Timeline of French Secularity


  • The French Revolution. During this political and social upheaval, the “Third Estate” (the common people) overturns the French monarchy and establishes a revolutionary government based on the principles of popular sovereignty. France’s revolutionary government expropriates vast properties owned by the church, the aristocracy, and the nobility and distributes them among the peasantry. With “liberty, equality, and fraternity” as its slogan, the French Revolution became an inspirational model for future democratic revolutions. Some trace the origins of French secularity to this event.
  • A new regime, based on the principles of popular sovereignty and the inalienable rights of all citizens, begins to emerge. The Revolution’s slogan of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” (French for “liberty, equality, brotherhood”) becomes the motto of France’s future democratic governments (known successively as “Republics”).
  • During the Revolution, in 1791, Jews are emancipated—they receive full civic rights as individuals, but none as a group. This formula provides the blueprint for the assimilation of all ethnic groups in France for the next two centuries.


The foundation of French colonialism is laid when France invades North Africa and, in the next decades, occupies Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. France also expands its empire deep into areas in western and central Africa.


The Jules Ferry Laws establish mandatory, free, and secular (laïque) education for all French students under the age of 15. Ferry, the education minister behind these laws, is credited with two critical achievements:

  • The creation of a national culture that unified France’s disparate vernaculars and local traditions.
  • The establishment of a secular education system that relied on state-paid professional teachers rather than on the Catholic clerics who were perceived as an obstacle to the democratic process in France.


The Dreyfus Affair. In 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish military officer, is arrested and accused of selling secrets to the Germans. The false accusations and the public debates surrounding his trial draw attention to deep-seated antisemitism in France, which had persisted long after the Jews were granted equal civil liberties in 1791. In 1906, after 12 years and massive public protests, Dreyfus is exonerated and is restored to his military post.


A French law on the separation of church and state is passed on December 9, 1905. The law is regarded as the legal foundation of France’s secularity (laïcité).


World War II. France is occupied by the German Third Reich. The Nazi-controlled Vichy government actively participates in the deportation of close to 75,000 of the 300,000 Jews who live in France to Nazi concentration camps, where most of them perished. 


Les Trente Glorieuses (“the glorious thirty [years]”). During the three decades following the end of World War II, France and other European nations experience spectacular economic growth. Hundreds of thousands of North African laborers are brought as “guest workers” to serve in the booming economy, which ends abruptly in 1973.


The Algerian War. The use of indiscriminate violence, torture, and terror leaves deep scars in the national memory of both France and Algeria. It sets the tone for decades of complicated and often tense relations between France and its former colonies. 


The Évian Agreements are signed by France and Algeria, putting an end to the Algerian War and the French colonial enterprise there. The agreements restart the pre-war immigration from North Africa, and many “guest workers” are again recruited to serve in France’s most grueling jobs. Similar agreements secure the inflow of immigrants from other former colonies.


A veteran of the Algerian war, Jean-Marie Le Pen, forms the National Front, a far-right nationalistic party. Capitalizing on and fueling anti-immigrant sentiments (directed especially against Jewish immigrants from Arab countries), Le Pen repeatedly runs for president, with his support peaking in the 2002 elections.


Sparked by the Yom Kippur War between Israel and its Arab neighbors, an international oil crisis begins in 1973. It leads to a severe downturn in the European economy. To fight high rates of unemployment, France attempts to tighten immigration laws, although family reunification policies (and illegal immigration) contribute to a steady flow of foreigners into France.


After civic unrest forces out Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Ruhollah Khomeini comes back from exile and installs an Islamic government. Khomeini enforces harsh censorship, strict religious laws, and the wearing of the chador by all women. People suspected of dissent are routinely arrested and some are executed by a special military branch called the Islamic Revolution’s Guards. The regime’s policies reinforce the negative perception of Islam in the minds of many in the West. 


François Mitterrand is elected as the first socialist president of the French Republic. His election marks a change in the public perception of ethnic diversity. For several years, France celebrates its ethnic and religious groups.


The “March of the Beurs” draws tens of thousands of supporters in Paris. During the march, the Beurs, descendants of Arab immigrants, protest the violence and discrimination directed against them. The march marks the coming of age of the Beurs as a group; it also focuses public discussion on the question of ethnicity.


  • France celebrates the bicentennial of the French Revolution.
  • Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issues a fatwa calling for the death of Salman Rushdie, an Indian- British author who published a controversial novel entitled The Satanic Verses. The decree engenders fear of the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.
  • The first national “veil affair” unfolds in a public school in Creil, a town north of Paris, where three Muslim French girls (of North African descent) refuse to take off their headscarves in school. While many schools continue to accommodate veiled girls, others protest what they view as a violation of the principle of secularity.
  • France’s highest administrative court, the Conseil d’État, rules that the veil is compatible with the French separation of church and state.
  • The fall of the Berlin Wall symbolizes the end of the Cold War. Talks of deeper European cooperation raise the prospect of Turkey’s integration into the European Union and the integration of Muslim immigrants, whose identity is seen by many as irreconcilable with Europe’s.


The “Pasqua Law,” named after the French interior minister Charles Pasqua, is enacted in an effort to stop the immigration flow into France. Anti-immigrant sentiments (directed especially against immigrants from North African/Arab countries) are on the rise as the Muslim population begins to build its community’s institutions and become visible.


Minister of Education François Bayrou issues a memorandum banning the veil (and other “ostentatious” religious symbols) in public schools. Despite the memorandum, Muslim girls continue to come to school wearing the veil, spurring new local and, occasionally, national debates about religion in public schools.


  • The Armed Islamic Group, an Algerian Islamist organization, expands its armed struggle against the Algerian secular government into France. Attacks in Paris and Lyon leave eight people dead and injure more than 100. The terror attacks create widespread fear and contribute to the perception of Islam as a violent religion.
  • Jacques René Chirac is elected president of the French Republic.


Two girls of Turkish origin are expelled from a public junior high school in the town of Flers (in northwest France) after a teachers’ strike protesting veiling in school.


On September 11, 2001, 19 members of the Islamic-jihadist organization al-Qaeda in the United States hijack four airplanes and crash them into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Close to 3,000 people are killed in these suicide attacks.


An increase in antisemitic attacks in France renews fears for the safety of Jews. The rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric leads to an increase in anti-Muslim attacks and to a peak in Le Pen’s popularity. He finishes second in the first run in the presidential elections.


  • The French Council of the Muslim Faith (Conseil Français du Culte Musulman) is established. This umbrella institution is formed with the goal of bringing Islam into the political process by recognizing it, alongside Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism, as one of the organized religions in France.
  • President Chirac nominates Bernard Stasi to head a commission of 20 experts (the “Stasi Commission”) to investigate the application of the principle of secularity (laïcité) in France and the best ways to protect it in the public sphere. Of all Stasi Commission recommendations, President Chirac asks the French legislature to adopt the suggestion to ban “ostentatious” religious symbols in public schools. The recommendation is widely seen as directed against the Islamic veil.
  • During the Stasi Commission deliberation, the “Lévy Sister Affair” breaks when two high school students in the Henri-Wallon high school in the Parisian suburb of Aubervillers refuse to lower their veils according to their school’s rules. Daughters of a secular Algerian mother and an atheist-Jewish father, the two sisters are expelled from school.


  • On March 11, 2004, an al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist cell orchestrates a series of attacks on the Madrid commuter train system, killing 191 people and injuring more than 1,700.
  • On March 15, 2004, President Jacques Chirac signs a law banning the display of large religious symbols in public schools. The law, widely understood as a ban on the Islamic veil, is supported by a majority of the French public.


  • On July 7, 2005, four militant Islamist suicide bombers strike in central London, killing 52 people and injuring 770.
  • In October 2005, the banlieues of Paris and other French cities see unprecedented riots, violence, and arson. The rioters, most of them second- or third-generation children of Muslim immigrants from North Africa, protest against high rates of poverty, unemployment, and racism in the suburbs (banlieues in French).


Nicolas Sarkozy, of Hungarian and Greek Jewish descent, is elected president of the French Republic after a campaign that focuses on law and order and economic development. Despite tough talk, Sarkozy engages the Muslim population in politics and promotes “positive discrimination” (known in America as affirmative action) for immigrants.


  • popular sovereignty : The belief that the people of a state should freely choose their state’s government and that no government can rule against the will of the people. The French Republic following the French Revolution of 1789 was founded on the principle of popular sovereignty.
  • secularity : Secularism is used to describe governments that maintain a separation of church and state. Countries such as France, which upholds this separation, ask believers to practice their religion for the most part in private. While generally the term refers to the neutrality of the state toward religious groups, some in France interpret it as the Republic’s official culture.
  • inalienable rights : Originating from the Enlightenment movement, this phrase refers to rights to which all humans are entitled—rights that cannot be taken away from them under any circumstances. These rights are defined, for example, in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 (“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789 (“liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression”).
  • liberté : French for “liberty.” This term became part of the motto (“liberty, equality, brotherhood”) representing the new French Republic during the French Revolution (1789–1799).
  • égalité : French word meaning “equality.” This principle became part of the motto “liberté, égalité, fraternité” that represented the new French Republic during the French Revolution (1789–1799).
  • fraternité : French for “brotherhood.” The term, which emphasizes the solidarity and connection between all French citizens, was attributed to the French Revolution (1789–1799) in the nineteenth century. It became part of the revolutionary three-part motto “liberté, égalité, fraternité.”
  • assimilation : A process through which immigrants accept the national culture of the host country and give up their former national identity.
  • antisemitism : A certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for why things go wrong. It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.
  • laïcité : French for “secularity.” The term comes from the word lay or laity, which refers to Christians who did not belong to religious orders or to the clergy.
  • guest workers : A category of workers who enter a country legally in order to work and are expected to leave after their visas expire. Following World War II, France recruited hundreds of thousands of guest workers from former colonies in North Africa to aid in its booming economy. Many of them stayed and made France their home.
  • chador : A Persian word describing a full-length shawl held at the neck by hand or pin. It covers the head and the body but leaves the face visible. Chadors are most often black and are common in Iran, where, since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, they have been mandatory for all women.
  • Beurs : The name second-generation immigrants of Arab descent gave themselves. Beur is the inversion of the sounds and syllables in Arabe (“Arab” in French)—an example of the French slang called Verlan (see separate entry). The word Beurs has a positive connotation, while the term Arabe is often derogatory. Verlan is the inversion of sounds and syllables in a word to create a new word.  The word verlan itself was created by inverting the two syllables in the French word envers, which means “backward.” It is a form of slang very typical of the banlieues.

  • banlieues : Suburbs on the outskirts of large cities in France where, in many cases, the majority of the population are North African immigrants. Many areas in these neighborhoods are marked by poverty, very high unemployment rates, black markets, and crime.
  • nationalistic : Following a political ideology that emphasizes national culture or interests above those of minorities and other sub-national groups.
  • fatwa : An Arabic word for a legal decree or declaration made by a Muslim religious leader.
  • Islamist : Often described as fundamentalists, Islamists preach that Islam is not only a religion, but also a social and political system that governs most aspects of life. The majority of Islamists attempt to replace secular governance in a peaceful manner, but a small minority of them resorts to extreme measures, including violence and even terrorism.
  • fundamentalism : Strict adherence to the literal words of an ancient text that is believed to be true (the Bible or the Quran, for example). While some fundamentalists seek to impose the principles and laws found in such texts on everybody (and sometimes even resort to violence), most fundamentalists live peacefully among their neighbors and respect the separation of state and church.

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