"Belief and public policies" by Franck Fregosi

Franck FRÉGOSI, Project Leader CNRS, PRISME (Strasbourg) / Observatoire du religieux (CHERPA), Institut d'Etudes Politiques d'Aix-en-Provence

Belief as a paradoxical subject of public policies: critical thoughts on the French case


In the field of the regulation of the relationship between denominations and authorities, France stands out among other European states. Indeed the French system legitimises itself by relying on an apparently strict separation between, on one hand, the state, which is supposed to be neutral as far as religion is concerned, and on the other hand autonomous religious institutions.

In contrast with this rhetorical and ideological configuration, social reality is rather characterised by interconnections between the state and the religious field. The way the Islamic belief is addressed by the state is an important example of this paradox.

Belief can become a subject of public policies either to the benefit of the state, when a specific belief is promoted in a denominational state, or indirectly in a secular state, to guarantee religious freedom or to restrict those radical religious forms which produce controversial or subversive practices.

In France the public approach of Islam has long been dominated by security considerations. In colonial Algeria, this approach led the state to appoint preachers in order to take control of the mosques. Nowadays Islam is seen as a belief which is political in essence. As a result, the state pays a particular attention to this religion. From time to time, censorship against islamic religious production strengthens. For instance in 1995 The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam - in which Cheikh Yûsuf Al-Qaradâwî advocated in favour of corporal punishment for women and against homosexuality - was temporarily forbidden, when it did not criticise secularisation or disturb the peace. Moreover ministerial circulars regulate the observance of the Muslim faith: burials, ritual slaughter and the well-known Act on conspicuous religious signs of March 15, 2004 which aims at limiting the social visibility of Islam. The following year the hegemony of secularism over medical care was reaffirmed by the Civil Service. Since 1993 the French authorities have attempted to establish a national institution which would represent the Islamic religion: the French Council of the Muslim Faith (French: Conseil Français du Culte Musulman, usually abbreviated to CFCM). The aim of all these voluntary policies is to reformulate the Islamic belief as a denominational issue and thus to deprive it of any social expression.

In this way France is toeing the line of a state model of interventionism which was initiated by Napoleon Bonaparte to deal with Judaism. This policy of intervention consists in a double dynamic: confining Islam to its cultual dimension and rationalising its organisation, despite associative heterogeneity. The second moment of the recent consultation process was less conciliatory: religious leaders were enjoined to sign a declaration in which they were held to recognise the faithful's right to change religions, indirectly through freedom of conscience, but also explicitly. Through the controversy concerning the Islamic veil, the state is attempting to ‘re-enchant' an institution which is undergoing deep crisis: the republican state school system is defended as a "sanctuary" where all particularities must disappear on the behalf on secularism.

As a conclusion, Franck Frégosi emphasizes that there however subsists one field in which the state is likely to promote a Muslim practice within the public sphere: Islamic banking. This may be due to the universality of the motive of profit.