France, Religous Freedom and Freedom of Speech

France has a lot of flaws, but it does take it's freedom of speech, religion and assembly seriously, give that these are fundamental rights under the founding documents of the French Republic, and knowing the history behind this may explain a bit better why France was up in arms following the murder of a French history teacher in my home town who talked about a terrorist attack 5 years previously where journalists from the satirical paper “Charlie Hebdo” were gunned down in their offices over their freedom of expression.

It's good to be the King

Up to 1789, the kingdom of France was a monarchy of divine law. The Kings of France were the reincarnation of God on earth and could do no wrong.

In a nutshell, French society was split into 3 pillars: royalty - and by extension, nobility, the Church and… everyone else. Royalty and nobility requested taxes, and the Church requested the “Dîme” - the Tithe - church tax in layman's terms. A portion of your revenue or your production in return for the salvation of your eternal soul. And you could also sin and pay for your absolution if you were rich enough.

So, nobility was screwing ever more money out of the population, to finance their lifestyles, never ending wars, and Louis XIV needed to finance his palace in Versailles and the infrastructure to pump 3600 tons of water a day up a 160 metre hill and across 7 km of country side to make the famous palace garden fountains to work, at the low low cost of 5 500 000 french pounds - }}%C3%89quivalence_actuelle|roughly equivalent to about 66 million euros today - and about 10% of all national annual state revenue at the time just for this one project.

So, the population paying taxes to their respective noble and religious superiors while this was being spent on what the population considered frivolous pursuits ended up in a small fracas in 1789 where the population collectively said “we're not gonna take it anymore” and the aristocracy absolutely lost their heads over it.

Literally

The Tithe was repealed in the year following the French revolution, and replaced by hiring the priests, giving them a salary and promising the upkeep of churches, putting the church on a diet so to speak but ensuring the continued existence of the (mostly catholic) church, with ups and downs.

1789's Declaration of Human and Civic Rights

The founding document on the basis of what the French constitution and French republic is based was ratified by the National Assembly. This document contains 17 articles of fundamental rights for France.

This simple, self referencing document is interesting as it's the legal basis of the French Republic, sets out the basic rules for law in the French Republic yet it often refers back to “The Law” when defining limits, including the definition of what actually is a Law in Article 6:

The law is the expression of the general will. All the citizens have the right of contributing personally or through their representatives to its formation. It must be the same for all, either that it protects, or that it punishes. All the citizens, being equal in its eyes, are equally admissible to all public dignities, places, and employments, according to their capacity and without distinction other than that of their virtues and of their talents.

Remember this, we will come back to this later.

A Republic with or without a church?

Under the new republic, the religious taxes were removed, the church was made a ward of the state, and religious buildings were nationalised though in the years following the revolution and the Terror, the state ended up refusing to fund any religion from 1795 causing souring of the relationship between the church and the state, at least up to the coup d'état of 17th Brumaire, VIII 8th November 1799, where the council was overthrown by the consulate, represented by 3 consuls, with only the First Consul holding any power: Napoléon Bonaparte, who in 1801 instored the French Concordatory Regime, signed between the French Republic and the Pontifical States, which reorganised French religions, the aim of this was to provide spiritual guidance and religious pluralirty is needed for the population of the republic and that religion is necessary for the political stability of the republic.

This re-created official links between France and the Vatican, and reorganised the different diocese of the different religions, but Napoléon refused to recognise Catholicism as a State Religion, recognising it only as “the religion of the majority of the population”, keeping the government itself religion-free.

With some religious power in place, and a feeling of freedom from the state, in 1850, the Catholic Church was given the freedom to teach in religious schools, and due to several loopholes, teachers in these schools just needed to be rubber-stamped by their hierarchy with no standards or diplomas required, bypassing all the quality that the state was trying to impose with national education, causing frustration and friction.

This success in imposing a double standard empowered the church to start opposing other state decisions, including basic freedoms and democracy in general, causing friction between the state representatives and the population in larger towns, all the way up to the Dreyfus affair in 1898, with the state becoming all the more impatient with double standards, criticism of the freedoms that had been fought for in the revolution, and the fact that the members of the catholic church who were opposing the state were actually being paid for by the state in the first place and the ever enlarging crack between different religions and the state, the government, spearheaded by the minister of public instruction and cults, Emile Combes, pushed through a series of measures to totally cut all religion off from the government, breaking off diplomatic relations with the Vatican in 1904, and culminating with the “Law of the 9th December 1905 concerning the seperation of Churches and the State”, where the state would no longer pay for the upkeep of churches or the salaries of priests, making all churches a private affair outside of the purview of the state, and the churches would now have to follow all republican laws.

This law has been a cornerstone of the French Republic and Religions for most of France since 1905 (and all of France from 1919 when the Alsace-Lorraine region was taken back from Prussia after the Great War).

Laïcité - French Secularism

Ever since this point, the state takes great pains to not refer to any religious beliefs and remove any personal influence of religions from state representatives. Decisions and ideas are taken in accordance with the current constitution, and any mention of God in any state instance is instantly met with cries of shame and the offending politician is lambasted in the mainstream media the next day, though laws have been passed to deal with hate speech, anti-semitism and shoah denying, but all in accordance with the [https://www.conseil-constitutionnel.fr/en/constitution-of-4-october-1958|Current Constitution of the Fifth Republic] and the Human and Civic rights noted previously, all this is defined in accordance with the Law.

In short, religions are strictly personal, and have no place in the running of the republic.

Free Speech and Personal Offense

As noted above, the [https://www.conseil-constitutionnel.fr/en/declaration-of-human-and-civic-rights-of-26-august-1789|Declaration of Human and Civic Rights] define multiple basic tenants of French law that underpin the constitution, free speech, personal freedom, the force of law, and of course as we noted before, what actually *is* a law!

So we are going to skip into an overview of a few articles of interest here:

Article 2

Defines the natural and imprescriptible rights of Man: Liberty, Property, Safety and Resistance to Oppression.

Article 3

Sovereignty comes from the nation, and can only be upheld by the nation and no other body or individual

This means that no other body than the state can define laws and uphold the rights defined in Article 2. You cannot take the law into your own hands, as this will break the Law.

Article 4

You can do anything as long as it does not harm others without any other limit other than not infringing others from enjoying the same, and if limits are needed, it will be defined by Law by the state and only by the state and nobody else.

And here we are: you can do and say anything that is not against the law as long as it does not harm others. You may offend people, you may not harm - and if you believe that what is said has harmed you, then you will need to have your harm reviewed and compared against the Law.

This then links to Article 3: the Law can only be applied by the state, and then Article 6: what a law actually is:

Article 6

As quoted above, a Law is the embodiment of the state as a nation, and by the people that compose it.

I'm Offended!

You can be offended by someone else. Someone can do or say something that conflicts with your personal religious beliefs and views.

You have all the rights to complain openly about this: that's also free speech and personal freedom.

Have you been harmed by what has been said? Maybe. And so, you have the right to test that harm in front of a judge of the Republic, who will review if what has been said or done has violated your personal freedoms - noting that the State, as from 1905 will take no part in organising and reviewing religions because the state does not have a belief by Law and will take no part for or against a belief - until it breaks the Law.

Can you go and punch the person that offended you in the face (or worse?). No, because you cannot define the Law, and you cannot implement the Law, and physically acting against another person is also against the Law.

In Conclusion

In France, you can offend, but you cannot harm. You can talk about anything that does no harm. Someone who is offended can also offend, as long as they do no harm, and if you are harmed, you cannot define and apply the Law and by extension Justice yourself - but you can take the person who harmed you to a court of the nation who will define if you are harmed - or just offended according to the strict letter of the Law and who will appoint justice if it is needed.

If you believe that the Law needs to be changed, attempt to change it. Petition your state representative or become one yourself and it will be reviewed at several levels by your peers and seniors. If your Law is accepted, then the Nation will change as a result. If your Law is rejected, you will need to adapt to the fact that your ideas are not those of the Nation.

TL;DR

  • The French Republic does not recognise a religion in the life of the State
  • Any disputes about one persons speech harming an intangible belief, and more so, an intangible belief that the State does not recognise cannot be judged by the Law
  • Any physical act of reprisal against the emitter of speech will be judged by the Law if it causes harm
  • The State can and will take measures against anyone who mis-applies the Law or who applies different unrecognised laws.
  • All this is defined in the founding constitutional documents of the Republic that are quite elegant documents in the end

Bootnote

None of this is legal advice. IANAL. If you need a lawyer, get one. Or talk to someone who works in that domain. These are my personal views.

Sources