In your essay on secularism (1), you dwell on the implementation of the religious policy after 1905. Why this choice?
Patrick Weil: In the years following the adoption of the law, justice prosecuted and convicted dozens of clerics, bishops and even a cardinal for provocation and abuse of moral authority. Totally forgotten and yet fundamental events! Admittedly, the law of 1905 is a text of freedoms of conscience and worship. But these freedoms were protected by penal provisions called the cult police. Pope Pius X violently rejected this law, knowingly causing a situation of near civil war.
What was the government’s strategy?
PW: Aristide Briand and Georges Clemenceau could have responded by confrontation. The forfeiture of nationality of the refractory bishops was considered, but they very quickly chose to “bypass” the pontiff. When, for example, the Pope refused the regime of religious association, Briand applied to masses the law of 1881 on public meetings, but removing the prior authorization until then essential.
Pius X then carried the fight against the public school. In 1908, after the reading in all the churches of a letter from the episcopate calling not to send the children there, certain clerics threatened to deprive of first communion the pupils studying the history books which had been blacklisted. Article 35 of the law of 1905 made it possible to sanction with fines or imprisonment dozens of clergymen who had used the threat. It is the penal aspect of the law of 1905, its repressive arm, which succeeded in restoring civil peace before the war of 1914.
Doesn’t the religious police create an exceptional regime?
PW: Briand tolerates speeches challenging the law, even violently, in the name of freedom of expression. But when there is a threat, that is to say an offense, common law is insufficient. The priest has moral authority over the faithful which obliges him to take on greater responsibility. Briand thinks it is impossible to also treat the priest from his pulpit and the ordinary citizen on a public meeting platform.
What lesson do you draw from this in a context where Islam, mainly, poses new challenges?
PW: After Samuel Paty’s beheading, it was discovered that the rector of the Pantin mosque was relaying a video denouncing the unfortunate professor on his Facebook page. We did not prosecute this man, responsible for a crime. However, the mosque was closed. Closing a place of worship is unfair collective punishment. Let’s take on the real troublemakers! After 1905, Briand did not close the churches run by threatening priests, he chose to leave the mass of believers in peace but to attack the troublemakers directly.
What do you think of the law on separatism?
PW: By ignoring the instruments contained in the law of 1905 – as we saw during the parliamentary debates – the government created new ones, administrative measures to control all religions not in conformity with the spirit of the law of 1905 and to the principle of separation. Clemenceau was anticlerical, but he wanted believers to be as comfortable with the law as non-believers. Guaranteeing freedoms of conscience and worship, but cracking down firmly on those who exert pressure in the name of religion, is the spirit of 1905 and we must keep it.
Secularism divides, can it once again become a unifying principle?
PW: Today, two camps clash. Some say “Be careful, let’s not discriminate”. The others warn about new threats from radical Islamists and want additional provisions. The law of 1905, the whole law, without amputation, with a new found cult police, gives us the means to reconcile the two camps.