French Life: Laïcité

For those readers who have applied, or are applying, for French nationality, laïcité should be a familiar concept; heralded as the fourth element to France’s famous ‘liberté-égalité-fraternité’ motto.

Here we take a look at what the word means and where it came from, as well as the implications on daily French life.



First up, the pronunciation, and it’s not an easy one!

For the phoneticists among us, the dictionary provides the following model : [ ].

For the rest of us, it goes something like this: [ lie – ees – eet – ay ]


The dictionary gives us the following definition:

Principe de séparation de la société civile et de la société religieuse.

Translated, that gives us:

The separation of civil society and religious society.

In English, we could talk about secularism, but the notion of laïcité in French culture is a well-defined, legal concept, conceived to protect religious freedom for all, both believers and non-believers.


The concept of limiting the church’s role in governance was brought to the fore by the Philosophes des Lumières of the 18th century.

Prior to the French Revolution of 1789, the church played a major role in running the country. The King was believed to be chosen by God and his key advisors were powerful clergymen.

Diderot, Montesquieu, Voltaire, the big guns of French philosophy and culture, all played their part in limiting the monarchy’s rule and creating a more democratic governing system, which after some tumultuous to-ing and fro-ing, would become the republic on which France’s current system is based.

A few decades later, Jules Ferry (1832 – 1893), who opposed the empirical rule of Bonaparte, wrote the laws that restored obligatory, free and secular primary education to the constitution of the Third Republic, after the fall of the Second Empire. The modern understanding of laïcité can therefore be traced back to him.

10 years after Ferry’s death, in 1905, Republican-Socialist, Aristide Briand (1862 – 1932) wrote the Loi de séparation des Églises et de l’État, extending laïcité to all public/civil affairs.

Modern laïcité

France in the 21st century is a diverse melting pot of ethnicities, cultures and religions. We’re well aware that we’re not living in a utopia, but as Anglophones abroad, we think this diversity is something to be really proud of.

Nevertheless, it makes laïcité a bit trickier, with separation sometimes being perceived as an infringement of religious freedom, and even as persecution.

In a 2021 poll, 70% of the French people surveyed agreed with laïcité as defined by law but under 20% believed that, in practice, it actually succeeds in bringing society together.

Tensions over visible displays of religious symbols in the public sphere are no longer considered as one of the major threats to laïcité. The above-mentioned poll revealed that respondents’ main concerns were the rise of intolerance and communitarianism linked to a lack of social diversity.

Exceptions to the rule?

For anyone with even a basic grasp of the French language, you’ll be familiar with the many ‘irregular’ verbs and elements that just don’t follow the rules.

It seems there’s a similar laxism in regards to laïcité, particularly when it comes to bank holidays! Easter, Ascension, Pentecôte, Assomption, Christmas… it seems we can overlook the non-separation of state and church when it comes to having an additional day off! We’re all for a day off… oops, we mean tolerance 😉!!

Your thoughts?

What do you think about laïcité? Please keep your comments respectful!

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