François Fillon’s successful campaign for the nomination of the centre-right Les Républicains party for this year’s presidential election has moved religion to the forefront of French political life. Fillon’s willingness to talk about his Catholic faith’s influence on his thoughts on matters ranging from economics to euthanasia is not something that the French are accustomed to hearing from politicians.

Given French politics’ hitherto decidedly secular character, there was always going to be a backlash from across the political spectrum against Fillon’s stance. What has been truly noteworthy, however, is the sheer feebleness of this reaction.

For decades, the operating assumption throughout France has been that a politician’s faith is a private matter. Discussion of such issues by those involved in public life has traditionally been frowned upon. One reason for this is the Loi du 9 décembre 1905 concernant la séparation des Églises et de l’État.

This law was enacted by an anti-clerical government in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, the infamous scandal which involved a Jewish army officer being falsely convicted, on the basis of forged evidence, of passing military secrets to the Germans. He was imprisoned before eventually being cleared of all charges. L’Affaire, as it is still called today, didn’t only demonstrate the scale of anti-Semitism in the French army and France more generally. It also exacerbated the deep fracture already existing between secular and Catholic France.

The 1905 law involved the legal establishment of the principle which the French call laïcité. Broadly speaking, this means that religion may not influence the conduct of state affairs or government policy, while the state refrains from involving itself in religious affairs.

Over time, the interpretation and application of laïcité has varied. Immediately following the 1905 law’s passage, for example, laïcité formed the legal basis for the French government’s sequestering of much Church property.

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