President Hollande vows to clamp down on religious intolerance
New Year greetings from M. François Hollande, President of the Republic, to the religious authorities (excerpts)
Paris, 7 January 2014
You’ve gathered again, here in this building, which is also yours because it’s everyone’s. It’s that of the Republic, which recognizes no religion but which, at the same time, ensures those religions may live fully and freely in France.
I’m back with you at the beginning of this year, for this ceremony, which is a little specific but which I’d like to repeat because it’s also a moment of discussion and dialogue.
I’m keen on this also because the representatives of the religions contribute to our country’s spiritual, social, moral life. The state must know what the religions have to say on the major subjects, which may also be economic, social and international subjects. (…)
Let’s go back over 2013. In many respects it was exceptional. Firstly for Catholics, with the election of Pope Francis, who has since spread the message of fraternity, touching the hearts of many of our compatriots, even non-Catholics. He’s also expressed positions internationally that have been welcomed by all those he’s been addressing. (…)
Religious intolerance/state response/secularism
Intolerance, too, is among us. It’s everywhere. Let’s not believe borders could push it back. Anti-Semitism has taken on new forms, even though the same vileness still shows through. Anti-Muslim attacks have been on the increase. I’m not forgetting anti-Christian acts. I condemn them all equally firmly. The Interior Minister is combating them equally vigorously.
Intolerance is an attack on everything: both people and property, the dead – to insult the living more – and even the walls you withdraw behind to pray. As we’ve seen again in recent days, in recent hours, they’ve been the targets of desecration and graffiti.
As I’ve said, in the face of this, the Republic must be intransigent. It will be – everywhere and for everyone. It will fight hatred in all its guises, including the smokescreen of humour or of denouncing a system. The response is punishment – clear and immediate –, which can extend to the banning of racist and anti-Semitic shows liable to spark public order disturbances. This is the purpose of the circular which has been adopted and will be enforced.
On the Internet, anonymity mustn’t be a cover, or freedom of expression an alibi. We’ve very committed to freedom. But when, in the name of freedom, fundamental values and key principles are called into question, limits must also be set. Otherwise any desire by the authorities to halt certain provocations might be regarded as a breach of freedom.
First of all, for this crackdown to be effective, the information must be known and the facts established. When there’s an attack, too, it means a complaint being lodged. If there’s no complaint, there’s no prosecution. So I’m addressing you: it’s your responsibility to support your worshippers and encourage them not to keep quiet. The worst thing is silence. The worst thing is renunciation. The worst thing, ultimately, is acceptance of humiliation. When they’re offended or their freedom of worship is threatened, they must be supported to make complaints and trigger criminal proceedings.
The response can’t be only a crackdown. The response is also educational. It’s the training of consciences, it’s access to knowledge, it’s reminders of history. You contribute to this too.
The response is laïcité [secularism] (1). Laïcité isn’t a point of demarcation between us. It’s a rallying point. It’s the common rule enabling us to live together. Laïcité, as I constantly repeat, protects freedom of belief and conscience. It also guarantees the neutrality of the state and its agents. In carrying out their duties, they mustn’t show religious affiliations – any more than political opinions, I would add. (…)
I wanted to end my speech on the international situation.
I’m thinking firstly of the Middle East and Syria, torn apart by an appalling civil war that has already claimed 140,000 lives. I’m also thinking of Lebanon and Jordan, where there’s a huge mass of refugees.
I’m thinking of Israel and Palestine, which I visited in November. I reiterated my commitment to peace and the mutual recognition of the two states. We’re in a phase where the negotiations may either get bogged down again or, on the contrary, reach a conclusion.
During that visit, I met Jerusalem’s Christian community, at the Basilica of St Anne, where I expressed France’s desire to protect the three monotheistic religions’ holy sites. I also recalled the need to protect the Eastern Christians, because France is worried about their plight. I know, [Metropolitan] Bishop, that this situation is central to your thoughts. Along with the Jews and Muslims, the Eastern Christians have shaped the cultural richness of the Mediterranean region. I note, with regret, their gradual disappearance into exile. I see them withdrawing into ever smaller communities. This is an irrevocable loss for the region’s societies.
I want to mention Africa. I was delighted, like you, by the release of Father Georges [Vandenbeusch]. (…) An admirable figure. (…)
Both in northern Cameroon and, of course, in that part of Nigeria where he was held, the conflicts are not only economic and they’re not only ethnic; a proportion are religious conflicts, to which we must pay close attention. (…)
If we aren’t careful about it, there are risks of religious confrontation in Africa today, because some people stoke that hatred. France is in the Central African Republic to make security and stability possible, but also reconciliation and unity. France isn’t in favour of Christians or in favour of Muslims. It’s in favour of Central Africans living together – as they’ve lived together for decades, by the way. Of course there are groups that have an interest in using religion to disguise their own political intentions.
I went to Bangui on my way back from Johannesburg, where we took part in the tribute paid to Mandela. I was returning, by the way, with the bishop of Cayenne, who is also a fine figure. He was the priest of Soweto and he’d gone back there as a friend of South Africa.
In Bangui, where two of our soldiers died, I met the country’s three religious figures. There was the Bishop, the Imam and the Protestant. They lived together: the Bishop had taken in the Imam to protect him, and the Imam had also asked the Protestant to come so they could spread the same message. There too, let’s welcome what religions can do to prevent others exploiting religions for destructive purposes.
I wanted to make you aware of this, in relation to what you can do here in France to appeal for this reconciliation.
The last issue I want to mention to you is environmental challenges. They concern us all and are key to the planet’s future. We’re all responsible for the planet. In 2015, France will be hosting the climate conference. In this respect we’ve taken on a responsibility nobody wanted, for fear of a new failure. It’s up to us to prove the predictions wrong!
The climate crisis isn’t just another challenge. It concerns nature, biodiversity and therefore humanity. To facilitate the conclusion of a global agreement in 2015, I think the religious authorities can play a role with states and peoples to ensure the public at large is galvanized nationally and internationally.
That’s the message I wanted to send you, in addition to my New Year greetings: that we have great expectations of this dialogue between the state and religions. We also have the feeling that there’s a need for spirituality in our country. You can’t reduce things simply to material considerations, even though they’re essential. Because there’s a crisis, there’s also the need to have a conscience, to understand its meaning, and you contribute to that. So I want to thank you, on behalf of the Republic, for everything you’re doing to guarantee solidarity, allow respect and tolerance and ensure our country can live in peace.
(1) laïcité goes beyond the concept of secularism, embracing the strict neutrality of the state.