France - Universal Periodic Review & Freedom of Religion or Belief








Separation of Religion or Belief & State




Second Session U.N. Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (5-19 May, 2008)


Available in other languages: click here if the language box does not display.





The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is a unique process launched by the UN Human Rights Council in 2008 to review the human rights obligations and responsibilities of all UN Member States by 2011. Click to open an Introduction to the Universal Periodic Review and Current News:


The France Universal Periodic Review was held by the UN Human Rights Council on 14 May 2008. Click to access France Universal Periodic Review: National Report; Compilation prepared by OHCHR; Summary of Stakeholders Letters prepared by OHCHR; Interactive Dialogue; Comments & Answers; Final Remarks.


The primary human rights instruments on freedom of religion or belief for the Universal Periodic Review are:


  • Article 18 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; and the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.


General Comment 22 on Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights:


The 1981 UN Declaration:


National Reports for the Universal Periodic Review seldom has enough information to assess progress on Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights –Everyone has the right to freedom of religion or belief, and the 1981 UN Declaration on the Elimination of all Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. The Tandem Project Follow-up is analogous to twenty-seven Community Strategies drafted in 1986 for discussion with international conference participants:




(1) Develop model local-national-international integrated approaches to human rights and freedom of religion or belief, appropriate to the legal systems and cultures of each country, Example: (2) Use International Human Rights Standards on Freedom of Religion or Belief for inclusive and genuine integration, dialogue and education, (3) Use the standards on freedom of religion or belief for education curricula, “teaching children, from the very beginning, that their own religion is one out of many and it is a personal choice for everyone to adhere to the religion or belief by which he or she feels most inspired, or to adhere to no religion or belief at all.”  


1: Example: Universal Periodic Review & Freedom of Religion or Belief

2: Piet de Klerk, Ambassador At-Large of the Netherlands on Human Rights, 25 year Anniversary of 1981 UN Declaration on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Prague, Czech Republic.




The Tandem Project Follow-up to the France Universal Periodic Review recommends a new paradigm updating the principle of laicite or secularism, as President Sarkozy says, a “positive secularism” (attachments below) for France, taking the principle of Separation of Church and State to another level, Separation of Religion or Belief & State, for the twenty-first century.


The Universal Periodic Review National Report signifies the importance of this principle in a section on Freedom of Religion or Belief. In the Universal Periodic Review Inter-active Dialogue France discusses the French principle of laicite or secularism adopted in a 1905 French law on Separation of Church and State, and Act No. 2004-228 of 15 March 2004 concerning the wearing of symbols or clothing indicating religious affiliation in State primary, middle and secondary schools, and more recently in the public square regarding swimming in religious clothing. France reaffirms support for the 15 March 2004 law and the principle of secularism but is open to dialogue on this issue.  


France faces a cultural challenge on issues of immigration. Today there are an estimated 4-5 million Muslims living in France. Islam as well as other religious minorities is subject to violations of their religious freedom on a daily basis sometimes inadvertently through intolerance and at other times through legal and cultural forms of discrimination. 


Read (below) the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief 2005 Country Visit to France; and three letters from the list of Stakeholder Submissions: the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Institute on Religion and Public Policy, and Islamic Human Rights Commission. Her report and the letters refer to the principle of laicite or secularism and the 2004 law banning certain displays of religious clothing and symbols in the face of religious obligations to wear and/or display such symbols, and documents ways in which religious minorities are being discriminated against.


The Tandem Project respectfully encourages France to consider a new paradigm on laicite or secularism that will reconcile human rights ethics and international law on freedom of religion or belief, with national laws and local cultures for the twenty-first century. This recommendation includes a call to local municipalities, civil society organizations, public, private and religious schools and places of worship, to develop model local-national-international approaches to human rights and freedom of religion or belief as presented in The Tandem Project Follow-up through integration, dialogue and education.


The Tandem Project supports a call for an International Convention on Freedom of Religion or Belief, deferred since 1968 by the United Nations. Freedom of Religion or Belief is an inviolable fundamental right, a religious-philosophical principle of democracy and human rights ethics as expressed through international law, for all religious and non-religious believers, at international, national and local levels.


Stakeholder Summary Information: Click on footnote 3 to read recommendation letters.


County Visit: by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, France 2006.





Excerpt: Country Visit to France, 2005, by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Asma Jahangir (E/CN.4/2006/5/Add.4), open link above.


The principle of laicite


96. The Special Rapporteur notes that the situation prevailing today in France is different from the one which existed at the time of the adoption of the 1905 law on the separation of Church and State (loi concernant la separation des Eglises et de l’Etat), which constitutes the basis of the principle of laicite (which is almost equivalent to secularism) in France. While recognizing that the organization of a society according to this principle may not only be healthy, but also guarantees the fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief, she is concerned that, in some circumstances, the selective interpretation and right application of the principle has operated at the expense of the right to freedom of religion or belief. – E/CN.4/2006/5/Add.4)



Pope Addresses Secularism in France, and Benedict XVI Urges Redefining State-Church Divide in France, by Rachel Donadio, New York Times, September 13-15, 2008




PARIS – In his first visit to France as pope on Friday, Benedict XVI touched on central themes of his papacy – the tensions between faith and reason and church and state, as well as his efforts to reach out to Muslims and Jews – and urged an increasingly irreligious Europe to look back to its intellectual roots in Christian monastic culture.


“What gave Europe’s culture its foundation – the search for God and the readiness to listen to him – remains today the basis of any genuine culture,” he said.


Roman Catholics make up about 60 percent of the French population of 65 million. But fewer than 10 percent of French Catholics say they attend Mass regularly.


“At this moment in history, when cultures continue to cross paths more frequently, I am firmly convinced that a new reflection on the true meaning and importance of secularism is now necessary,” the pope said at a ceremony earlier Friday with President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysee Palace. He used the word “laicite” which denotes separation of church and state.


But the pope proposed a “distinction between the political realm and that of religion in order to preserve both the religious freedom of citizens and the responsibility of the state toward them.” He distinguished the state’s legislative and social duties from religion’s role “for the formation of conscience” and the “creation of a basic ethical consensus in society.”


The pope is visiting France almost exactly two years after he made a speech in Regansburg, Germany, in which he angered many Muslims by quoting a 14 century Byzantine emperor as saying that the Prophet Muhammad brought “things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”


“That’s the past,” said Mohammed Moussaoui, the president of France’s Representative Muslim Council, who sat in the front row during the speech on Friday. The presence of Mr. Moussaoui and other Muslim leaders was seen as a positive response to the pope.


Meeting privately with French Jews on Friday, the pope spoke vehemently about the church’s opposition to “every form of anti-Semitism which can never be theologically justified,” according to a transcript of his remarks.


Speaking before the pope at the Elysee Palace, Mr. Sarkozy renewed his appeal for a “positive secularism,” saying it was “legitimate for democracy and respectful secularism to have a dialogue with religions.” The opposition Socialist Party later put out a statement urging Mr. Sarkozy to uphold France’s “secular principles,” the Associated Press reported.





LOURDES, France – Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday renewed his call to redefine church-state relations in France and urged Catholic clergy to engage in meaningful inter-religious dialogue.


In his speech to the bishops, the pope also amplified his call for a redefinition of “laicite” the divide between church and state that he first raised at a visit to the Elysee Palace in Paris on Friday. “Your president has intimated that this is possible,” the pope said Sunday, referring to President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has broken French tradition – and angered his Socialist opposition – in calling for a “positive secularism.”


“The social and political presuppositions of past mistrust or even hostility are gradually disappearing, “the pope said. But, he added, “The church does not claim the prerogative of the state.”






1. France - Religious Demography

The country has an area of 211,209 square miles and a population of 63.71 million.

In accordance with its definition of separation of state and religion, the Government does not keep statistics on religious affiliation. According to a January 2007 poll, 51 percent of respondents indicate they are Catholic, even if they never attend religious services. Another 31 percent of those polled state that they have no religious affiliation. Among Catholics, only 8 percent attend Mass weekly, one third do so "occasionally," and 46 percent attend "only for baptisms, weddings, and funerals." Only 52 percent of declared Catholics believe that the existence of God is "certain or possible." There are an estimated five to six million individuals of Muslim origin in the country (8 to 10 percent of the population), although estimates of how many of these are practicing vary widely. According to a 2004 survey, 36 percent of Muslims identify themselves as regularly observing traditional rites and practices. However, according to press reports of a September 2006 poll, 88 percent of Muslim respondents report that they were observing the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a marked increase over previously recorded levels of observance. According to press reports, there are more than 2,000 mosques in the country. Protestants make up 3 percent of the population, the Jewish and Buddhist faiths each represent 1 percent, and those of the Sikh faith less than 1 percent.

2. France - Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respected this right in practice. A long history of conflict between religious groups and between the Church and the Republic 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 holy days.

Religious organizations are not required to register but may apply for tax-exempt status or gain official recognition if they so wish. 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 normally 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, run strictly religious activities through their association of worship and operate a school under their cultural association.

3. France - Restrictions on Freedom of Religion or Belief

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Asma Jahangir, visited the country in 2005 and issued a report on her findings on March 8, 2006. While the Special Rapporteur indicated that the Government generally respected the right to freedom of religion or belief, she noted several areas of concern; particularly the 2004 law banning the wearing of religious symbols in schools, which may "protect the autonomy of minors who may be pressured or forced to wear a headscarf or other religious symbols" but also may serve to deny the rights of "minors who have freely chosen to wear a religious symbol to school as a part of their religious belief." She continued: "the stigmatization of the headscarf has provoked acts of religious intolerance when women wear it outside school."

In 2004 the European Commission on Human Rights ruled that the law banning religious symbols in school did not violate the freedom of religion. Some Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh leaders, human rights groups, and foreign governments voiced concerns about the law's potential to restrict religious freedom. Minority religious groups cite a growing body of precedent-setting case law from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which enforces the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and is binding on all Council of Europe members, to contest unequal treatment under law. Critics of the Government's distinction between religions and "cults" (sectes) note that, in support of a policy of "true religious pluralism," the ECHR has instructed governments to remain neutral and impartial, finding that the "the right to freedom of religion as guaranteed under the Constitution excludes any discretion on the part of the state to determine whether religious beliefs or the means used to express such beliefs are legitimate."

4. France - Societal Abuse and Discrimination

Although there were anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic incidents during the period covered by this report, prominent societal leaders took positive steps to promote religious freedom and to maintain open lines of communication among different faith communities. The Council of Christian Churches in France, composed of three Protestant, three Catholic, and three Orthodox Christian representatives, 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 addresses and issues statements on various national and international themes.

Please see the Anti-Semitism section above for reports of anti-Semitic incidents. Throughout 2007 there have been weekly reports in the press of cemetery desecrations of all religious groups. On May 24, 2007, a court convicted the author of racially motivated attacks and cemetery profanation; he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He had attempted to kill two citizens of North African origin and had profaned 62 Jewish tombs in a Lyon cemetery in 2004.

Members of the Arab-Muslim community experienced incidents of harassment and vandalism. However, the situation improved in 2006, during which, according to the NCCHR, there were 344 racist (often including anti-Islamic) acts recorded, a decrease from the 471 committed in 2005. The trend was also reflected in a drop in the number of violent incidents (64 in 2006 as opposed to 88 in 2005). Far-right extremists were responsible for 26 of the 42 violent racist incidents aimed at individuals of North African origin. The Government recorded 192 threats made against individuals of North African origin, of which 65 were explicitly anti-Islamic (up from 56 such threats in 2005). Violent racist incidents on the island of Corsica, which made up 27 percent of the attacks in 2005, comprised only 5 percent of the incidents in 2006.

Negative societal attitudes regarding the wearing of Muslim headscarves may have led to incidents of discrimination against Muslim women. Members of the Muslim community again alleged that, when wearing headscarves, they were refused service by private businesses. Media reports indicated that some companies discouraged female employees from wearing the headscarf or encouraged them to wear a bandanna in its place.

Source: U.S. State Department 2007 International Religious Freedom Report; France


Links to State Department sites are welcomed. Unless a copyright is indicated, information on the State Department’s main website is in the public domain and may be copied and distributed without permission. Citation of the U.S. State Department as source of the information is appreciated.


Documents Attached:


France - Universal Periodic Review & Freedom of Religion or Belief.

France - Secularism & Separation of Church and State

Limits on Freedom of Religion or Belief - Protecting Morals




United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, at the Alliance of Civilizations Madrid Forum said; “never in our lifetime has there been a more desperate need for constructive and committed dialogue, among individuals, among communities, among cultures, among and between nations.”


Genuine dialogue on human rights and freedom of religion or belief calls for respectful discourse, discussion of taboos and clarity by persons of diverse beliefs. Inclusive dialogue includes people of theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. The warning signs are clear, unless there is genuine dialogue ranging from religious fundamentalism to secular dogmatism; conflicts in the future will probably be even more deadly.


In 1968 the UN deferred work on an International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Religious Intolerance because of its complexity and sensitivity. Violence, suffering and discrimination based on religion or belief in many parts of the world is greater than ever. It is time for a UN Working Group to draft what they deferred in 1968, a comprehensive core international human rights treaty-a United Nations Convention on Freedom of Religion or Belief. United Nations History – Freedom of Religion or Belief


The challenge to religions or beliefs at all levels is awareness, understanding and acceptance of international human rights standards on freedom of religion or belief. Leaders, teachers and followers of all religions or beliefs, with governments, are keys to test the viability of inclusive and genuine dialogue in response to the UN Secretary General’s urgent call for constructive and committed dialogue.  


The Tandem Project title, Separation of Religion or Belief and State (SOROBAS), reflects the far-reaching scope of UN General Comment 22 on Article 18, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Human Rights Committee (CCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.4). The General Comment on Article 18 is a guide to international human rights law for peaceful cooperation, respectful competition and resolution of conflicts:


Surely one of the best hopes for humankind is to embrace a culture in which religions and other beliefs accept one another, in which wars and violence are not tolerated in the name of an exclusive right to truth, in which children are raised to solve conflicts with mediation, compassion and understanding.


The Tandem Project is a non-governmental organization (NGO) founded in 1986 to build understanding, tolerance and respect for diversity, and to prevent discrimination in matters relating to freedom of religion or belief. The Tandem Project has sponsored multiple conferences, curricula, reference materials and programs on Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion - and 1981 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.


The Tandem Project is a UN NGO in Special Consultative Status with the

Economic and Social Council of the United Nations