Religion in France: Catholicism in the 20th Century

Church & State: A Delicate Balance

Start off with a word of caution. In France, talking about religion is frequently regarded as rather taboo. It frequently sparks serious reactions and intense discussions, much like politics. The Catholic Church, in particular, had a significant influence in changing politics and culture throughout France’s entire history. In fact, the history of France is rife with religious crises.

The France of today, however, is not the France of the past. A significantly more diversified range of religions can be found in modern France, albeit occasionally, traditional Republican ideals run counter to this new reality. In light of this context, let’s go over some information regarding French religion that you should be aware of before engaging in this particular French conversation.

History of religion in France

Christianity has had a significant impact on France’s religious history. The Catholic Church had such a profound influence on French culture and tradition that several of the country’s official holidays still have a religious foundation. Of course, the same can be said about many of the most beautiful buildings and pieces of artwork in the nation.

Christianity began to take root in France in the second century AD. But what actually improved its status and power was the rising of the Franks. This formerly pagan tribe overtook the nation in the fifth century AD, eventually giving it the name France and adopting Christianity as their own.

History of religion in France
History of religion in France

Clovis’ baptism in the cathedral of the city of Reims sometime about 498 or 499 started a long history in which the French monarchy used Christianity to justify its rule. Following Clovis’s lead, the majority of French coronations took place in Reims’ cathedral, where the new kings were anointed with holy oil.

Many French districts adopted the Protestant faith during the Reformation in the 16th century. The southwest and the east were most affected by this. Aside from isolated conflicts, people tolerated the new religion in general.

Henry IV, a Protestant at heart, was compelled to convert to Catholicism and get baptized in order to become king the next year. His actions were exceptional for the time. A few years later, in 1598, he published the Edict of Nantes, which gave French Protestants, known as Huguenots, the right to freedom of religion and conscience.

Louis XIV canceled the proclamation in 1685, about a century later, which opened the door for persecution and the enormous emigration of Protestants from France.

France's Religion History
France’s Religion History

Change began with the French Revolution in 1789–1799. It was the Catholic Church’s turn to suffer persecution, and many buildings and artworks were destroyed as a result.

In the nineteenth century, Christianity was once again recognized as the state religion in France, but this time with restrictions imposed by the new administration. After years of distancing itself from religion, La République française’s government officially passed a statute dividing church and state in 1905.

The impact of religion on France’s culture, art, poetry, and politics

Since the country’s inception, Christianity and the Catholic tradition have left a lasting impact on French culture. The big cathedrals and sometimes even the little churches of medieval France were the country’s grandest monuments, not the country’s castles and palaces.

The best painters and craftspeople of the time were commissioned to create works of art such as murals, altarpieces, and stained glass and sculptures in churches.

Much of the medieval French literature and musical repertoire was a joyful celebration of Christian belief and practice. The Chanson de Roland, an epic about a heroic battle between Christians and the Sarrasins commanded by Roland, the nephew of Charlemagne, is often regarded as the first major work of French literature.

The popular medieval Arthurian stories from France are firmly rooted in the religious tradition of their day, as are many other works of literature from the Middle Ages.

Religion in France
Religion in France

The Catholicism of the time informs much of the art and literature of the French Renaissance. Even the well-acclaimed Rabalais, the era’s most hilarious author, began his career as a Franciscan friar; his best-known novels, Gargantua and Pantagruel, are basically Christian explorations of the meaning of life despite their reputation as comedies.

Prior to the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century, debates in France, as elsewhere in Europe, centered on questions of Christian theology. However, once the Age of Enlightenment arrived, the debates shifted to new topics, such as the nature of man, the nature of authority, and the nature of society.

However, the major debates concerning religion, which began with Martin Luther and the Protestant division, gave birth to the conversations of the Enlightenment. Great Enlightenment French minds like Descartes, Rousseau, Voltaire, and others grew up in Christian societies.

The French Revolution’s attempt to supplant Christian culture with a new revolutionary culture failed, and by the nineteenth century, Catholicism or protests against it dominated French art, literature, and music.

Many of the greatest musicians of the 19th century in France, such as Fauré, César Franck, Widor, and Berlioz, were inspired to write monumental works of sacred music, yet religion itself was not the subject of many important paintings or writings.

France's Religion
France’s Religion

After suffering the loss in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the horrors of World War I, and the emergence of Communism in Russia, French writers turned to their Catholic faith as a source of national identity in the 20th century.

The finest French writers of the twentieth century, including Maurice Barrès, Léon Bloy, Paul Claudel, George Bernanos, Henri de Montherlant, and François Mauriac, were all deeply influenced by their Catholic faith.

The main religions in France

It’s not surprising that Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, continues to be the most widely practiced faith in France. Two-thirds of the French population considers themselves Christian, with over 83% belonging to the Roman Catholic Church and 14% to the Protestant Church. Church attendance in France, however, is among the lowest in the world, and a huge section of the French population is not religiously active.

When compared to Christianity, the other religions practiced by the French are minorities at best. With over 8% of its people identifying as Muslim, France has one of the largest Muslim communities in all of Europe, making Islam the second-largest religion in the country.

This is due in great part to the substantial North African population in France, many of whom moved to the Hexagon after the independence of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia in the 1950s and 1960s.

The main religions in France
The main religions in France

Even within France’s modest Christian and Muslim populations, Jews make up a relatively insignificant fraction of the population. Nonetheless, it has one of Europe’s greatest Jewish populations. It has also been through a lot of hardships, from the tragic Dreyfus case to the events of World War II.

Another interesting fact is that 25% of the population does not identify with any religion.

Secularism in France

The Christian religion has played a crucial role in French history and culture, but since the French Revolution of 1789 and the concepts of the siècle des Lumières (aka the Age of Enlightenment), its sphere of influence has been considerably reduced. Lacité (secularism) is a foundational principle of the French Republic. The tone is set in the first paragraph of the 1958 French Constitution:

The French constitution states that “La France est une République indivisible, laque, démocratique et sociale” (The French Republic shall be an undivided, secular, democratic, and social republic).

Although the English phrases “secularism” and “secular” are close, it is vital to understand the concept behind lacité and the French adjective laque. The 1905 vote to completely separate church and state is known as la lacité. In reality, this means that no religious institution can exert any political influence over the state. Therefore, in order for a marriage to be recognized by the state of France, it must take place in the town hall.

Secularism in France
Secularism in France

Back in 1905, when many French schools were run by the Catholic Church, this rule was passed to help control the institution’s sphere of influence. Religion is still often avoided in public schools. Religious instruction or affiliation of any kind is also prohibited in public schools. French art, history, and culture can only be taught from a Christian perspective.

Similarly, a restriction in place since 2004 forbids students from donning “ostentatious signs of religion,” including hijabs, burqas, kippahs, and crucifixes while attending public schools. Those who advocate for maintaining lacité as a guiding regulation of the French Republic and those who seek to change it in light of the country’s increasingly diverse religious landscape have sometimes found themselves in conflict over this issue.


Religion has had an important part in French society, politics, and culture for ages. It has also experienced or caused numerous revolutions. While the Catholic Church may have had sway in the past, it is now joined by other faiths to form a more complex combination of current French culture.

We’ve discussed France’s religious side and its extraordinary perspective on religion. Make sure to check out Guidetourism’s social media for more content.

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