The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, some religious groups remain concerned about legislation passed in 2001 and 2004. A 1905 law on the separation of religion and State prohibits discrimination on the basis of faith.
Although Parliament passed, at the Government's request, a law prohibiting the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools by employees and students, government policy continued to contribute to the generally free practice of religion. There were a few improvements in the Government's response to anti-Semitic attacks. The Government has a stated policy of monitoring potentially "dangerous" cult activity through the Inter-ministerial Monitoring Mission Against Sectarian Abuses (MIVILUDES).
The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to freedom of religion. After an initial decline in the number of anti-Semitic incidents early in the reporting period, there was an increase in the number of incidents from January to June. Government leaders, religious representatives, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to criticize strongly anti-Semitic and racist violence, and the Government maintained increased security for Jewish institutions.
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has a total area of 211,209 square miles, and its population is approximately 60 million.
The Government does not keep statistics on religious affiliation. According to press reports, only 12 percent of the population attends religious services of any faith more than once per month. Asked about religious faith in a 2003 poll, 54 percent of those polled identified themselves as "faithful," 33 percent as atheist, 14 percent as agnostic, and 26 percent as "indifferent." The vast majority of the population is nominally Roman Catholic, but according to one member of the Catholic hierarchy, only 8 percent of the population are practicing Catholics. Muslims constitute the second largest religious group, with approximately 4 to 5 million adherents, or approximately 7 to 8 percent of the population. Protestants make up 2 percent of the population, and the Jewish and Buddhist faiths each represent 1 percent, with those of the Sikh faith less than 1 percent. According to various estimates, approximately 6 percent of the country's citizens are unaffiliated with any religion.
The Jewish community numbers approximately 600,000 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 Jewish persons 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 is associated with the Greek or Russian Orthodox Churches.
Other religions present in the country include evangelicals, Christian Scientists, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Membership in evangelical churches is growing due to increased participation by African and Antillean immigrants. According to the press, there are approximately 31,000 declared Mormons. The Church of Scientology has an estimated 5,000 to 20,000 members.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. A long history of violent conflict between religious groups led the state to break its ties to the Catholic Church early in the last century and adopt a strong commitment to maintaining a totally secular public sector. The 1905 law on the separation of religion and State, the foundation of existing legislation on religious freedom, prohibits discrimination on the basis of faith. Of the country's 10 national holidays, 5 are Christian holidays.
Religious organizations are not required to register, but may if they wish to apply for tax-exempt status or to gain official recognition. The Government defines two categories under which religious groups may register: "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 may organize only religious activities, defined as liturgical services and practices. A cultural association may engage in profit-making activity. 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 register under both of these categories; the Mormons, for example, runs strictly religious activities through its association of worship and operates a school under its cultural association.
Under the 1905 statute, religious groups must apply with the local prefecture to be recognized as an association of worship and receive tax-exempt status. The prefecture reviews the submitted documentation regarding the association's purpose for existence. 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 may disqualify a group from receiving tax-exempt status.
According to the Ministry of the Interior, 109 of 1,138 Protestant associations, 15 of 147 Jewish associations, and approximately 30 of 1,050 Muslim associations have tax-free status. Approximately 100 Catholic associations are tax-exempt; a representative of the Ministry of Interior reports that the number of nontax-exempt Catholic associations is too numerous to estimate accurately. More than 50 associations of the Jehovah's Witnesses have tax-free status.
According to the 1905 law, associations of worship are not taxed on the donations that they receive. However, the prefecture may 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 may be changed, and it may be required to pay taxes at a rate of 60 percent on present and past donations.
The 2001 About-Picard Law tightened restrictions on associations and provided for the dissolution of groups, including religious groups, under certain conditions. These include: endangering the life or the physical or 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 falsification.
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 religious groups may choose to have a portion of their income tax allocated to their religious organization in a system administered by the central government.
Central or local governments own and maintain religious buildings constructed before the 1905 law separating religion and State. In Alsace and Moselle, special laws allow the local governments to provide support for the building of religious edifices. The Government partially funded the establishment of the country's oldest Islamic house of worship, the Paris mosque, in 1926.
Foreign missionaries from countries not exempted from visa requirements to enter the country must obtain a 3-month tourist visa before leaving their own country. All missionaries who wish to remain in the country longer than 90 days must obtain visas before entering the 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 must provide the prefecture a letter from their sponsoring religious organization.
Public schools are secular. In March, the Government passed legislation that will prohibit public school employees and students from wearing conspicuous religious symbols, including the Muslim headscarf, the Jewish skullcap, and large crosses; the legislation is scheduled to take effect during the 2004-2005 school year. Religious instruction is not given in public schools, but religious facts are taught as part of the history curriculum. 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 Government subsidizes private schools, including those that are affiliated with religious organizations.
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 through encouraging dialogue among local officials, police, and citizen groups. Government leaders, along with representatives from the Jewish community, the Paris and Marseille Grand Mosques, the Protestant Federation, and the French Conference of Bishops have publicly condemned racist and anti-Semitic violence. In January 2003, a law was passed against crimes of a "racist, anti-Semitic, or xenophobic" nature; the law classifies racist motivations for violent acts as aggravating circumstances and mandates harsher punishment for these crimes. The Government regularly applies this law in prosecuting anti-Semitic crimes.
The Government consults with the major religious communities through various formal mechanisms. The Catholic community is represented by the Council of Bishops. In 2002, the Government and the Vatican initiated a series of meetings focusing on administrative and judicial matters.
The Protestant Federation of France, established in 1905, comprises 16 churches and 60 associations. Its primary purpose is to contribute to the cohesion of the Protestant community. It also acts as an interlocutor with the Government.
The Central Consistory of Jews of France, established in 1808, comprises the Jewish "cultuelle" worship associations from the entire country. It acts as a liaison with the Government, trains rabbis, and responds to other needs of the Jewish community. In 1943, Jewish members of the French Resistance formed the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF). The CRIF's stated purpose is to fight anti-Semitism, affirm its solidarity with Israel and commitment to finding a peaceful solution to the Middle East conflict, and preserve the memory of the Holocaust.
The national French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) and 25 affiliated regional councils serve as interlocutors for the Muslim community with local and national officials on such civil-religious issues as mosque construction and certification of "halal" butchers.
The Inter-ministerial Monitoring Mission Against Sectarian Abuses (MIVILUDES) is charged with observing and analyzing sect/cult movements that constitute a threat to public order or that violate French law, coordinating the appropriate responses to abuses by cults, informing the public about potential risks, and helping victims to receive aid.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
The Government moved to restrict the wearing of "religious symbols" in public schools. From July until December 2003, an inter-ministerial commission created by President Jacques Chirac led a public debate about secularism, integration, and the place of religion in the country. Many of the hearings and publications associated with the debate focused on whether the wearing of the Muslim headscarf by public school students was compatible with secularism and gender equality. In the past, various courts and government bodies have considered, on a case-by-case basis, whether denying Muslim girls and women the right to wear headscarves in public schools constitutes a violation of the right to religious freedom.
In February, on the recommendation of the inter-ministerial commission, the Government introduced a law to prohibit the wearing of "conspicuous" religious symbols--including Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps, and large crosses--by employees and students in public schools. The law was passed in March and is expected to enter into force in September. Implementing regulations, finalized in May, provide for the display of "discreet religious symbols," and grant considerable discretion to individual schools to interpret and implement the law. Items of clothing such as bandannas and turbans can be allowed in schools if such items are worn as fashion accessories without religious significance. Students will not be permitted to seek exemptions on religious grounds to school dress codes. Some Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh leaders, human rights groups, and foreign governments voiced concerns about the law's potential to restrict religious freedom.
There were at least five cases when school authorities took action to prevent women and girls from wearing Muslim headscarves in public schools. In October 2003, a school disciplinary board in Aubervilliers voted to expel two female students for wearing the Muslim headscarf in school. The decision was reversed in January; however, the girls chose to be home-schooled rather than return to the public school. In a separate case in November 2003, a school disciplinary board in Haute-Rhine expelled a female student for wearing a headscarf; in April, after a hearing at the Council of State, the student was allowed to return to school on the condition that she wear a small bandanna instead of a large headscarf. In December 2003, a disciplinary board in Paris suspended a teacher's aide for wearing a headscarf while working in a public school.
A court decision remained pending at the end of the period covered by this report regarding a civil servant who filed a lawsuit after being disciplined in 2002 for wearing a Muslim headscarf at work. Some Muslim groups have protested the government policy prohibiting the wearing of the headscarf in national identity photos. In September 2003, a court in Lyon ruled in favor of a young woman who sought reinstatement and $6,100 (5,131 euros) in damages and interest after she was fired by a telemarketing firm for refusing to wear her headscarf in a manner deemed appropriate by her employer, who stated her opposition to headscarves. The telemarketing firm appealed, and the next hearing is scheduled to take place later in 2004.
Due to concerns about terrorism, between July 2003 and April, the Government moved to expel 12 Muslim clerics whose sermons were determined to have threatened public order by calling for jihad (holy war). In April, two Muslim clerics were deported from the country. Later that month, however, a court ruled one such expulsion illegal, and the cleric has since returned to the country. As a result, the Minister of Interior and the President stated their intention to change the law to prevent radical Islamic clerics from recruiting terrorists and preaching misogynistic treatment of women in the country. At the end of the reporting period, the draft law, which declares that a foreigner can be deported for publicly proclaiming deliberate and explicit acts of provocation proposing discrimination, hatred, or violence against any specific person or group of persons, had been passed by the National Assembly and awaited a July 15 Senate vote.
The Government continued to encourage public caution toward some minority religions that it considers "cults." Mass suicides in 1994 by members of the Order of the Solar Temple led to heightened public concern about "cult" behavior. In 1996, a parliamentary commission studying so-called cults issued a report that identified 173 groups as cults, including the Raelians, the Association of the Triumphant Vajra, the Order of the Solar Temple, Sukyo Mahikari, the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Theological Institute of Nimes (an evangelical Christian Bible college), and the Church of Scientology. The Government has not banned 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.
In 1998, the Government created the "Inter-ministerial Mission in the Fight against Sects/Cults" (MILS) to analyze the "phenomenon of cults." The president of MILS resigned in 2002 under criticism; later that year, on the advice of an interministerial working group, the Government established the MIVILUDES, the successor to MILS. In January, MIVILUDES reported that the Ministry of Interior ordered the establishment of regional "vigilance units" in each department that must meet at least once a year. The report stated that MIVILUDES had received many reports of dangerous activity; the largest number of complaints concerned the refusal by members of the Jehovah's Witnesses to accept blood transfusions.
Some observers remained concerned about the 2001 About-Picard law. In 2002, the Council of Europe passed a resolution critical of the law and invited the Government to reconsider it. The law remained in force; however, its provisions for the dissolution of groups had not been applied.
Representatives of the Church of Scientology continued to report cases of societal discrimination, frivolous lawsuits, and prosecution for allegedly fraudulent activity. In October 2003, the Court of Appeals of Paris fined the Paris-region Spiritual Association of the Church of Scientology approximately $6,100 (5,000 euros) for breaking a law on information privacy; the decision was appealed. Church of Scientology representatives report that a case filed by a parent whose child attended an "Applied Scholastics"-based school remained ongoing at the end of the period covered by this report. In March, the police intelligence agency, Renseignements Generaux (RG), was instructed by the Administrative Tribunal of Paris to comply with a July 2003 decision by the Council of State and provide the Church of Scientology with its files on the group, or be fined. The RG had refused to accede to the Church of Scientology's request since 2000, citing "public safety" concerns.
Some observers voiced concerns about the tax authorities' scrutiny of the financial records of some religious groups. In 2002, the Versailles Court of Appeals upheld a Nanterre court's 2000 decision that the French Association of Jehovah's Witnesses, a cultural association, must pay more than $55.8 million (40 million euros) in back taxes. The plaintiffs' appeal of the decision to the Court of Cassation remained ongoing at the end of the reporting period.
In December 2003, the European Court of Human Rights condemned the Government for discrimination against a member of Jehovah's Witness who was denied custody of her children by the Appellate Court of Nimes, which cited concerns about her religious affiliation in its decision. The ECHR awarded the plaintiff $12,200 (10,000 euros) damages and $720 (590 euros) for expenses; she has the right to appeal the custody decision in domestic courts.
On January 24, police detained 38 members of the Falun Gong faith for several hours during the state visit of the Chinese president.
In April, police arrested three educators believed to be members of the Sukyo Mahikari, a Japanese "cult," for "abusing the weakness" of children in Ardennes.
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 refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.
Abuses by Terrorist Organizations
There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report.
Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom
In late 2003, the Ministry of Education created a national commission to combat anti-Semitism in schools. In March, the Government published a teaching tool on the country's values, intended to help public school teachers promote tolerance and combat anti-Semitism and racism. The limited amount of time in which these educational tools have been available to teachers makes it difficult to judge their efficacy.
Additionally, the Government has taken other proactive steps to fight anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic attacks, including instructing police commissioners to create monitoring units in each department and announcing in June the creation of a department-level Council of Religions that will raise public awareness of increased racial and antisectarian incidents.
Section III. Societal Attitudes
The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom; however, there were a number of anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic incidents during the period covered by this report. The Council of Christian Churches in France (Conseil des Eglises Chretiens en France) is composed of three Protestant, three Catholic, and three Orthodox Christian representatives. It serves as a forum for dialogue among the major Christian churches. There is also an organized interfaith dialogue among the Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, and Jewish communities, which discuss and issue statements on various national and international themes.
There was a troubling increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents during the second half of the reporting period. A Ministry of Interior report indicates, without specifying criteria, that there were 135 anti-Semitic "acts" in the first 6 months of 2004, compared with 127 for all of 2003. The Ministry of Interior also reported that 76 individuals had been arrested for committing anti-Semitic acts in the first 4 months of 2004. By contrast, the Minister of Justice recently reported that, between January 1 and June 6, there were 180 acts of anti-Semitism in the country, consisting of 104 attacks against property, 46 attacks against people, and 30 press infractions. In 35 of these cases, 61 individuals had been identified and pursued by the justice system.
In 2003, according to the Ministry of Interior's revised figures, police recorded 466 anti-Semitic threats and 127 violent attacks. Investigators were able to determine that, of the 127 violent actions reported in 2003, 6 cases involved elements of the extreme right and 44 cases involved delinquent youths from "tough neighborhoods." The Government reported that in 2003, police had sufficient evidence to question 91 suspects, arrest 69, and bring to trial 43. In 2003, there were seven convictions for anti-Semitic attacks committed that year and 15 convictions for attacks committed in 2002; punishments ranged from fines to 4-year prison sentences.
The Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in the country (CRIF) operated a hotline to register allegations of threats in the greater Paris region; from January to April, it received 97 reported threats and attacks, all of which were verified. According to the CRIF's website, 320 anti-Semitic incidents were reported during 2003. The CRIF stated in the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (NCCHR) report that its figures do not always correspond to those of the Government, as victims do not always report their attacks to both the police and the CRIF.
In 2003, the NCCHR released an extensive analysis of anti-Semitic incidents reported by the police. There have been no reported deaths due to anti-Semitic violence since 1995, but 21 persons were injured in anti-Semitic attacks in 2003. Based on investigations of the attacks, the NCCHR stated its conclusions that disaffected French-North African youths were responsible for many of the incidents, which officials linked to tensions in Israel and the Palestinian territories. A small number of incidents were also attributed to extreme-right and extreme-left organizations. In May, the Minister of Interior commented that the increase in attacks this year "marked a resurgence--notably among some youths--of neo-Nazi ideology fed by hatred and ignorance."
In its report on anti-Semitic attacks in 2003, the NCCHR focused on an increase in the proportion of anti-Semitic incidents that took place in schools. In 2003, 22 of 125 attacks (18 percent) and 73 of 463 threats (16 percent) occurred in schools; the report shows this to be the highest proportion of incidents in schools since 1997, the oldest data in the report. The report stated, "The number of threats testifies most particularly to the persistence of tensions, notably through the language of adolescents and children for whom [anti-Semitic] insults seem to be banal...This 'banalization' of uncivil acts, often provocative, and the aggressive behavior of certain children, notably in the so-called sensitive neighborhoods, accentuate incomprehension and rejection." Some Jewish groups were outraged when a court ordered that--in the case of two 11-year-old Muslim youths expelled for accusations of physical and verbal attacks against a Jewish student--the two students be readmitted to school, and also ordered the Government to reimburse the families $1,220 (1,000 euros) each for court costs. The courts found that, while the behavior of the Muslim students merited action, the age of the students and the circumstances did not justify expulsion.
In June, an individual shouting "Allah Akbar" stabbed a Jewish student and assaulted two other Jewish students in the city of Epinay-sur-Seine. This same person is believed to be responsible for similar knife attacks on five other victims, including those of Haitian and Algerian origin. A suspect, reportedly identified by several of the victims, was in custody at the end of the period covered by this report. The varied and random nature of the victims made the true motive of the attacks hard to discern.
On June 11, an American citizen studying at the Yeshiva of Vincennes was assaulted. Although the student himself did not describe this incident to the U.S. Embassy as an anti-Semitic attack, a Jewish organization subsequently contacted the Embassy to report it as such. Embassy officers met with the representative of the organization to discuss anti-Semitism in general and the case of the American citizen in particular.
Authorities condemned anti-Semitic attacks, maintained heightened security at Jewish institutions, investigated the attacks, made arrests, and pursued prosecutions. The Government maintained increased security for Jewish institutions. More than 13 mobile units, totaling more than 1,200 police officers, have been assigned to those locales having the largest Jewish communities. Fixed or mobile police are present in the schools, particularly during the hours when children are entering or leaving school buildings. All of these measures were coordinated closely with leaders of the Jewish communities in the country, notably the CRIF. In 2002, the Marseille prefecture instituted 24-hour patrols at all of the city's Jewish sites. In addition, the Ministry of Interior has earmarked $18.3 million (15 million euros) for additional security at Jewish sites.
In November 2003, after an arson attack destroyed a Jewish school in Gagny, President Chirac stated "an attack on a Jew is an attack on France" and ordered the formation of an inter-ministerial committee charged with leading an effort to combat anti-Semitism. Since its first meeting in December 2003, the committee has worked to improve government coordination in the fight against anti-Semitism, including the timely publication of statistics and reinforced efforts to prosecute attackers.
Members of the Arab/Muslim community experienced incidents of harassment and vandalism. According to the NCCHR, 29 of 36 violent racist attacks and 105 out of 137 racist threats in 2003 were directed at the North African (largely Muslim) population. Government figures from a Ministry of Interior report covering the first half of 2004 vary slightly but also indicate an upsurge in racist violence and threats: 256 incidents from January through June, as compared to 232 for all of 2003. In the first 3 months of 2004, 12 Muslim prayer halls were attacked. In late June, a group of Neo-Nazis desecrated 48 graves of Muslim soldiers in the Alsace region of eastern France with swastikas and "SS" inscriptions. That incident followed shortly after several other graffiti attacks on Muslim, Jewish, and Christian sites in the region.
Negative societal attitudes regarding the wearing of Muslim headscarves may have led to incidents of discrimination against Muslim women. Members of the Muslim community alleged that, when wearing headscarves, they had been refused service by private businesses. Media reports indicated that some companies discourage women employees from wearing the headscarf or encourage them to wear a bandanna in its place.
In April, the Court of Appeals of Douai fined a mayor approximately $610 (500 euros) for racial discrimination for refusing to marry Muslims on Saturday afternoons, which he reserved for Christian marriages.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.
Representatives from the Embassy have met several times with government officials responsible for religious freedom issues. These issues have been raised regularly in meetings with other officials and Members of Parliament. Embassy officers also meet regularly with a variety of private citizens, religious organizations, and NGOs involved in the issue. American Members of Congress and Congressional Commissions, as well as Congressional staff members, also have discussed religious freedom issues with senior government officials.
In June, senior U.S. Government representatives from Congress and the Departments of State and Justice worked closely with the country's officials to ensure a successful conference in Paris to study the link between racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic Internet sites and hate crime. The conference generated significant press interest and set the stage for further conferences on the subject.