Deconfinement: the delicate game of France with religious freedoms
On April 28, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe presented his deconfinement plan to the National Assembly, announcing that many activities of collective life could resume from May 11. However, during his speech, the Prime Minister specified that the ban on religious ceremonies, with the exception of funerals, would be maintained until June 2.
This prolongation of the restrictions imposed on the free exercise of worship then aroused a strong reaction on the part of the elected representatives of the right and the Catholic Church. The Conference of Bishops of France (CEF) expressed its "regret" that the celebration of worship in public could not resume from May 11, and 67 parliamentarians signed a platform in Le Figaro, calling on the government to reverse its decision.
Faced with the magnitude of this sling, the government revised its position: on May 4 Edouard Philippe declared himself before the Senate, "ready to study the possibility that religious services could resume from May 29".
However, if this date allowed the churches to welcome the faithful for the Pentecost mass, it did not succeed in extinguishing the controversy. Indeed, it ignores Eid al-Fitr, the closing feast of Ramadan, scheduled for May 24, provoking the indignation of the Rector of the Great Mosque of Paris.
This controversy is all the more notable since, up to now, the restrictions on religious freedoms imposed by the French State have not met with strong opposition, neither from civil society nor from elected.
How should we then understand this reversal of the situation?
The announcement of the deconfinement plan announces the gradual exit from an emergency policy, defined by a relative national union. In so doing, this announcement also marks the resumption of "normal" politics, where the conflict is structured around institutions and ideological poles. The challenge to religious freedoms is part of this broader movement.
An unprecedented application of laws
On March 15, the government prohibited by order any gathering or reunion of more than 20 people in religious establishments, with the exception of funeral ceremonies.
On March 23, the government reinforced this measure, prohibiting any gathering or reunion in religious establishments without criteria of maximum capacity; the funeral ceremonies were then limited to a maximum of 20 participants.
These restrictions were promulgated within the framework of the law. Indeed, like many fundamental rights, religious freedom is not absolute. Thus, Article 9.2 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides that the freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject to restrictions under certain conditions, in particular in application of measures necessary for health. In France, article 1 of the law of separation of churches and the State of 1905 conditions the guarantee of the free exercise of worship to the interest of public order.
If the restrictions promulgated in March did not interfere with the law, their application was unprecedented. Despite this, they were widely endorsed by religious authorities - even as these measures fell on the eve of the great monotheistic festivals of Pesach, Easter, and Ramadan.
Broad support from religious institutions
The National Council of Evangelicals of France considered these restrictions "in accordance with the law, since they are justified, necessary and proportionate for reasons of public health".
Many Catholic dioceses also joined it, exempting their faithful from the obligation to participate in Sunday Mass. The French Council for Muslim Worship (CFCM) called on imams to replace collective Friday prayers with the broadcasting of audio-visual recordings.
If certain dissenting voices were expressed through the conservative press or by organizing meetings despite their ban, as in Saint-Nicolas du Chardonnet, the majority rallied to the restrictive logic of the government.
However, as we have seen, this rallying precipitously faded after April 28.
The announcement of the deconfinement plan announces the gradual exit from an emergency policy, defined by a relative national union. In so doing, this announcement also marks the resumption of "normal" politics, where the conflict is structured around institutions and ideological poles.
How to explain this reversal of situation?
This challenge comes against a background of growing distrust of government policy. While the government had successfully pursued a unilateral policy at the start of the crisis, its authority has faltered since the end of April.
According to an IFOP survey, on March 20, the government benefited from the confidence of 55 per cent of French people in its ability to effectively manage the coronavirus crisis; by May 6, the rate had dropped 20 points to 35 per cent.
On April 28, the government was forced to postpone indefinitely a debate in the National Assembly on the StopCovid digital tracing application (which did not prevent its further development). On May 4, the Senate rejected the government's deconfinement plan. And on May 11, the Constitutional Council censored elements of the bill related to isolation, and medical data related to the tracing of patients infected with the coronavirus.
In fact, these indicators reflect the political counterpart of deconfinement: the gradual return of “normal” politics, in which institutional checks and balances (Parliament, the Constitutional Council, civil society actors) are reaffirmed and ideological confrontations regain the upper hand on calls for national unity.
Religions, evolving in interaction and tension with their socio-cultural environment, are also part of this swing out of the (relative) truce of political hostilities observed during the peak of the crisis.
This observation is also confirmed if we take a closer look at the positions taken by the various religious authorities. As we have already pointed out, the CEF and the Grand Mosque of Paris opposed the government decision to extend the restrictions imposed on religious freedoms beyond May 11. However, the United Protestant Church of France and the National Council of Evangelicals of France have refrained from openly criticizing the government for this extension. Haïm Korsia, the chief rabbi of France, was understanding towards the government, judging that it was above all necessary "to ensure health security".
Other Muslim bodies, such as the Union of French Mosques, have also chosen to adhere to the calendar issued by the government.
Diversity of reactions and traditions
This diversity of reactions reflects several elements. On the one hand, the importance given to rites, to the sacredness of places and objects, and to physical meetings vary according to religious traditions.
Thus, the centrality of the Eucharist in Catholicism implies the obligation to participate in Sunday Mass, while Evangelical Christianity gives priority to the study of the biblical text and to the proclamation by the verb, practices which are more easily accommodate the constraints imposed by confinement.
Added to this is the diversity of political and institutional positions of the various religious authorities. The Catholic Church benefits from a strong institutional base in France, because of its historical ancestry and its internal resources. It is also part of a historic relationship of conflict with republican institutions.
Conversely, Protestantism and Judaism stem from a minority history in France during which they rallied to the Republic.
As for Muslims, their absence of a common front reflects dissensions dammed up in French Islam. These stem from migratory history and the controversial project of bringing together French Islamic currents under the aegis of a single representative authority in dialogue with the State.
In addition to the internal differences in religious traditions, these differences in positioning in French society help to explain the multiple reactions of religious authorities to government policy. If the polyphony of religious reactions after the announcement of the deconfinement plan reflects to some extent the specific characteristics of these religions, it also announces a return to "normal" politics.
Alexis Artaud de La Ferrière is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Portsmouth.