “neutral” such laws are in practice.  A Catholic can wear a small cross hidden from view.  Likewise, “secular” public schools would in practice be comfortable places for Christians to send their children.  

A Muslim woman, however, might not so easily be able to express their faith.  And, anti-Muslim feelings only aggravate the situation with the secularization laws often selectively enforced.  

There continue to be anti-Muslim feelings in France, aggravated by an attack of a journalist at a publication infamous for cartoons attacking Muhammed and Islamic terrorist attacks. 

Most Muslims are not advocates of such attacks but are burdened all the same. This includes the wariness of Muslim religious leaders (imans) and the use of foreign funds to build mosques.  

A law against “separatism” was passed in 2021 that a U.S. report on religious freedom noted provided “broader powers to monitor and close down religious organizations and groups they determined to be promoting ideas contrary to French values.”  

The law targeted foreign imams, restricted homeschooling, and created an “Institute of Islamology” to tackle Islamic fundamentalism.  The law “did not specifically” mention Islam but from French President Macron on down, Islamic separatism was specifically flagged as a problem.  Outside observers have noted an anti-Muslim crackdown.  

President Macron has also criticized all types of anti-religious attacks.   

Final Thoughts 

Religion continues to be a complex affair in France.  There is a long tradition of secularization that often uncomfortably exists along with much governmental involvement in religion.  

For instance, there is an official tax exemption scheme in place that results in a mixture of church and state.  Certain religious institutions are “official” while others are not.  Such policies honor religious exercise but offer various opportunities for governmental barriers.  

The concern with foreign-based terrorism also leads to conflict with certain Islamic groups, especially since Muslims are more likely to be newcomers and also need more private funds since traditional Catholic institutions are “grandfathered” exemptions to bans of governmental funding.  In practice, this means “neutral” laws can burden Muslims particularly.
We examined Christianity in Iran.   My conclusion there is that Christianity is “legal” in Iran to some degree, but in practice, free exercise is a limited affair.  The same might be said of Islam in France.  A low-key Islam might be okay; but, other types often will get you in trouble.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.