Deconfinement: France's delicate game with religious freedoms

On April 28, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe presented his deconfinement plan to the National Assembly, announcing that many collective life activities 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.

CThis prolongation of the restrictions imposed on the free exercise of worship provoked a strong reaction from elected officials on the right and from the Catholic Church. The French Bishops' Conference (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 reconsider his decision.

Faced with the magnitude of this sling, the government revised its position: May 4, Edouard Philippe declared himself before the Senate "Ready to study the possibility that religious services can resume from May 29".

However, if this date allowed the churches to welcome the faithful for the Pentcostal mass, it did not succeed in extinguishing the controversy. Indeed, it ignores Eid al-Fitr, the closing party of Ramadan, scheduled for May 24, causing 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, either from civil society or from civilians. elected.

How then should we understand this turnaround?

The announcement of the deconfinement plan announces the gradual exit from an emergency policy, defined by a relative national union. In doing so, 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 larger movement.

An unprecedented application of laws

On March 15, the government banned by decree any gathering or gathering of more than 20 people in religious establishments, with the exception of funeral ceremonies.

On March 23, the government reinforced this measure, banning all gatherings or gatherings in establishments of worship without maximum capacity criteria; funeral ceremonies were at that time restricted to a maximum of 20 participants.

These restrictions were enacted into law. Indeed, like many fundamental rights, the 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 by applying measures necessary for health. In France, article 1 of the law of separation of the churches and the State of 1905 conditions the guarantee of the free exercise of the cults to the interest of the public order.

If the restrictions promulgated in March did not interfere with the law, their application was unprecedented. Despite this, they received broad endorsement from religious authorities - even as these measures came on the eve of the major monotheistic holidays of Pesach, Easter, and Ramadan.

Broad support from religious institutions

The National Council of Evangelicals of France estimated these restrictions “comply with the law, since they are justified, necessary and proportionate for reasons of public health”.

Many Catholic dioceses also adhered to it, exempting their faithful from the obligation to participate in the Sunday mass. The French Council for Muslim Worship (CFCM) called on imams to replace collective Friday prayer with broadcasting audio-visual recordings.

If some dissenting voices have been expressed through the press conservative or by organizing meetings in spite of their ban, as in Saint-Nicolas du Chardonnet, the majority rallied to the restrictivist logic of the government.

Yet, as we have seen, this rallying hastily faded after April 28.

How to explain this reversal of situation?

This challenge comes against a backdrop of growing mistrust of government policy. While the government had succeeded in pursuing a unilateral policy at the start of the crisis, its authority has faltered since the end of April.

According to an IFOP poll, on March 20 the government enjoyed the confidence of 55% of French people in its ability to manage effectively the coronavirus crisis; on May 6, this rate had fallen by 20 points to reach 35%.

On April 28, the government was forced to postpone indefinitely a debate in the National Assembly on the application of digital tracing StopCovid (which did not prevent the further development). May 4, 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 to “normal” politics, in which the institutional checks and balances (Parliament, the Constitutional Council, civil society actors) are reasserting themselves and ideological confrontations. take over the calls for national unity.

Religions, evolving in interaction and in tension with their socio-cultural environment, are also part of this shift away from the (relative) truce in political hostilities observed during the peak of the crisis.

Various positions

This observation is confirmed if we take a closer look at the positions taken by the various religious authorities. As we have already reported, the CEF and the Grande Mosquée de Paris have opposed the government decision to extend restrictions 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 over this extension. Haïm Korsia, the chief rabbi of France, showed himself understanding towards the government, judging that it was necessary above all to "ensure health security".

Other Muslim bodies, such as the Union des mosques de France, have also chosen to join 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 proclamation by the verb, practices that are more easily accommodate the constraints imposed by confinement.

Added to this is the diversity of the political and institutional positions of the different religious authorities. The Catholic Church enjoys a strong institutional base in France, due to its historical ancestry and its internal resources. It is also part of a historical 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 the Muslims, their lack of a common front reflects contained dissensions in French Islam. These stem from the history of migration and the controversial project to bring together French Islamic currents under the aegis of a single representative authority in dialogue with the State.

In addition to 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 a certain extent the specificities internal to these religions, it also announces a return to “normal” politics.The Conversation

Alexis Artaud de Laferriere, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Portsmouth

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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