French Secularism: an introduction

In this blog on the theme of French secularism, or laïcité, a group of Lille University masters students present a range of reports from the French media about issues related to the Republic's separation of religion from the state. Their English versions of the articles, complete with glossaries and notes, provide an insight into how the French press is treating this controversial subject.

Perhaps it is churlish to describe laïcité – the French model of political secularism – as the country's "sacred cow". The fact remains, however, that you meddle with it at your peril. In the wake of France's labour reforms and in the run up to the presidential election, the interpretation and implementation of this most French of political principles is a hot potato. Unlike in the United States, French secularism does not merely imply support for the separation of church and state, or "disestablishmentarianism". French laïcité is also commonly interpreted (perhaps incorrectly) as involving a more thorough exclusion of religious discourses and symbols from the public arena.

For historian Jean Beaubérot, this relatively recent phenomenon can be traced to a wave of "new secularism" which emerged at the beginning of the twenty-first century, and is embodied in the report "Pour une nouvelle laïcité" written in 2003 by François Baroin for prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Interviewed in Le Monde Idées on 13 October 2016, Beaubérot argues that this hardline approach goes against the 'liberal' and 'tolerant' spirit of the original 1905 law, separating church and state:

"The 1905 law has three main cornerstones," Beaubérot says, "Firstly, it marks the end of the official status of the Catholic Church and other recognised religions, as well as their public funding. This principle underwrites the religious neutrality of the State in relation to all its citizens. It is not an end in itself, but rather a means to secure equality and to avoid discrimination on the grounds of religion"*

He goes on, "secondly, the act guarantees the freedom of conscience and of religious observance. Everyone has total freedom to believe or not to believe, and to display their religion – within the limits of public order, obviously. Nowadays, these two principles are often overstepped: in France, displaying one's religious belief in a public place is not legally considered a breach of secularism ! The 1905 law incidentally anticipates that individuals imposing a religious obligation on others (such as making labourers go to mass, as did the Catholic bosses from the North of France) and those disrupting religious practices (such as prohibiting worshippers from taking part in a religious procession), face exactly the same sentence."

"The third cornerstone of the act is respect for the specific rules of each cult. This led to the granting of certain community rights to religious organisations. This third pillar provides evidence of the liberal nature of the 1905 French law. [...] This understanding of religious freedom still has consequences today. For instance, women cannot become priests in the Catholic Church. This would normally constitute discrimination under the labour laws. However, if a woman brings the case to an administrative court, the judges will implement canon law!"

It is not hard to see why, then, in recent years, allegations have been made at home and abroad that this concept is being misapplied by right wing elements as a means of introducing islamophobic policies. Think of the 'burkini bans' and the row over the refusal of pork-free alternatives in the cantines of certain state schools.

Beaubérot makes no bones about the link to the far right. He says that the 'new secularism' has been co-opted by extreme right wing elements, allowing them to modify the Christian fundamentalism of Charles Maurras, so that it still insists upon "France's Christian roots, whilst no longer condemning the revolution and democracy, but instead the 'islamisation' of the country."

On the other hand, many on the left – notably a large number of feminists – also see the stricter enforcement of this new secularism as a route to emancipation, equality and social solidarity...

This blog, the sixth journalism translation project by students of the MéLexTra JET master’s degree in English-French translation at Lille 3 University, is aimed at readers of Mediapart English who wish to learn a little more about French media coverage of the secularism debate – its interpretations, implementations and presentations – against the backdrop of a remarkably unpredictable election campaign.


Who are we?
Seven students completing their second year ‘JET’ master’s degrees (Traduction Juridique et Technique) specialising in legal and technical translation between French and English. This project is part of a module (Thème journalistique)  in which French journalism is translated into English. It is overseen and edited by the module’s teacher.


  • Marielle ARTUS
  • Emilie BLANC
  • Véronique LEBLANC
  • Johanna MARQUES
  • Stéphanie MIROUX
  • Ragini SEKHAR
  • Sonia VOGEL




What sorts of articles are translated?

The project has two main goals. The first is to allow non-French readers to delve a little deeper into debates surrounding French secularism, at both political and community levels. The second is to provide readers with an idea of how these issues are reported and discussed in the French press, and what this might reveal about the country’s news media. 3 groups of translators focus on articles covering 3 thematic areas: secularism in politics, secularism in education, and secularism in the workplace and the public arena. Articles are taken from a wide variety of local, national and international French journalistic sources, appearing in print, broadcast and online. The project seeks, in part, to give non-French readers an insight into the various political leanings of the different sections of the French media and how these correlate (or not) with their positions regarding this issue. Articles have therefore been selected from sources with a broad spectrum of political leanings.


Where can the original articles be found?
In every case, copyright and publishing details are provided in the translations: the original authors, photographers etc. are always indicated. Links are also provided to online versions of the original articles in their original publishing context, wherever possible.


What is our translation policy?
Translations are initially provided by groups of 2 or 3 students, one of which is the initial or lead translator. These are sub-edited by the editor and posted online. They then potentially undergo a final modification by the editors of Mediapart English before being moved to the club section of the paper’s front page. Stylistically, the translations are relatively close to the originals and there is relatively little structural or syntactic reorganisation involved. Articles are not therefore modified to suit English journalistic ‘news style’, for example. One of the key goals of the project is to give non-French readers an idea of how the issues are presented in the French media. French journalistic style is therefore preserved in the translations. For a related reason, a number of terms are left in French, with links to a glossary article being preferred to explanatory translations. These include, for example, abbreviated party names (like FN and PS) and titles of political offices such as député.


What are the glossaries?
There are certain terms, names, abbreviations and references that recur in the articles which require a little further explanation. Instead of providing cumbersome explanatory notes within the articles themselves, glossaries are available that can be linked to directly from the articles. Alongside translations of party names, political titles, and so on, there are also short explanations of the media outlets concerned and some of the key issues.

The following glossaries are maintained from previous projects:

  1. Glossary 1: Party Names

  2. Glossary 2: French Media

  3. Glossary 3: Political Context


What kind of English is used in MéLexTra blogs?
Mediapart being a European publication, British English spellings are used throughout, as are predominantly British English grammar and vocabulary. However, the French constitution and political context being closer in some circumstances to the language culture of the United States than the United Kingdom, there are a handful of globally recognisable American English idioms that have naturally been incorporated in previous projects. Presidential candidates, for example, are said to be ‘running for office’ rather than ‘standing for election’. This contextual hybridisation of English varieties is likely to continue with all future projects.



* Source of the Jean Beaubérot quotes: « La loi de 1905, étape fondamentale de la laïcisation de la République française, est libérale et tolérante », propos recueillis par Anne Chemin, Le Monde idées, 13.10.2016. Translated by Sonia Vogel and Emilie Blanc. Editing by Sam Trainor.

Le Club est l'espace de libre expression des abonnés de Mediapart. Ses contenus n'engagent pas la rédaction.