in France - past and
12th century fresco in the Basilique St Julien, Brioude, Auvergne
most of the past thousand years, France has been one of the principal
"Catholic" countries of Europe.
From the time of Charlemagne until the emergence of
Protestantism in the sixteenth century, France was one of the main
powers in a continent where Catholicism was - except in orthodox areas
- the only mainstream form of Christianity. After that, most of France,
and particularly the French monarchy, maintained the Catholic faith
while many other parts of Europe, including England, Switzerland, the
Low countries, and much of Germany and Scandinavia, adopted
differing forms of Protestantism.
After the French Revolution in 1798, religion in
France was brought under state control, discouraged as
anti-revolutionary, and monastic orders were abolished. But in 1801,
Napoleon signed a Concordat with the Vatican, which restored much of
the church's former status.
For most of the nineteenth century, France was
officially a Catholic country; but in 1905 the landmark law was passed,
establishing the Separation of the State and the Church. Since then,
while Catholicism has remained the predominant religion in France, the
Catholic church is constitutionally just one among many religious
structures in the country. The "secular" (in French laïc)
state recognises the right of individuals to practice whatever religion
the wish, and in today's France, Catholicism exists alongside
Protestantism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and a number of fringe cults..
Today, while Catholicism has far more adepts than any other religion or
religious denomination in France, the time when the vast majority of
Frenchmen considered themselves to be Catholics is now long gone.
Slightly less than half of the French population now call
themselves Catholics. An Ipsos/MORI poll in 2011 showed that 45% of
French people claim to be Christians - most of them Catholics - while
35% claimed to have no religion, and just 3% proclaimed themselves as
Church attendance in France is among the lowest in the world, with
surveys showing that only about 5% of the total population, i.e. less
than 10% of those who are nominally Catholics, now attend weekly
mass.... Yet it is an undeniable fact, underlined by former president
Sarkozy, that France remains a country whose "culture" is catholic.
or secularism seen today as one of the cornerstones of the identity of
the French republic, it follows that the position of religion in public
life is very limited, notably compared to its role in public life in
Britain or the United States. While politicians in Britain or the USA
often go out of their way to be photographed in the presence of
religious leaders, and great national events, particularly in Britain,
are marked by religious ceremonies, this is not the case in France.
Even when they are practising Christians – and that is not
case for any
member of the
French government in 2013 – French public figures in
times have generally tended to keep the fact out of the public eye.
In recent decades, one fairly unique exception
of a leading French politician who was also well known as a practising
Catholic was Jacques Delors, former Socialist finance minister and
later President of the European Commission. Delors'
daughter Martine Aubry, until recently First Secretary of the
Socialist party, was brought up in a strong Catholic tradition but is
no longer a practising Catholic. And under the Fifth Republic, three
Prime Ministers, Maurice Couve de Murville, Michel Rocard, and Lionel
Jospin, have been Protestants - though this was never much commented
In the state education sector, religion and
religious matters are frequently considered taboo subjects; however, in
recent years this sidelining of religion has been questioned in the
face of the increasing number of Muslims in modern France. While there
are no religious education classes in French state schools, and no acts
of worship, national programmes now state the requirement to make
pupils aware of the religious aspects of French history art and
For parents who want their
children to receive religious education, this can be achieved outside
school hours in the state sector, or by sending children to
educated in private schools, most of them run - at least in principle -
by the Catholic church. About 18% of France's school children are in
"confessional" schools, most of them Catholic; the figure rises to 40%
in Brittany. At high school level almost a quarter of
are in private schools, and Catholic high schools still tend to be
over-represented among the most successful high-schools in France.
The exception of Alsace
spite of France's asserted republican unity, the relationship between
the state and the church is different in the region of Alsace
the department of the Moselle. Here, priests are paid by the
state, and religious education is part of the curriculum in state
primary schools and middle schools (collèges).
perhaps because of this, Alsace is now the region of France with the
lowest proportion of schoolchildren educated in the private
(confessional) sector. There is also a faculty of theology at the
university of Strasbourg - the only French state university to have
When in 1882 Jules Ferry took religion out of
the school curriculum in France, Alsace and the Moselle were at the
time attached to Germany. These areas became French again in 1918, but
kept some of their own laws, including the concordat between the state
and the church, dating back to the early nineteenth century.
has a long history in France. In the Middle ages, before
"Protestantism" as such was founded, a large area of southwest France
rejected Catholicism and went over to a non-hierarchical type of
Christianity known as Catharism. Catharism
was stamped out in the 13th century by the bloody Crusade against the
Albigeois – the only mediaeval Crusade not directed against
At the time of the Reformation, many areas of France took up
Protestant Faith; though discouraged, Protestantism was tolerated, and
in 1598, King Henry IV - himself a former Protestant converted by
necessity to Catholicism in order to take up the crown of France -
issued the Edict of Nantes, guaranteeing freedom of religion and
conscience to France's many Calvinist Protestants, known as Huguenots.
Many areas of France, notably in the southwest, moved over to
Protestantism. Cities like La Rochelle became major bastions of
Protestantism in a country that was officially Catholic.
However in 1685, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, and
precipitated a mass emigration of Protestants from France. Though
precise figures vary, it is estimaged that at least half a million
Protestants left France in the ensuing years, to take up residence in
Britain, North America, Switzerland and the Low countries: and among
those that left were a large number of skilled workers - bankers,
watchmakers, craftsmen, shipbuilders and many other professions - whose
migration enriched the countries they emigrated to, while damaging the
In the 18th century, notably after the
death of Louis XIV, Protestantism slowly reestablished a presence in
some areas; it was finally officially tolerated again, on a par with
other religions, after the French Revolution.
Today, while there are Protestants in all areas of
Protestantism remains most present in two areas, the Alsace and
North-Franche-Comté area of eastern France, and the Cevennes
hills in the south. The former area, close to Germany
and Switzerland, was much influenced by the Protestantism across the
border; the latter was a mountainous area that even the
Revocation of the Edict of Nantes failed to bring back fully into the
There are no precise figures, but estimates suggest that there are
between 6 and 7 million Muslims in France, about 8% of the population.
About a third of these, just over 2 million, are practising Muslims
– compared to over 10 million practising Catholics.
Most French Muslims are of North African origin, descendents
people from France's former colonies of Tunisia, Algeria and
Morocco; though in terms of nationality, many today are third
fourth generation French citizens.
According to research by
the sociologist Samir Amghar, reported by Le Monde newspaper, there are
between 12,000 and 15,000 "Salafists" or radical Muslims in France; but
only a tiny minority of radical Muslims share the views of so-called
"Islamists". French Interior Miinister Bernard Casenave is quoted as
saying that just about 2000 of France's Muslims share the
the most radical forms of Islam – or 0.075% of France''s
The number of mosques in France has increased sharply in France since
2000, and today there are over 2000 - most of them very discreet.
As for education, according to the French ministry of Education, there
are 30 Muslim schools in France, compared to 282 Jewish schools, and
8485 Catholic schools. Only two of the 30 Muslim schools are fully
contracted into the state system; the others are private schools. Most
young Muslims in France are educated in non-confessional public schools.
The wearing of the "burqa" or "niqab" , face-hiding veils
some Islamic countries, is forbidden in public places in France.
This is part of public security legislation which outlaws the
hiding of a person's identity in public places, by any means.
In public schools (but not in universities) the wearing of
"ostentatious signs of religion" is prohibited. This applies to all
Religion in French culture
Christianity and the Catholic tradition have fundamentally marked
since the birth of the French nation. The finest monuments of mediaeval
France were not its castles and palaces, but its great cathedrals, and
in places, even its small churches. The finest artists and craftsmen of
their day were hired to paint frescoes and altarpieces, create
wonderful stained glass (See slideshow: Bourges cathedral)
and carve the most exquisite sculptures inside and outside of churches
(See slideshow: Romanesque
sculptures at Conques).
was written for and performed in churches, and much literature was a
celebration of Christian faith. The great founding work of literature
in the French language was the Chanson
de Roland, the epic of a heroic fight of Christians
against the Sarrasins, led by Roland,
nephew of the emperor Charlemagne. Much mediaeval litterature was
the religious tradition, and in France the popular mediaeval Arthurian legends
were strongly in this tradition.
art and literature
are rooted in the Catholic culture of their age. Even the popular
Rabalais, the greatest humourous writer of his age, was a Franciscan
friar, before turning to a life of writing; his famous novels, Gargantua and Pantagruel, best
remembered as comedies, are also works that question the meaning of
life, in an essentially Christian view.
Until the age
of Enlightenment in the 18th century, questions of
were the great issues that divided opinion in France, as in the rest of
Europe; but from the 18th century on, in France as elsewhere in Europe,
thinkers of the Enlightenment moved the arguments on to new areas,
replacing arguments about which form of religion was best, with
discussions about the nature of man, the nature of authority, and of
society. Yet the discussions of the Enlightenment were themselves born
out of the great debates about religion, that began with
Martin Luther and the Protestant schism. The great French thinkers of
the Enlightenment, Descartes, Rousseau, Voltaire and others, were all
products of the Christian culture into which they were born. Even
Voltaire, frequently cited for his attacks on religion, was not an
atheist. He was a "theist", who came to believe that religion was an
intensely personal matter - not something to be organised by churches.
attempt to replace Christian culture with a new revolutionary culture,
failed; and Catholicism - or reactions against it - dominated French
art, litterature and music in the nineteenth century. While religion
itself was not the theme of much major painting or literature (though
plenty of minor works), it did inspire many of 19th century France's
great composers, notably Fauré, César Franck,
Widor or Berlioz, who wrote major works of sacred music. In literature,
Balzac, the century's greatest novelist, was strongly marked by his
Christian culture; his portrayal of life in nineteenth century France, la Comédie Humaine (with
its title nodding back to Dantë's Divine Comedy) is that of
life in a profoundly Catholic national tradition.
In the twentieth
century, the quest for national identity in France,
following defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, the
ravages of the First
and the rise of Communism in Russia, led to an upsurge of Catholic
consciousness among French writers. Maurice Barrès,
Léon Bloy, Paul Claudel, George Bernanos, Henri de
Montherlant and François Mauriac are just half a dozen among
the greatest French writers of the twentieth century, who were strongly
inspired by their Catholic beliefs.
There have also been great French Protestant
writers, notably André Gide and Pierre Loti.
But more important than the individual writers,
musicians and artists whose works were directly inspired by
personal religious beliefs, is the fact that French culture in general
- even that of modern-day atheists - has always been, and still largely
remains, firmly anchored in a Christian cultural and philosophical
tradition that - in its modern form - owes everything to the
ethos of the Enlightenment and the Christian and Catholic cultural
traditions out of which it sprang.
& images © About-France.com 2003 - 2016
use the contact