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Does Valls’ upcoming Vatican trip violate French secularism?

© AFP / Valls with the pope in January

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-04-18

New French Prime Minister Manuel Valls will attend the canonisation of former popes John XXIII and John Paul II on April 27 in Rome. But in strictly secular France, the unexpected news of his plan to attend has not gone over well with everyone.

Has France’s newly appointed Prime Minister Manuel Valls violated the country’s long-cherished principle of secularism?

That is the criticism that has been levelled against the Socialist in the wake of the news that he will attend the joint canonisation ceremony.

Jean-Luc Laurent, an MP from the left-wing MRC (Republican and Citizen Movement) party, on Friday asked Valls to cancel his trip, “because the Republic should not be there”.

In a statement released to the press, he wrote, “The participation of the prime minister is indefensible given our republican principles, and is merely an act of pandering… intended to please French people of Catholic faith.”

The policy of secularism, or “la laïcité”, is a deeply held principle underpinning the identity of the French citizen and the politics of the nation. It was first established during the French revolution, and the separation of church and state was formalised under the law in 1905. Religious symbols are forbidden in schools and other public workplaces and the state and its officials may not favour one religion over any other.


If the Valls situation has a slight whiff of déjà vu, that’s because nearly the same face-off occurred in 2011 when then-Prime Minister François Fillon of the right-wing UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) party attended the beatification of John Paul II.

In a statement released then, the Socialist Party said, “This decision breaks with a diplomatic tradition, established and respected by all [Fillon’s] predecessors, according to which our country is only represented a this type of event if it is in honour of a French person…. coming from Nicolas Sarkozy, who apparently considered going himself, this decision is not surprising, but it is nevertheless particularly shocking.”

The statement noted that France is “an indivisible, secular, democratic and social republic, which ensures the equal treatment under the law of all of its citizens, regardless of differences in … religion, and which respects all faiths”.

According to several sources, Fillon, along with former French first lady Bernadette Chirac, will also be present at the ceremony on April 27.

Valls, a repeat offender?

This is not the first Catholic ceremony Valls will have publicly attended. In 2012, he travelled to Troyes, in northern France, for the beatification of Father Louis Brisson, a famous Roman Catholic priest. “Secularism is not the rejection of religion, of the sacred. It means accepting to believe or not to believe,” the then-interior minister told a Christian magazine at the time. “The Catholic religion has deep roots in our history.”

Just weeks later, Valls attended the canonisation of noted French Jesuit Jacques Berthieu in Rome.

The politician to whom Valls answers, President François Hollande, is also no stranger to Catholic-themed visits. In January, he went to the Vatican to hold talks with the pope about issues such as “family” and “bioethics”. Valls accompanied Hollande on the trip.

Sixty-one official delegations and at least 800,000 worshippers are expected in Rome for the canonisations later this month.


Date created : 2014-04-18


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