The Struggle for Secularism, Then and Now

It is a strange irony that France is poised to celebrate the centenary of the law of December 9, 1905, that separated church and state at the very moment disorders have been roiling its cities. But passions have always surrounded the roles of church and state throughout French even if no direct link can be established between the recent riots and the exercise of French laïcité.

The struggle between church and state for political mastery goes back to the Middle Ages, when Philippe le Bel’s jurists sought to impose royal power over the Roman Catholic Church in France. Centuries later, the French Revolution provided liberty of conscience and religion across France.

The rabid anti-clericalism of the Revolutionary period gave way to more balanced church-state relations, with the Concordat agreed in 1801 between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII – an agreement that still applies in Alsace and parts of Lorraine today.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Catholicism’s public role bred cruel fights between supporters of the clergy and their opponents, reflecting a more fundamental conflict between supporters of the Republic and advocates of a return to the old order. From the 1880’s onward, as the Republic took root, a secular ideology arose that sought to emancipate state institutions ­– the educational system, first and foremost – from clerical influence.