The constitution defines the country as a secular republic and states it “shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law,” regardless of religion, and respect all beliefs. The law provides for the separation of religion and state and guarantees the free exercise of religious worship except to maintain public order.
The law, as well as international and European covenants, which carry the force of law in the country, protects the freedom of individuals to choose, change, and practice their religion. Interference with the freedom of religion is subject to criminal penalties, including a fine of 1,500 euros ($1,800) and imprisonment of one month. Individuals who are defendants in a trial may challenge the constitutionality of any law they say impedes their freedom of religion.
Laws increase the penalties for acts of violence or defamation when they are committed because of the victim’s actual or perceived membership or nonmembership in a given religious group. Penalties for acts of violence that courts determine are religiously motivated are three to five years’ imprisonment and fines of 45,000-75,000 euros ($54,000-$90,000), depending on the severity of the victims’ injuries. For religiously motivated acts of public defamation, the penalties are one year’s imprisonment and/or a fine of 45,000 euros ($54,000). The government may expel noncitizens for inciting discrimination, hatred, or violence against a specific person or group of persons based on religion.
Although the law does not require it, religious groups may apply for official recognition and tax-exempt status. Religious groups may register under two categories: associations of worship, which are exempt from taxes; and cultural associations, which normally are not exempt. Associations in either category are subject to fiscal oversight by the state. An association of worship may organize only religious activities, defined as liturgical services and practices. Although not tax-exempt, a cultural association may engage in for-profit as well as nonprofit activity and receive government subsidies for its cultural and educational operations. Religious groups normally register under both of these categories. For example, Mormons perform religious activities through their association of worship and operate a school through their cultural association.
Religious groups must apply at the local prefecture (the administrative body representing the central government in each department) for recognition as an association of worship and tax-exempt status. Once granted, the association may use the tax-exempt status nationwide. In order to qualify, the group’s sole purpose must be the practice of religion, which may include religious training and the construction of buildings serving the religious group. Among excluded activities are those purely cultural, social, or humanitarian in nature. The government does not tax associations of worship on donations they receive. If the prefecture determines an association is not in conformity with its tax-exempt status, however, the government may change that status and require the association to pay taxes at a rate of 60 percent on past, as well as future, donations until it regains tax-exempt status. According to the MOI, approximately 109 Protestant, 100 Catholic, 50 Jehovah’s Witnesses, 30 Muslim, and 15 Jewish associations have tax-exempt status.
The law states “detained persons have the right to freedom of opinion, conscience, and religion. They can practice the religion of their choice…without other limits than those imposed by the security needs and good order of the institution.”
On October 18, parliament passed counterterrorism legislation to succeed the state of emergency law, which had been in effect since 2015 and expired on November 1. The legislation incorporated several provisions of the emergency law. In particular, it grants prefects (representatives of the central government) in each department the authority to close a place of worship for a maximum of six months if they find comments, writings, or activities in the place of worship “provoke violence, hatred or discrimination or the commission of acts of terrorism or praise such acts of terrorism.” The management of the place of worship has 48 hours to appeal the closure decision to an administrative court. Noncompliance with a closure decision carries a six-month prison sentence and a fine of 7,500 euros ($9,000).
The law prohibits covering one’s face in public places, including public transportation, government buildings, and other public spaces, such as restaurants and movie theaters. If police encounter a person in a public space wearing a face covering such as a mask or burqa, they are legally required to ask the individual to remove it to verify the individual’s identity. Police officials may not remove it themselves. If an individual refuses to remove the garment, police may take the person to the local police station to verify his or her identity. Police may not question or hold an individual for more than four hours. Refusing a police instruction to remove a face-covering garment carries a maximum fine of 150 euros ($180) or attendance at a citizenship course. Individuals who coerce another person to cover his or her face on account of gender by threat, violence, force, or abuse of power or authority are subject to a fine of 30,000 euros ($36,000) and may receive a sentence of up to one year in prison. The fine and sentence are doubled if the victim is a minor.
By law, the government may not directly finance religious groups to build new places of worship. The government may, however, provide loan guarantees or lease property to groups at advantageous rates. The law also exempts places of worship from property taxes. The state owns and is responsible for the upkeep of most places of worship, primarily Catholic, built before 1905. The government may fund cultural associations with a religious connection.
There are three classes of territories where the law separating religion and state does not apply. Because Alsace-Lorraine was part of Germany when the law was enacted, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Jews there may choose to allocate a portion of their income tax to their religious group. Local governments in the region may also provide financial support for constructing religious buildings and paying the salaries of local religious leaders. The overseas department of French Guiana, which is governed under 19th century colonial laws, may provide subsidies to the Catholic Church. Other overseas departments and overseas territories, which include island territories in the Caribbean and the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, and several sub-Antarctic islands, may also provide funding for religious groups. This provision also applies to the portion of Antarctica the government claims as an overseas territory.
Public schools are secular. The law prohibits public school employees and students from wearing “conspicuous religious symbols,” including the Muslim headscarf, Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban, and large Christian crosses. Public schools do not provide religious instruction, except in Alsace-Lorraine and overseas departments and territories. Public schools, however, do teach information about religious groups as part of the history curriculum. Parents who wish their children to wear conspicuous religious symbols or to receive religious instruction in school may homeschool or send their children to a private school. Homeschooling and private schools must conform to the educational standards established for public schools.
By law, the government subsidizes private schools, including those affiliated with religious organizations. In 98 percent of private schools, in accordance with the law, the government pays the teachers’ salaries, provided the school accepts all children regardless of an individual child’s religious affiliation. The law does not address the issue of religious instruction in government-subsidized private schools or whether students must be allowed to opt out of such instruction.
Missionaries from countries not exempted from entry visa requirements must obtain a three-month tourist visa before traveling to the country. All missionaries wishing to remain longer than 90 days must obtain long-duration visas before entering the country. Upon arrival, missionaries must provide a letter from their sponsoring religious group to apply to the local prefecture for a temporary residence card.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: The government reported deploying 7,000 security forces to provide reinforced security throughout the country at sensitive sites, including religious ones. At year’s end, 11 of 19 Muslim religious sites the government had deemed “radical” and closed over the previous two years, remained closed. The Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), a French Muslim NGO, said the state of emergency the government ended on November 1 had disproportionately targeted Muslims, and the law that replaced it made the discrimination permanent. The government continued to enforce the ban on full-face coverings in public. The city of Lorette added “headscarves” to the list of banned clothing by bathers in a public swimming pool, and immigration authorities required a U.S. citizen to remove her headscarf to enter the country. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 20 incidents in which authorities interfered with the door-to-door religious proselytizing of its members. The mayor of Clichy-la-Garenne, a suburb of Paris, did not renew the lease on a city-owned space used as a mosque and encouraged its members to use a new mosque the city had helped open in May 2016. The members of the closed mosque protested the mayor’s decision by praying in front of city hall. The military increased the number of Muslim chaplains by 25 percent, to 270. The president and other government officials condemned anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian acts and “Islamist extremism.” In October the prime minister announced a national plan to combat anti-Semitism. Authorities expelled a Swiss Muslim preacher, saying he posed a risk to public order.
According to statistics released by Interior Minister Gerard Collomb and Defense Minister Florence Parly on September 14, the government deployed 7,000 security forces throughout the country to protect sensitive sites, including vulnerable Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim sites and other places of worship.
The Paris public prosecutor’s office concluded there was “sufficient evidence” against Lebanese Canadian academic Hassan Diab to justify a trial. Authorities charged Diab with bombing a synagogue in Paris during Sabbath prayers in 1980, killing four persons and injuring 40 others. The prosecutor’s decision meant the court would decide on whether Diab was in fact in the country at the time of the attack, according to media reports on December 13. An investigating magistrate was scheduled to make the final decision on whether the case would go to trial on charges of murder, attempted murder, and destruction of property as part of a criminal conspiracy. On November 14, according to media reports, Paris’ Court of Appeals extended his pretrial detention for another six months.
On February 1, then-Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux issued a statement crediting a decline in reports of religiously motivated incidents in 2016 to the results of the government’s action plan to fight racism, anti-Semitism, and all forms of discrimination linked to origin or religion. Le Roux cited the effectiveness of measures for protection of places of worship introduced in January 2015 and the successful mobilization of the country’s institutions, especially its schools, after the attacks of 2015 and 2016. According to Le Roux, “Faced with racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim and anti-Christian acts, we must not relax the guard, on the contrary … we continue, and will always continue to fight against those absolutely intolerable acts which tarnish the Republic.”
According to the Ministry of Justice, as of May the penitentiary system employed the following number of chaplains: 700 Catholic (compared with 690 in 2016), 350 Protestant (349 in 2016), 270 Muslim (217 in 2016), 50 Jewish, and 50 Orthodox Christian. The most recent figures from other groups were from January 2015, when there were 111 Jehovah’s Witness and 10 Buddhist chaplains, and 50 from other religious groups. In the general detainee visiting area, any visitor could continue to bring religious objects to an inmate or speak with the prisoner about religious issues but could not pray. Policies remained in place allowing prisoners to pray individually in their cells, with a chaplain in designated prayer rooms, or, in some institutions, in special apartments where they could receive family for up to 48 hours.
Jehovah’s Witnesses officials reported 20 cases of authorities interfering with the community’s public proselytizing. In all of these instances, the Jehovah’s Witnesses continued with their proselytizing. In nine of the incidents, according to Witnesses, local police and mayors banned the community’s public proselytizing. For example, on June 20, in the region of Bourgogne-Franche-Comte, a mayor prohibited Witnesses from preaching door-to-door, saying he was concerned about the security of the town’s citizens. The group’s lawyer wrote to the mayor, stating the law did not prohibit such activity, and the Witnesses continued their religious activity. In two other occurrences, municipalities enacted ordinances prohibiting or restricting door-to-door proselytizing. In the nine other cases, town mayors and local police required Jehovah’s Witnesses to obtain authorization for door-to-door proselytizing and to show their identity cards as soon as they arrived in the community. For example, on April 15 in Saint-Ambroix, Centre-Val de Loire, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Gendarmerie asked them to obtain authorization from the mayor to participate in their door-to-door canvassing. The mayor also stated he did not want the Witnesses to proselytize within his community. The lawyer for the Witnesses wrote to the chief of staff of the Gendarmerie and to the mayor, stating the activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses were legal. Neither the mayor nor the Gendarmerie responded.
On October 6, the administrative appeals court of Nantes ruled the annual installation of a nativity scene in the hall of the General Council of the Vendee was a festive “local cultural use” of more than 20 years and thus did not violate the principle of secularism. In November 2016, the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, had ruled nativity scenes were permissible in town halls and other public buildings if the intent was “cultural, artistic, or festive.”
On June 16, an American citizen said security agents at Nice Airport required her to remove her headscarf, despite her objections, in order to enter the country. The woman said authorities held her in an airport security room until she consented to removing her headscarf in front of a female security agent. In response to the incident, French Ambassador to the United States Gerard Araud said the woman should take legal action to allow a French court to assess her charges of harassment based on her religious identity. The Nice border police office and Nice Airport authorities declined to comment on the incident. The woman reportedly filed suit in a French court, according to media reports.
According to media reports, the city of Lorette issued rules prohibiting full-body swimwear and veils that partially or totally concealed the face at a new public outdoor swimming pool opened on June 23. The rules required a woman to wear a one-piece or two-piece bathing suit to access the pool. According to media outlets, Aldo Oumouden, the Spokesperson for the Grand Mosque in the nearby city of Saint Etienne, said, “The mayor does not realize that this decision will further increase stigma. It is not only unnecessary but also devastating for community harmony.”
On October 6, the MOI reported that, since November 2015, authorities had closed 19 mosques or prayer rooms it deemed “radical” under the state of emergency, 11 of which remain closed.
In November 2016, the Council of State upheld a lower court’s decision to allow the town of Clichy-la-Garenne near Paris not to renew a lease for a space the Union of Clichy Muslim Associations (UAMC) was using as a mosque, according to media reports. The UAMC refused to vacate the space and continued to use it until March. On March 22, town officials changed the locks to the space, and worshipers could no longer enter it, according to press reports. During a March 24 demonstration against the closure, media outlets reported one of the imams of the former mosque said, “We demand from the mayor a dignified [prayer] space and a durable solution.” Mayor Remi Muzeau said he planned to transform the closed prayer space into a library and told the UAMC and worshippers they could use a new 1,500-square-meter (16,000 square-foot) Muslim cultural and religious center, opened in May 2016, near the old location, run by a different Muslim association. The UAMC, however, stated the new space was too far from the town center, could not accommodate a sufficient number of worshippers, and was not easily reachable via public transportation, although the city established a bus stop in front of the mosque.
Throughout the year, according to media reports, the UAMC led street prayers on Fridays in front of city hall to protest the mayor’s decision not to renew the lease. On November 10, media reported approximately 100 lawmakers, singing the national anthem and wearing tricolor sashes of office, marched on a street and disrupted approximately 200 Muslim men from praying in a road. Police kept the two sides apart and made no arrests. Valerie Pecresse, President of the Ile-de-France Regional Council and a protest organizer, said, “Public space cannot be taken over in this way.” Mayor Muzeau stated, “I want to assure the tranquility and freedom of the people of my city,” and called on the government to “ban street prayers.” On November 19, Interior Minister Gerard Collomb, referring to the November 10 incident, stated, “We will prevent street praying,” but added, “Muslims must have a place to pray.”
On October 25, the Council of State ordered the removal of a cross from a 25-foot-tall statue of Saint Pope John Paul II on public land in Ploermel, a town in Brittany. The court ruled the statue could remain but the cross must be removed within six months because it violated the religion-state separation law. The National Federation of Free Thought, a grouping of humanist associations, and two residents of the town brought the case to court. Some Christians and politicians criticized the decision, calling it another example of efforts to erase the country’s Christian heritage.
In August a Dijon administrative court ruled that schools must provide an alternative to pork school lunches in the interest of Muslim and Jewish children who do not eat pork. The Muslim Legal Defense League (LDJM) had brought the case against a town council in the Burgundy region that stopped providing a choice for school lunches in 2015. The LDJM stated the town’s decision to stop providing nonpork meals was “illegal, discriminatory, and a violation of freedom of conscience and religion.” The administrative court stated it did not accept the LDJM’s argument about religious freedom but considered the “greater interest of the child.” The judge stated the town previously had provided alternative nonpork meals since 1984 “with no argument whatsoever.”
In March a primary school in the town of Malicornay in the central part of the country suspended a teacher after he reportedly read Bible passages to his students. A group of parents requested an investigation to determine if the teacher was attempting to proselytize his students or violating the country’s secular principles.
The CCIF stated the state of emergency in effect until November 1 had disproportionally targeted Muslims, conflating fighting terrorism with promoting anti-Muslim policies. In response to the legislation succeeding the state of emergency, the CCIF issued a statement on November 2 saying the new security legislation made the abuses permitted under the state of emergency a permanent element of the law.
On April 7, the Observatory for Secularism, a body comprised of 15 senior civil servants, parliamentarians, legal experts, and intellectuals who advise the government on the implementation of the “principle of secularism,” released its fourth annual report evaluating secularism in schools, public spaces, and hospitals. The report urged media and elected representatives to cover religious matters responsibly and not sensationalize them. The Observatory also recommended greater financial transparency for religious associations.
On December 21, President Macron received leaders of major religious communities to discuss secularism, theology degrees in universities, and the placement of religious chaplains in hospitals, the military, schools, and prisons. Protestant and Jewish representatives stressed the importance of welcoming migrants.
On January 5, at an annual New Year’s meeting with religious leaders, then- President Francois Hollande thanked a group of seven religious leaders, including Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist leaders, for calling for unity following a difficult year marked by terrorist attacks in Nice and Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray. Hollande warned of the threat of radicalization from traditional and online platforms and said it was necessary “to eliminate at the outset any amalgam between the religion of peace practiced by the Muslims of France and the odious uses of Islam by the assassins sponsored by Da’esh.” He also praised the work of religious-inspired organizations that brought “solidarity with the most deprived and also with the migrants who reach our soil after having survived terrible ordeals.”
On October 2, at an annual event celebrating the Jewish New Year at the country’s largest synagogue, Prime Minister (PM) Edouard Philippe announced a new national plan (2018-2020) to combat anti-Semitism. According to PM Philippe, the government would work closely with civil society and Jewish organizations to develop and implement the plan. He stated “a sustainable fight against anti-Semitism” must use all available preventive tools, including convention of the country’s largest Jewish umbrella organization, the culture and education. He said the plan would address online anti-Semitic activities and postings such as those that had “overrun social media.” On December 10, at the eighth Representative Council of Jewish Institutions of France (CRIF), PM Philippe said the government was protecting 822 Jewish schools in the country, as well as religious sites.
On March 10, the Republican Party (LR) published on Twitter an anti-Semitic caricature of then-presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron showing him with a long hooked nose, wearing a top hat, and using a sickle to cut a cigar. The image resembled anti-Semitic propaganda from World War II (WWII), when the country’s Vichy government collaborated with the Nazis and their deportation and extermination of Jews, according to media reports. After heavy criticism, the LR removed the tweet. A day after the tweet, LR presidential candidate Francois Fillon denounced the “unacceptable” cartoon, saying he would not tolerate dissemination of caricatures with markers of “anti-Semitic propaganda” and calling it “totally contrary to our values.” Then-president of the NGO International League Against Anti-Semitism and Racism Alain Jakubowicz also condemned the tweet, saying, “It is absolutely terrifying. I don’t know if I want to scream, cry, or give up.” Macron filed a complaint in March against the LR for publishing the tweet; however, the Paris prosecutor abandoned the case on June 13 on grounds the case was an “insufficiently characterized offense.” Although the LR launched an internal investigation, the identity of the publisher remained unknown.
On April 25, the Paris Criminal Court fined Mayor Robert Menard of Beziers 2,000 euros ($2,400) for inciting hatred and discrimination by making anti-Muslim comments. The court convicted Menard for comments he made in a September 2016 interview when he stated the number of Muslim children in Beziers was “a problem” and for tweeting in the same month his regret at witnessing “the great replacement,” an allusion to a term used by writer Renaud Camus to describe the country being overtaken by foreign-born Muslims. The fine was higher than the 1,800 euros ($2,200) initially sought by the public prosecutor. The court also ordered the mayor to pay damages of up to 1,000 euros ($1,200) to each of the seven antiracism organizations that had originally filed the suit against him.
On January 9, then-Minister of Interior Le Roux attended a memorial ceremony outside a Paris kosher supermarket, where two years earlier a gunman had killed four Jews and held 15 others hostage.
Former President Hollande, President Macron, and government ministers on many occasions condemned anti-Semitism and declared support for Holocaust education. These occasions included the February 22 annual CRIF dinner; the March 19 commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the killings of three Jewish children and their teacher by Mohammed Merah in Toulouse; the April 30 Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration; the June 1 French Judaism Day observance; and the July 21 anniversary of the Velodrome d’Hiver roundup of Jews during WWII. At the July 21 event, President Macron said, “We will never surrender to the messages of hate; we will not surrender to anti-Zionism because it is a reinvention of anti-Semitism.”
On September 13-14 in Paris, government officials and their Israeli counterparts held their third annual bilateral working group meeting to review efforts and best practices to counter anti-Semitism in France. Ambassador-at-Large for Human Rights François Croquette led the country’s delegation, which included the head of the Interagency Delegation to Counter Racism, Anti-Semitism, and Anti-LGBT Hatred (DILCRAH) and Ministry of Education and CRIF representatives.
On June 20, President Macron and Interior Minister Collomb attended an iftar hosted by the CFCM. At the event, President Macron met with CFCM leaders Ahmet Ogras and Anouar Kbibech, as well as Rector of the Great Mosque of Paris Dalil Boubakeur. In his remarks, President Macron, the first president to attend a CFCM iftar since 2007, said the country must counter individuals who twisted the Muslim faith to justify terrorist acts, better integrate Muslims, and strive to train imams domestically to ensure they represented and conveyed values of the country. Macron encouraged the CFCM’s leaders to focus on increased dialogue with the different domestic Muslim communities. He also praised what he called the strong cooperation among the MOI, CFCM, and DILCRAH in countering anti-Muslim hate crimes.
As part of an established exchange program, the government continued to host 30 Moroccan, 120 Algerian, and 151 Turkish imams to work temporarily in the country to promote religious tolerance and combat violent extremism within Muslim communities, according to the latest available data published in a 2016 French Senate report. The report said the imams’ countries of origin paid their salaries.
On October 2, PM Philippe said the government would not question the practice of ritual slaughter. His announcement followed the creation of a commission formed by Muslim and Jewish community leaders in 2016 to protect the practice of religious slaughter, which they said was under threat.
On April 8, authorities expelled Swiss Muslim preacher Hani Ramadan for posing a serious threat to public order, according to an MOI statement. Authorities escorted him from the eastern city of Colmar, where he was participating in a conference, to the Swiss border. The statement said Ramadan had in the past adopted behavior posing a threat to the country and that “the forces of law and order … will continue to fight ceaselessly against extremism and radicalization.” Press reports said authorities had cancelled several of Ramadan’s conferences in the country during the year, notably in Roubaix in January.
In March Mayor of Montpellier Philippe Saurel joined Mayors United against Anti-Semitism, an international initiative calling on municipal leaders to publicly address and take concrete actions against anti-Semitism. As members of this initiative, mayors “pledge to pursue a zero-tolerance policy on anti-Semitism, ensure that anti-Semitic incidents are thoroughly investigated, raise public awareness of the problem, and make the physical security of Jewish communities a priority.” Other participating cities in the country included Paris, Toulouse, Strasbourg, Bordeaux, Nice, Sarcelles, and Nancy.
In June the government announced the Pithiviers train station would become a Holocaust educational and memorial site. The station was the country’s first concentration camp during WWII, housing approximately 3,500 Jews in May 1941 before their deportation to Nazi death camps.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.