Is French Laïcité State Atheism or Religious Freedom? An Interview with Eric Germain

The French minister of the armed forces recently launched a new, revised edition of a report on military secularism that demonstrates that a high degree of freedom for religious expression does not comprise social cohesion nor the principle of religion-state separation.

Religion & Diplomacy assistant editor Tobias Cremer had the opportunity to discuss the report with its chief author Eric Germain. Cremer posed a series of questions about the French military’s experience with religion and the implications of that experience for the public understanding of laïcité in France and indeed around the world.

Eric Germain is the Senior Policy Advisor on Military Ethics and Religious Issues and as well as Deputy Head of the Strategic Research & Foresight Unit within the French defense ministry’s Directorate General for International Relations & Strategy (DGRIS). The views expressed below are those of the interviewee and not necessarily those of the French ministry of armed forces.


Religion & Diplomacy: Can you tell us a bit more about the origins of the report? Why did the Ministry of Armed Forces commission the report and what objectives do you hope to achieve with it?

Photo credit: Ministère des Armées

Eric Germain: The first edition of this booklet in 2017 was primarily made for French military attachés abroad. Laïcité is quite often caricatured as a public hostility to any expression of religion outside of the private sphere. To simply remind people that the French armed forces have Catholic, Muslim, Protestant, and Jewish chaplains in their ranks, who are paid by the state, is often enough to challenge this vision of laicité as a purportedly “atheist dogma.” We felt that “military laïcité”—that is secularism practiced in the armed forces—epitomizes the very essence of our laïcité and deserves to be more widely known, abroad and at home. In pluralist liberal democracies where religion is increasingly seen as a divisive force, the military is offering a valuable example of an administration testifying on a daily basis that you can allow a significant degree of religious public expression without compromising on cohesion.

R&D: Secularism in general and French Laïcité in particular are extremely contested concepts, which are becoming increasingly politicised. Can you give us a “in a nutshell” definition of Laïcité? What are some some common misunderstandings about Laïcité that the report might help us to address?

Germain: “In a nutshell” is indeed a very appropriate metaphor in the English language! When you crack an almond nutshell, you may find double nuts inside. It is the same with laïcité. It covers a twin reality: a legal one and a cultural one. The legal dimension is fairly clear since the Law of December 1905 regarding the separation of the churches and the State remains the main text framing French laïcité. This “legal laïcité” concerns solely the administration and its civil servants who according to the law shall remain neutral or more precisely impartial. The rest of French society does not fall under this legal restriction of impartiality. Instead the law makes clear that no one should be constrained in their public expression of religious or non-religious believes (the only limit to this freedom are public order provisions). On the other hand, “cultural laïcité” is a widespread perception that conspicuous expressions of religion by one particular group may compromise the social cohesion of the nation. This is currently felt quite strongly with regards to Islam. The confusion between those two dimensions of laïcité is the main source of a fierce and very emotional debate within the French political arena.

R&D: The report comes at a moment when some political actors are calling for an ever-stricter interpretation of Laïcité, in particular regarding Islam as you said. What contribution can the report make in this debate? And what are specific advantages about the “military approach” to Laïcité?

Germain: Laïcité is the legal framework allowing the greatest degree of free exercise of religion. But, as I previously mentioned laïcité has legal reality and a cultural one. The legal aspect is quite objective, but the cultural side is not. Nearly every French citizen has his or her own perception of what laïcité is about and, not surprisingly, this is creating a heated public debate about the place of religion in our society. In the 19thcentury, Roman Catholicism was seen as irreconcilable with democratic republican values and we face today a vision of Sunni Islam considered by some as foreign to European culture and values. A “military approach” to laïcité could be characterized by its pragmatism and by the fact that a soldier is not afraid of conflict. Since Clausewitz members of the military know that “friction” is their natural environment and in such a context, it is only the end results that matters. The purpose of laïcité for the military is to achieve the greatest degree of freedom to believe or not to believe under an unnegotiable principle of cohesion—or in military terms a “brotherhood of arms.”

R&DThe report puts a special focus on the role of French Army chaplains, who—for many observers perhaps surprisingly—are religious ministers, who are directly paid by the French state. Could you explain a bit more about the special role of chaplains and of religion in the French military? How can examining their role more closely inform the debates on secularism more generally?

Germain: Article 2 of the law of 1905 framing French policy of laïcité provides exceptions to the prohibition of funding, and even official recognition, of any religious group by the State. The text states that, in order to safeguard the freedom of worship, chaplaincy services are legitimate in certain “enclosed” public administrations (prisons, hospitals, boarding schools, military garrisons). In many of those places, chaplaincy is a voluntary work, but considering the specificity of the military context, with members accepting to kill and to be killed in the name of the nation, the state has a moral responsibility to provide professionalized religious support upon request. This is why you find full time religious ministers serving in uniform in French armed forces, paid as officers but wearing no ranks.

French armed forces are proud to have remained a faithful mirror of the diversity of our society—even after the abrogation of conscription. Soldiers deployed in pairs do not choose the person he/she entrusts his/her own life. Conversely, if you do not like the religion or the convictions of the other one, he/she is still carrying a weapon and will protect you. Both members of the team will have to achieve the mission given together and overcome their differences. For French society as a whole, there are surely lessons to be learned from this military fraternity at a time when one may fear the religiously grounded separatist claims of some individuals or groups.

R&D: How does French Laïcité compare internationally to the regimes of secularism for instance in Germany, Russia, the US, or Turkey?

Germain: The chapter on the benchmarking of the various regimes of secularism worldwide was extremely interesting to write. On paper, a very strict separation of religion and state is also the constitutional background common to France, the USA, and Turkey. But, considering the historical evolution of the practices, things have evolved quite significantly. Both the USA and France have now moved to a “soft separation” model, and one can even say towards the “partnership model” of countries like Germany. A vast majority of States today recognizes the value of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was duplicated in the Article 9.1 of the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights. Words matter. So please allow me to quote it as I believe this article provides the essence of a universal idea of laïcité:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

When our diplomats drop “the right for everyone to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” and replace it by “freedom of religion” or “freedom of conscious and religion,” they are playing the game of autocratic regimes, which promote a collective and majority-oriented understanding of what was clearly stated in 1948 as an individual right.

R&D: The report has been published at a moment when more and more diplomatic services and militaries are establishing new task forces or units specifically focused on religion. Why is it so important to define and talk about religion and secularism for militaries or diplomatic services today?

Germain: Religion has become a rather “exotic” element in the mind of many of our senior civil servants, who were brought up in a very secularized environment. Some officers and diplomats serving abroad in societies were religion “is everywhere” feel quite uncomfortable in their social interactions. Their illiteracy in their own religious culture does not help: they often would either downplay or exaggerate the role that religion plays in foreign countries. The current challenge for diplomatic services and in the military is to increase knowledge of this dimension amongst our personnel. Achieving this would help them to get the relevant “fine tuning” in their approach of religion.

I am from a country where it is considered inappropriate to ask someone about his/her faith. A better understanding of the historical and cultural dimensions of faith expressions in a society, and of what is considered private or intimate and what is not, is precisely what we have to introduce in the training of our civil servants. But to do this we first all have to accept that talking about religion and secularism is not taboo!

R&D: Laïcité is often seen as a particularly French idea of a strict secularism that is a specific result of French history. How applicable is it to other contexts and what insights can it provide for foreign partners or diplomats more generally? What can the French military in particular contribute to this debate abroad?

Germain: French people do often consider that laïcité cannot be understood outside of our national boundaries. No wonder why abroad many people are convinced that it is genuinely a native concept, quite incomprehensible if you are not born in this bizarre country! I don’t share this view. Every community frames its own national responses, but the issue at stake is universal.

Laïcité is indeed an approach of secularism rooted in French history, but it is not not radically different from others. The Jeffersonian “wall of separation between church and state” sounds much more familiar to French ears than the Queen’s supreme governorship of the Church of England. Despite our national singularities, we definitely have experiences to share and things to learn from each other. We have an extremely fruitful exchange of views in our military chaplaincy networks, at NATO, and in European and other international levels. The military is often presented as a social laboratory and for the issue of secularism in a pluralistic society I believe they are many lessons to be learned from it.