printable banner

U.S. Department of State - Great Seal

U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

France


International Religious Freedom Report
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Share

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, the Government--including the legislative branch--has taken some actions that affect religious minorities that it considers to be "cults." The 1905 law on the separation of church and state--the foundation of current legislation on religious freedom--makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of faith.

There was no overall change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report; however, new legislation has the potential to restrict religious freedom. The new law provides for the dissolution of associations (including religious associations) whose leaders have two or more convictions on any of a variety of offenses, some of which are worded ambiguously, such as "psychological or physical subjection," "fraudulent abuse of a state of ignorance or weakness", "false advertising" or "fraud or falsifications."

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom. In October 2000, over 100 anti-Semitic incidents occurred, mainly as a result of increased tensions in the Middle East. Government leaders and representatives from the country's four main religious groups strongly criticized the violence, and the Government increased police security for Jewish institutions.

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total area of 211,210 square miles and its population is approximately 60 million.

The Government does not keep statistics on religious affiliation. The vast majority of the population is nominally Roman Catholic. According to one member of the Catholic hierarchy, only 8 percent of the population are practicing Catholics. Muslims constitute the second largest religious group in number; Islam has approximately 4 million adherents, or approximately 6 to 7 percent of the population. Protestants make up 2 percent of the population; and the Jewish and Buddhist faiths each represent 1 percent.

The Jewish community numbers between 600,000 and 700,000 persons and is divided among Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox groups. According to press reports, up to 60 percent of the Jewish community celebrates at most only the high holy days such as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. One Jewish community leader has reported that the largest number of practicing Jews in the country is Orthodox. Jehovah's Witnesses claim that 250,000 persons attend their services either regularly or periodically. Orthodox Christians number between 80,000 and 100,000; the vast majority of these persons are associated with the Greek or Russian Orthodox churches. According to various estimates, about 6 percent of the country's citizens are unaffiliated.

Other religions present in the country include Evangelicals and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Membership in Evangelical churches is growing due to increased participation by African and Antillian immigrants. Examples of minority religious groups include the Scientologists (membership estimates range from 5,000 to 20,000), the Raelians with approximately 20,000 members, the Association of the Triumphant Vajra, and the Order of the Solar Temple.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion and the Government generally respects this right; however, during the period covered by this report, the Government, including the legislative branch, took some actions that affected religious minorities that it considers cults. The 1905 law on the separation of church and state--the foundation of current legislation on religious freedom--makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of faith.

Organizations have to register and the Government uses many categories to describe associations. Two of these categories apply to religious groups: "Associations cultuelles" (associations of worship, which are exempt from taxes) and "associations culturelles" (cultural associations, which are not exempt from taxes). Associations in these two categories are subject to certain management and financial disclosure requirements. An association of worship can organize only religious activities, defined as liturgical services and practices. A cultural association is a type of association whose goal is to promote the culture of a certain group, including a religious group. Although a cultural association is not exempt from taxes, it may receive government subsidies for its cultural and educational operations (such as schools). Religious groups normally use both of these categories; the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for example, runs strictly religious activities through its association of worship and operates a school under its cultural association.

Religious groups must apply with the local prefecture to be recognized as an association of worship and, therefore, receive tax-exempt status for their religious activities under the 1905 statute. The prefecture reviews the submitted documentation regarding the association's purpose for existence. In order to qualify, the group's purpose must be solely the practice of some form of religious ritual. Printing publications, employing a board president, or running a school can disqualify a group from receiving tax-exempt status.

According to statistics previously published by the Ministry of the Interior, 109 of 1,138 Protestant associations, 15 of 147 Jewish associations, and 2 of 1,050 Muslim associations have tax-free status. Roughly 100 Catholic associations are tax exempt; a representative of the Ministry of Interior reports that the total number of non-tax-exempt Catholic associations is too numerous to estimate accurately.

According to the 1905 law, associations of worship are not taxed on the donations that they receive. However, the prefecture can decide to review a group's status if the association receives a large donation or legacy that comes to the attention of the tax authorities. If the prefecture determines that the association is not in fact in conformity with the 1905 law, its status can be changed and it can be required to pay a 60 percent tax rate on present and past donations.

For historical reasons, the Jewish, Lutheran, Reformed (Protestant), and Roman Catholic groups in three departments of Alsace Lorraine enjoy special legal status in terms of taxation of individuals donating to these religious groups. Adherents of these four religions may choose to have a portion of their income tax allocated to their church in a system administered by the central Government.

Central or local governments own and maintain religious buildings constructed before 1905, the date of the law separating church and state. In Alsace and Moselle, special laws allow the local government to provide support for the building of religious edifices.

Foreign missionaries must obtain a 3-month tourist visa before leaving their own country. Upon arrival, missionaries must apply with the local prefecture for a carte de sejour (a document that allows a foreigner to remain in the country for a given period of time), and then must give the prefecture a letter from their sponsoring religious organization.

Religion is not taught in public schools. Parents may home- school children for religious reasons, but all schooling must conform to the standards established for public schools. Public schools make an effort to supply special meals for students with religious dietary restrictions. The State subsidizes private schools, including those that are affiliated with churches.

Five of the country's 10 national holidays are Catholic holidays.

The Government has made efforts to promote interfaith understanding. Strict antidefamation laws prohibit racially or religiously motivated attacks. The Government has programs to combat racism and anti-Semitism through public awareness campaigns, and by encouraging dialog between local officials, police, and citizen groups. Following the numerous anti-Semitic incidents that occurred in October 2000, government leaders, along with representatives from the Jewish community, the Paris Grand Mosque, the Protestant Federation, and the French Conference on Bishops, came together to criticize the violence.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Following the 1994 mass suicide in Switzerland and Canada of members of the Order of the Solar Temple, successive Governments have encouraged public caution towards some minority religious groups that the Government may consider to be "cults." In 1995 the National Assembly formed a parliamentary commission to study so-called cults. In 1996 the Gest or Guyard Commission (named for its chairman and rapporteur, respectively) issued a report that identified 173 groups as cults, including Jehovah's Witnesses, the Theological Institute of Nimes (an evangelical Christian Bible college), and the Church of Scientology. The Commission, for purposes of its report only, defined sects as groups that place inordinate importance on finances; cause a rupture between adherents and their families; are responsible for physical as well as psychological attacks on members; recruit children; profess "anti-social" ideas; disturb public order; have "judiciary problems;" and/or attempt to infiltrate organs of the State. The Government has not outlawed any of the groups on the list; however, members of some of the groups listed have alleged instances of intolerance due to the ensuing publicity.

The Government's "Observatory on Sects/Cults" was created in 1996 to analyze the phenomenon of cults and to develop proposals for dealing with them. In 1998 the Government issued a decree disbanding the Observatory and creating an "Interministerial Mission in the Fight Against Sects/Cults" (MILS), which is responsible for coordinating periodic interministerial meetings at which government officials can exchange information and coordinate their actions. Although the Government instructed the MILS to analyze "the phenomenon of cults" its decree did not define the term "cult" or distinguish cults from religions.

On December 21, 2000, the MILS submitted its 2000 annual report. The report highlighted the globalization of cult influence, specifically in underdeveloped countries, and focused on the "infiltration" of NGO's by cults. The report evaluated the influence of cult movements in the country's three overseas departments, French Guyana, Guadeloupe, and Martinique. A case study examined the Anthroposophical Movement, founded by Rudolf Steiner, and recommended sustained vigilance over the Steiner schools.

On May 30, 2001, the National Assembly passed a private bill (known as the About-Picard Bill) that would tighten restrictions on organizations. The bill, already adopted by the Senate, was signed into law on June 14, 2001. The final legislation had been revised from earlier versions. It included the National Assembly's change stipulating that dissolution of any legal entity (including a religious association) that had been the subject of "several" criminal judgments would require a judicial decision (as opposed to a presidential decree). The About-Picard legislation does not define cults. Its framers worked from the concept of "cult-like movements" as those associations that put undue pressure on individuals, exact overly substantial contributions, encourage individuals not to vote, suggest anti-social behavior, and cut off individuals from their families. Articles of the legislation listed criminal activities for which a religious association (or other legal entity) would be subject to dissolution, including: endangering life or the physical/psychological well-being of a person; placing minors at mortal risk; violation of another person's freedom, dignity, or identity; the illegal practice of medicine or pharmacology; false advertising; and fraud or falsifications. Associations, recognized as public utilities, that defend or aid an individual or a collective entity against a person or organization that is characterized as having the goal or the effect of creating or exploiting a psychological or physical dependence, have standing in judicial proceedings.

In addition, the final text of the bill did not contain the controversial term "mental manipulation," which had appeared in an earlier version of the legislation. However, the bill reinforces existing provisions of the Penal Code by adding language covering the exploitation of the "psychological or physical subjection" or "fraudulent abuse of a state of ignorance or weakness." Government-supported language giving mayors the power to prevent cults from establishing a presence 200 meters or less from a school, hospice, or retirement home was struck from the final version. Leaders of the four major religions, such as the president of the French Protestant Federation and the president of the Conference of Bishops in France, raised concerns about the legislation. The Council of Europe issued a declaration on April 26, 2001, citing its concern that the legislation could be discriminatory and that it violates human rights standards. Many religious groups plan to monitor closely implementation of the new law, which some allege was inspired by government concerns over some religions.

Local authorities often determine the treatment of religious minorities. A number of court cases have been initiated against the Church of Scientology, generally involving former members who have sued the Church for fraud and sometimes for the practice of medicine without a license. According to Scientology representatives, there also have been cases under the Data Privacy Act brought against the group by former members who have continued to receive mailings from the parent church in the United States. In April 2001, the Church of Scientology was taken to court for fraud and false advertising in a lawsuit brought by three former members; the case was still pending at the end of the reporting period. Church of Scientology representatives report that a case filed by a parent whose child attended an "Applied Scholastics"-based school remained ongoing. Warrants in this case were executed in March 2001 and the police entered Scientology offices and removed files. Scientology representatives also report the cancellation of a music contract for a Scientology member allegedly due to her religious affiliation. In October 2000, the Paris Prefecture denied a request by the Church of Scientology for a demonstration permit. The Church alleged discrimination; however, the prefecture justified the denial based upon the proposed size and duration of the demonstration, which would make it difficult to maintain public order. The group rented a private park outside Paris, where they held their gathering.

The Association of the Triumphant Vajra has been involved in a dispute with local officials over a statue of the association's guru, which was still pending at the end of the period covered by this report. Alleging unfair treatment on religious grounds, the Association mounted a public campaign and appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, to prevent application of a Court of Cassation (the country's highest appeal body) ruling upholding a lower court order to tear down the statue, which allegedly had been erected without a permit.

Some observers are concerned about the scrutiny with which tax authorities have examined the financial records of some religious groups. The Government does not recognize all branches of Jehovah's Witnesses, or the Church of Scientology, as qualifying religious associations for tax purposes, and therefore subjects them to a 60 percent tax on all funds they receive. The tax authorities began an audit in 1996 of the French Association of Jehovah's Witnesses. In 1998 the tax authorities formally assessed the 60 percent tax on donations received between September 1992 and August 1996. Tax authorities then began proceedings to collect the assessed tax, including steps to place a lien on the property of the National Consistory of Jehovah's Witnesses. However, in June 2000, the Conseil d'Etat, the highest administrative court in the country, decided that two of the branches of Jehovah's Witnesses could be recognized as religious associations according to the 1905 law, and thus be exonerated from certain tax obligations. In July 2000, a Nanterre court decided against the French Association of Jehovah's Witnesses. In the same month, the Jehovah's Witnesses appealed the Nanterre court's decision to the Versailles Court of Appeals. At the end of the period covered by this report, the case was still pending.

Problems experienced by Muslims appear to be based on cultural differences. Debate continues over whether denying some Muslim girls the right to wear headscarves in public schools constitutes a violation of the right to practice their religion. Various courts and government bodies have considered the question on a case-by-case basis; however there has been no definitive national decision on this issue.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

The Conseil des Eglises Chretiens en France is composed of three Protestants, three Catholics, and three Orthodox Christian representatives. It serves as a forum for dialog among the major Christian churches. There is also an organized interfaith dialog among the Christians, Buddhist, Muslim, and Jewish communities, which discuss and issue statements on various national and international themes. The Ministry of Interior urged the creation of a Muslim council and in February 2001, seven Muslim organization representatives came together with a draft accord. Four of the seven associations have signed the accord while the remaining three, more fundamentalist associations have not yet done so.

The annual National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (NCCHR) report on racism and xenophobia, released in March 2001, noted an increase in the number of attacks against Jews after a steady downward trend since 1992. During October 2000, more than 100 anti-Semitic incidents, ranging from graffiti to harassment to firebombing, occurred across the country, mainly as a result of increasing tensions in the Middle East. For example, on October 10, 2000, a synagogue in Trappes was set on fire and destroyed. Between October 12 and 14, 2000, local authorities in Strasbourg uncovered several Molotov cocktails that had been planted in a synagogue. On October 14, 2000, a synagogue in Lyon was rammed by a car and then caught fire. Three synagogues in the Paris suburb of Bagnolet and a Jewish shop in Toulon were firebombed. On October 17, 2000, six incendiary devices were discovered outside a Jewish school in Paris. On October 23, 2000, a synagogue in Marseille was firebombed. It appeared that disaffected youths were responsible for many of these incidents and some arrests were made. Government leaders, members of the Jewish community, the Paris Grand Mosque, the Protestant Federation, and the French Conference on Bishops strongly criticized the violence. The Government increased police security for Jewish institutions. Several incidents occurred against members of the large Arab/Muslim community, including incidents of harassment and vandalism.

In April 2001, Panda Software International (a Spanish company) was reported in the press as founded and run by a Scientologist. Panda, which filed suit against the publication L'Express and television channel France 3, and Scientologists claim that the negative press has led to an effective banning and boycotting of Panda's products due to its founder's religious affiliation.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Representatives from the Embassy have met several times with government officials and members of Parliament. Embassy officers also meet regularly with a variety of private citizens, religious organizations, and nongovernmental organizations involved in the issue. U.S. Senators have also discussed religious freedom issues with senior government officials during visits here. 



Back to Top
Sign-in

Do you already have an account on one of these sites? Click the logo to sign in and create your own customized State Department page. Want to learn more? Check out our FAQ!

OpenID is a service that allows you to sign in to many different websites using a single identity. Find out more about OpenID and how to get an OpenID-enabled account.