Well, nothing can be more false.
In fact, this perception is largely due to presupposed views of our critics but also and mainly to a misunderstanding and misknowledge of historical and social specificities which gave the “laîcité à la française” (secularism of the French) its specific form.
If freedom of conscience and belief were originally part of the American constitution of 1787, that was not the case in France. The USA has been, since the origin, mainly a reunion of religious communities. Because of their diverging views about the interpretations of the holy texts, conflicts were inevitable. The founding fathers took the precaution to include freedom of cult and practice (or not) in the first law text of the USA in order to guarantee that no particular group could impose it’s divine law to others.
The French situation is very different and to fully understand the spirit of the 1905 law of separation of church and state, you must to put it back in its historical context. France’s social structure has been shaped by 1500 years of royalty, whose temporal legitimacy is consubstantial to spirit of authority since 496, the date on which king Clovis chose to be baptised Christian.
From that moment, wars for conquests and power chased one another, but there is religious unicity : apart from the Jews, everybody is Christian, and Catholic. France is called “fille ainée de l’église” (elder daughter of the church). Between 1309 and 1418 the popes were settled in Avignon. The Vatican ordered the slaughtering of some sectorian community or to burn a handful of heretics as a warning from time to time, but there has been, properly speaking, no religious war in the realm of France during almost a thousand years, that is, until the Lutheran Reform.
Luther was excommunicated in 1521. From then on, things started to go wrong, mainly for the “huguenots”. They were persecuted by royal power, under the cheers of Rome. After 1562, religious wars ravaged France; they would go on until April 1598, when the Nantes Edict was promulgated by Henry IV. (Historical estimations of direct casualties are difficult but 150,000 is an accepted figure generally. Notice though that during that period, the kingdom lost around 8% of its population, so, one million casualties.) Unfortunately, the edict was revoked by Louis XIV in October 1685, provoking a massive exodus of 300,000 protestants, initiating a financial crisis that would be the 1789 revolution’s prelude.
In this picture, one must not forget the Jews, who, during the entire Middle-age and Renaissance period, underwent pogroms and persecutions of all sorts along with day-to-day vexations fueled by popular and cultural anti-semitism justified by the accusation of being the “chosen people” thrown out by the catholic church.
As for Muslims, they are, since Charles Martel defeated them in Poitiers in 732, designated as enemy of Christianity and thus enemies of France. Crusades would only confirm this reputation. To make it short, it’s not a good thing to be a religious minority in the realm of « doulce France » (old french expression for sweet france).
Then, the Revolution happened, causing a “before and after 1789” situation.
First came the Declaration of Human and Citizen Rights of the 26 of August 1789, in which the first Article states that “men are born free and stay equals in right” then proclaims in Article number ten freedom of conscience : “no one can be bothered for his opinions, even religious, provided that they don’t trouble public order.” Nevertheless, revolutionary France, despite the reforms imposed, remains profoundly Catholic. The civil constitution of the clergy, then the separation attempts, led to a creeping tension of beliefs so intense that Napoleon had to implement an authoritarian solution. This would be the objective and the partial result found with the Concordat regime. The papacy concede that Catholicism is no longer a state religion, but only “the religion of the majority of French people”. Cults become public services. In a conciliation spirit, concessions were granted; for example, bishops are authorised to monitor religious teaching in schools.
One has to keep in mind that the secularist revendication grew mainly because Roman Catholic Church imposed and tried, at any cost, to preserve a power that was regulating all aspects of civil society, political, economical and mostly intellectual life. One must never forget that the church fiercely fought against any emancipation attempt from it’s magisterium, in the science field for example. Another example is going from the heliocentric system model to the impression of the Bible in common (vulgate) language. About Galileo’s trial: it’s only in 1992, by the voice of Jean-Paul II, that the church recognised and stated that it was unfair. … In fact, the church was a totalitarian power. In France this power imposed itself during more than a thousand years, except during the French Revolution period.
The alliance between the throne and the altar made religious contestation inevitable as long as the political one grew along and conversely. That’s why 18th century philosophers, moved by the spirit of “les lumières” (the lights) fought against the two forms, royal and religious, of absolutism. The claim for freedom of thought and the appeal to reason had radicalised the movement. It will meet its goal with the writing of the “Human and Citizen Rights Declaration” on the 26 of August 1789, mainly through its tenth article. During the 19th century, the progressive formation of the republican idea, anchored on revolutionary liberties, social progress and freeing of the minds from all forms of obscurantism pedestal, brought the last touch to this evolution. …
Separation of church and state could have become the symbol of an essential step, if it hadn’t been, since, put in question and constantly attacked from all those who remains convinced that humanity is incapable to take responsibility for all the consequences of freedom of thought.
If, in the history of our country, all of the great battles for liberty and justice were carrying the requirements of secularism, all the reaction periods have seen, by opposition, the comeback of religious domination. The Vichy dictatorship during Second World War was the last example of it.
This explains why the French are so attached to the neutrality of civil servants: the function surpasses the individual. The republican law prevails over the divine one. The person in uniform is primarily a citizen, who must put away his personal philosophical or spiritual convictions, to serve everybody thru the laws of the Republic. That’s precisely why he’s not allowed, in the performance of his duty, to sport any symbol of his convictions. But this is also true for people who take benefit of some public services, such as school. This neutrality is also asked to the students who are required to put away their beliefs in order to benefit from public instruction, whose original mission is the emancipation of the individual through knowledge and the use of reason.
In this context, one can understand the problems that arises when religious claims try to subtract the student from teachings that contradicts dogmas or beliefs, such as creationism. The “laïcité à la Française” before anything else, protects the freedom of conscience of the individual and refuses to acknowledge any special right to any community, even if only to allow the person to extract oneself from their socio-cultural environment of birth if they wish to do so. …
In fact, for most French people, religious affiliation is not, by far, the main defining trait of a person’s character. It’s a private subject and so, as you wouldn’t ask what is its favourite sexual practice to a person that you just met, it is considered rude to ask anyone about his religion. That is, because the usual response would be : “I don’t believe in god” and the end of the conversation, probably.
Unless you’re in a proselytising dynamic and you persist in your questioning, behaviour that would surely move you from the “rude” box, to the “pain in the ass” one. This is also why, in public life, ostentatious signs or claims of religiosity, such as the Islamic veil, (but not only) are generally perceived negatively.
Renaissance, Reformation, Revolution, Republic: those different steps in the formation of the secularist ideal contributed to give a special place to the French citizen of the XX the century, within Europe but also throughout the world, and the conviction of a responsibility : to protect this very particular model founded on the absolute respect of freedom of conscience of the individual.