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France - Religion

France has an area of 211,209 square miles and a population of 64,100,000. In accordance with its definition of separation of state and religion, the Government does not keep statistics on religious affiliation. According to the 2008 Guide of the Catholic Church in France, France is 65 percent Catholic, including those who never attend religious services. Of Catholics, only 5 percent go to church regularly. There are an estimated five million to six million Muslims (8 to 10 percent of the population), although estimates of how many of these are practicing vary widely. According to a January 17, 2008, survey in the Catholic daily newspaper La Croix, 39 percent of Muslims surveyed said they observed Islam's five prayers daily, an increase from 31 percent in 1994. Mosque attendance for Friday prayers rose to 23 percent, up from 16 percent in 1994, while Ramadan observance reached 70 percent compared to 60 percent in 1994. Protestants make up 2.1 percent of the population, Jewish and Buddhist religious groups 1 percent each, and Sikhs less than 1 percent. According to French daily newspaper Le Figaro, there were approximately 1.5 million Protestants in France in 2008.

The Jewish community numbers approximately 600,000 (70 percent Sephardic and 30 percent Ashkenazi). According to press reports, at least 60 percent of Jews are not highly observant, celebrating at most only the High Holy Days. The large majority of observant Jews -- 5 percent of all Jews in a country -- are Orthodox. There are small Conservative and Reform congregations as well.

Le Figaro estimates that there are 1.5 million Protestants, 400,000-600,000 of whom are evangelical. Many evangelical churches are African-style “prosperity” churches composed primarily of African and Antillean immigrants. Le Parisien estimates there are 800,000 Buddhist sympathizers and practitioners. The Buddhist population mainly consists of Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants and their descendants.

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and other laws and policies contributed to the generally free practice of religion; however, discriminatory treatment of Jehovah's Witnesses and Scientologists remained a concern. Some religious groups voiced opposition to legislation passed in 2001 and 2004, which provides for the dissolution of groups under certain circumstances and bans the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols by public school employees and students. A 1905 law on the separation of religion and state prohibits discrimination on the basis of faith.

The law separating religion and state does not apply in three classes of territories. Because Alsace-Lorraine (currently comprising the departments of Haut-Rhin, Bas-Rhin, and la Moselle and known as Alsace-Moselle) was part of Germany when the law was enacted, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Jews there may choose to allocate a portion of their income tax to their religious group. Pastors, priests, and rabbis of these four recognized faiths in Alsace-Moselle receive a salary from the interior ministry, and the country’s president, with the agreement of the Holy See, appoints the Catholic bishops of Metz and Strasbourg. The prime minister appoints the chief rabbi and the presidents of the Jewish and Protestant consistories in Alsace-Moselle, and the interior minister appoints ministers of the three Christian churches in the region. Local governments in the region may also provide financial support for constructing religious buildings. The overseas department of French Guiana, which is governed under 19th century colonial laws, may provide subsidies to the Catholic Church. Other overseas departments and overseas territories, which include island territories in the Caribbean and the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, and several sub-Antarctic islands, may also provide funding for religious groups. This provision also applies to the portion of Antarctica the government claims as an overseas territory.

Public schools are secular. The law prohibits public school employees from wearing visible signs of religious affiliation and students from wearing “conspicuous religious symbols,” including the Muslim headscarf, Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban, and large Christian crosses. Public schools do not provide religious instruction except in Alsace-Moselle and overseas departments and territories. In Alsace-Moselle, religious education regarding one of the four recognized faiths is compulsory in public primary and secondary schools, although students may opt for a secular equivalent with a written request from their parents. Religious education classes are taught by laypersons who are trained and nominated by the respective religious groups but are paid by the state.

The Government generally respected religious freedom in practice, but there continued to be concerns about the treatment of some minority religious groups. There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom by the Government during the reporting period. A 2004 law prohibiting the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools by employees and students continued to be implemented during the reporting period. The Government has a stated policy of monitoring potentially "dangerous" cult activity through the Inter-Ministerial Monitoring Mission against Sectarian Abuses (MIVILUDES). Discrimination against Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientologists, and other groups considered dangerous sects or cults remained a concern and may have contributed to acts of vandalism against these groups. Some groups expressed concern that MIVILUDES publications contributed to public mistrust of minority religions.

There were reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice; however, prominent societal leaders took positive steps to promote religious freedom. Anti-Semitic acts remained similar to 2007 levels (397 from 386 in 2007), according to the National Consultative Commission for Human Rights (CNCDH). There were 36 violent acts and 99 threats (down from 256 in 2007) directed against individuals of North African origin in 2008. Among the violent incidents, two were explicitly anti-Islamic in nature, targeting mosques. Government leaders, religious representatives, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to strongly criticize anti-Semitic and racist violence, and the Government provided increased security for Jewish institutions.

In 2004 the Government released the Rufin Report, which concluded that racism and anti-Semitism were a threat to democracy and that anti-Semitic acts were carried out not only by elements of the extreme right and Muslim youth of North African descent but also by "disaffected individuals" with anti-Semitic obsessions. Additionally, the report concluded that the press law of 1881, designed to guarantee freedom of the press, was too unwieldy to adequately address the issues of racism and anti-Semitism. It recommended removing from the press law all injunctions against incitement to racism and anti-Semitism and putting them into a new law written specifically to address these issues. The Rufin Report also called for countering intolerance in primary schools; educating new immigrants about the fight against racism and anti-Semitism; and creating an observation system to monitor racist and anti-Semitic websites and to work closely with authorities to prosecute offenders.

Since the 1990s, the international terrorist threat has evolved into a religious extremist threat. France became the target of radical Islamist networks linked with Algeria's internal conflict and the most notorious Algerian terror faction, the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armé-GIA), part of Osama Bin Laden's Afghanistan-based network. In 2004 France passed a bill that makes it possible to deport non-citizens for inciting "discrimination, hatred, or violence" against any group. This law has been used to deport radical Muslim clerics.

The country has also increased the already strong powers of the police and prosecutors under the law and reinforced the capabilities and interoperability of its intelligence agencies and counterterrorism units. The Directorate of Territorial Security (Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire-DST) and the other intelligence services have built a large network of perhaps 10,000 informants throughout Muslim communities in France and abroad. The informants may receive money and legal favors, such as immigration papers and reduced prison sentences, in exchange for information about, for example, hate speech in mosques. The intelligence services feed a massive database of suspects or "persons of interest," whose movements, acquaintances, and trips abroad are monitored.

In an effort to quantify the threat that France faces, the Central Directorate of General Information (Direction Centrale des Renseignements Généraux-DCRG or RG); developed a formula, as follows: in a given Muslim population in Europe, an average of 5 percent are fundamentalists, and up to 3 percent of those fundamentalists should be considered dangerous. By that calculation, France's Muslim population of 6 million includes 300,000 fundamentalists, 9,000 of whom are potentially dangerous. [In 2007 the Pew Research Center estimated the total population of Muslims in the United States at 2.35 million, while other estimates suggest that 5 million to 7 million Muslims live in the United States].

On December 15, 2008, a legal challenge to the law banning the wearing of ostensible religious signs in public schools was filed by the United Sikhs lawyers before the United Nations Human Rights Committee. A similar legal challenge was also filed by United Sikhs lawyers on May 30, 2008, before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Preceding these motions was a December 2007 French Conseil d'Etat ruling that upheld the legal ban on wearing of ostensible religious signs. These legal challenges by United Sikhs lawyers relate to the expulsion in 2004 of six Sikh boys for wearing the "keski" (an under-turban) to school. The Conseil d'Etat in its 2007 ruling maintained that the "keski" was not a discreet sign but an ostensible manifestation of religion, which is prohibited by law. The court concluded in the interest of secularism in public schools that the permanent expulsion of a student who does not conform to the legal ban on wearing of ostensible religious signs "does not lead to an excessive infringement on freedom of thought, conscience, and religion."

Members of the Arab-Muslim community experienced killings, and instances of assault, harassment, and vandalism; however, the situation improved in 2008, during which, according to the CNCDH, there were 97 racist and xenophobic (including anti-Muslim) acts recorded, a more than 60 percent decrease from the 321 acts committed in 2007. The trend was also reflected in a drop in the number of violent incidents from 614 in 2007 to 54 in 2008. Among the 54 violent acts, 36 were committed against individuals of North African origin, and two of the acts were characterized as being specifically anti-Muslim in character.

Negative societal attitudes regarding the wearing of Islamic 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 instead.

Sarkozy, in a key speech in 2009, declared the burka and the niqab worn by some Muslim women to be unwelcome in France. Sarkozy told a special conference of parliamentarians that the burka and niqab suppress women's identities and turn them into "prisoners behind a screen". France, which follows Belgium in moving towards a ban, is estimated to have the largest Muslim population in Europe. In the 1990s the affaire du foulard - the expulsion of girls wearing hijab from school - proved especially divisive for the left. The burka/niqab debate opened up the same divisions.

Charged by the government with observing and analyzing minority religious groups that have been labeled as sects for activities that violate the law or constitute a threat to public order, the Interministerial Mission for Vigilance and to Combat Sectarian Abuses (MIVILUDES) coordinates the appropriate responses to abuses by such groups, informs the public about potential risks, and helps victims receive aid. MIVILUDES publishes an annual report as well as several guides intended to identify and protect citizens from what it labels sectarian abuses. Some groups expressed concern in previous years that these publications contributed to public mistrust of minority religious groups.

In its eighth annual report, released 15 June 2010, MIVILUDES warned that there has been an upsurge in apocalyptic speech as December 12, 2012, the day some groups believe the world will end, draws nearer. The MIVILUDES report recommends that authorities increase monitoring and vigilance of these groups to prevent mass suicides. The report also highlighted concerns about abuses by apocalyptic groups with respect to healthcare, particularly for cancer patients. According to MIVILUDES, several cancer patients opted for unconventional treatments recommended by these groups, which led to the deaths of three people in “excruciating conditions.”

The law criminalizes the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, treating it as “a provocation to discrimination or hatred or violence towards a person or a group of persons because of their origin or belonging to an ethnic group, a nation, a race, or a determined religion.”

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Page last modified: 30-06-2021 12:05:15 ZULU