Conférence sur "La religion et la politique étrangère" (27/05/2015)

« Religion and foreign policy : the view from secular France »
Lecture by Jean-Claude Poimboeuf, Ambassador of France to Cambodia

Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace
27 may 2015



Excellency Ambassador Pou Sothirak, Executive Director, Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace,
Excellency Hor Nam Bora, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Ministers,
Excellencies, Dear Colleagues from the diplomatic corps,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Dear students,

I am very pleased to be back at the CICP where I already talked last October about my personal experience in the Cambodia peace process leading to the 1991 Paris Agreement. I wish to thank the CICP for inviting me again, this time on a very different subject : religion and foreign policy.

Actually, this is not an issue where I have myself a specific expertise or experience, other than watching or analyzing the role of religious organizations in countries where I have served as a diplomat. But this issue is both perennial and topical. It is perennial because religion has been a driver of domestic and international developments for centuries. You don’t have to worry : I have no intention of going through world history since the beginning of Christianity. You just have to read your favorite newspaper, on any given day, to see how topical it is in 2015, a century after the German philosopher Nietzsche famously proclaimed that “God is dead”.

Other colleagues from the diplomatic corps in Phnom Penh could have been invited just as well by the CICP, each of them bringing his or her own perspective. So why is it that the CICP wished to invite the French Ambassador ? I suppose it is because my country, being a secular State, is known for having a specific position when addressing the issue of the relationship between State and religion. There are two aspects to the question : one domestic, one international, and I will touch upon both of them in my presentation since they cannot be separated.


Let me begin with a brief description of our domestic situation, not only because it is the logical starting point but also because my country is often in the news when it comes to its positions on religious matters.

Allow me to start with quoting the preamble of our constitution : “France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion. It shall respect all beliefs ». This is what says our current constitution, adopted in 1958, but this has been a fundamental principle of the French Republic for more than a century. Those of you who are familiar with my country know that, after many decades of heated, bitter debates, legislation was passed in 1905 to separate the State and the Church, meaning in particular that the government would not fund religious organizations anymore. The historical context of the time was one of tensions between a left-wing, anticlerical government and the Catholic Church which led to the severance of diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Although it was the product of specific political circumstances, that piece of legislation was a truly defining moment in our history and from thereon, the State has remained neutral as far as religion is concerned so as to guarantee religious freedom for all. If you add the legacy of the French Revolution, a century earlier, this forms the historical background of our secular model.

A product of our long and complex history, secularism has ever since been a fundamental principle of the French Republic and is nowadays quite consensual. It is in our view the best means to guarantee that all communities, believers of all creeds and non-believers, can live together harmoniously, in the context of an increasingly diverse society. After all, it consists in putting into practice the principles of our well-known national motto : Liberty (everyone is free to believe or not) ; Equality (all religions are treated equally) ; Fraternity (the possibility to live as one community is guaranteed no matter where we come from or which religion we believe in).


So this is, in essence, what secularism means for we French. In the view of some misunderstandings, it is also worth elaborating on what secularism is not.

Firstly, secularism does not mean that the State is hostile to religions.

We often hear, especially in America, that France curbs the freedom of belief because it has introduced restrictive legislation to fight against sectarian abuse. Our critics fail to understand that our primary intention is not to fight against new religious movements or cults but to protect individuals, especially the most vulnerable, from psychological manipulation and sometimes financial fraud.

We are also accused sometimes to be hostile to Islam. You probably still have in mind the controversies generated by our legislation prohibiting the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools (2004) and, more recently, the prohibition of wearing full-faced veils in public (2011). Although the 2004 bill applied to all religious symbols, it was perceived by many of our critics as an attack against Muslims. No need to say that we have the greatest respect for Islam and Muslims – we have more than 5 million of them living in France-. What guided the government when it introduced this legislation were not religious considerations but the vision of our secular society where religious beliefs are supposed to stay within the private sphere. In the case of the full-faced veil, there were also considerations of public order and security.

Secondly, secularism does not mean that the State ignores religions or does not engage with them. It is quite the contrary : there is in France a constant, confident dialogue between the government and religious organizations. It can be on practical issues related to religious services, for example how to proceed to ritual slaughter for Muslims and Jews. This dialogue can be on ethical or societal issues, like birth control or same-sex marriage. It is in the context of this dialogue that, every year in January, the French president hosts a reception to extend his wishes to all religious authorities. This year, it took place on 7th January, the very day on which occurred the terrorist attack that decimated almost the entire editorial team of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

That attack, followed by two others on the following days, attracted a lot of sympathy around the world, including here in Cambodia, and I would like to take this opportunity to warmly thank all our friends, Cambodians as well as foreigners, who showed their solidarity.

These attacks also led many people, especially in the Muslim world but not only, to wonder why France allows its media to publish caricatures of the Prophet. The freedom of opinion and expression is a fundamental principle, protected by law, including international law. Only a judge, if asked, can say whether a public expression has gone beyond the limitation prescribed by the law. The legal limitations to the freedom of expression are only meant to preserve public order and safety, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others, and not to make the freedom of expression an empty concept.

It is worth noting that neither French law nor international law, which guarantee the rights of individuals, protect religions per se. This is the reason why blasphemy is not - and cannot - be considered as an offence in our legal system as well as in international law. The limitations to the freedom of expression do not include defaming religions which, like political parties, are not free from criticism or even caricature. At the same time, we fully understand that believers can sometimes feel offended by statements, articles, caricatures targeting their religion. In France, Christians, and especially Catholics, have been for a long time the preferred targets of anti-clerical caricaturists. Those who are the targets of caricatures have the right to react provided that they don’t resort to violence or entice to hatred. They can also take the issue to court if they so wish.

It goes without saying that the freedom of expression that our media enjoy does not mean that the French authorities approve of every opinion that is published.

These principles that I have highlighted are all the more important in a context where we see tensions between religious groups in our country and, unfortunately, incidents like hate speech, attacks on individuals, desecration of religious sites involving members of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities. The French government firmly condemns these acts, makes every effort to identify and send to court the culprits and has reinforced the security of places of worship. Although it cannot be directly part of it, the government also strongly encourages interfaith dialogue as a means to bring communities closer.

At this point, I need to focus on our Jewish community. Just like we are suspected by some people to be hostile to Islam, France is sometimes accused to be an “Anti-Semitic Nation”. The Jewish community in France, at half a million, is the world’s third largest, after those in Israel and the United States. And it is thriving, with a lively social and communal life and many citizens of Jewish background contributing to French art, science and politics. Diversity is a point of pride for France but it comes with challenges, especially in times of hardship. We cannot deny that the crisis that hit Europe in 2008 was accompanied by a rise of extreme-right populism and tensions among populations of different origins, including communities originating from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. As a result, we have witnessed an increase in racism and anti-Semitism in most of Europe. But in spite of this deterioration, the number of anti-Semitic acts in France was half the number recorded in 2004. These acts show that there are lingering prejudices against Jews but they are limited to a small fraction of the population and it an over-simplification to say that France as a nation is anti-Semitic. The French government has demonstrated its absolute determination to fight this scourge by every conceivable means.


Ladies and gentlemen,

In our view, just like religion is primarily is a personal matter, every country is free to decide how religious practices can take place. After describing what the situation in France is, it is now time for me to talk about how secularism impacts our foreign policy.

The freedom of belief is the first principle upon which secularism is based. It is enshrined in our constitution but also in international conventions, like the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or the European Convention of Human Rights to which France is a party. The freedom of conscience is the freedom to choose one’s religion ; it is the freedom of not believing at all ; it is the freedom of changing ones’ religion. In the framework of its bilateral relations or within multilateral institutions, France is keen to defend this fundamental freedom. When this freedom is at risk or violated, France will defend the rights of the people concerned in the way it deems most appropriate. This is part of our wider policy regarding human rights.

Secularism is based upon on second principle, which is the separation between the State and the Church, between politics and religion. This has become quite obvious for we French but it is not the case everywhere. Of course, every country is free to decide on its constitutional and legal system. However, we must pay attention to avoid confusion as far as international standards are concerned. This is why my country has reservations about some international initiatives which, in the name of protecting religion, tend to restrict fundamental rights such as the freedom of expression and opinion, and would put the State in a position where its decisions would be based upon religious considerations. I have in mind attempts to qualify the “defamation of religions” as an offence. I want to be very clear on this : France has the greatest respect for religions but it considers that it is the rights of individuals which have to be protected. This is the reason why we have joined forces with the United States of America and the United Kingdom to avoid that the defamation of religions becomes positive international law. In our view, existing national legislations are sufficient and if they are not, they must be adapted to oppose anything that, under the pretext of religion or hostility to religion, would amount to discrimination, encouraging violence and even appealing to murder.

Since public diplomacy is about promoting one’s values and ideas, you might wonder whether France wants to export its secular model. Well, the French are certainly attached to their model but they are also fully aware that it cannot be an export item and cannot be transposed in different national contexts. To stick to the European Union, there is a great variety of systems, which are all undeniably democratic. In England, the Queen is the head of the Anglican Church. In Spain, Portugal and Italy, there is a treaty, called concordat, between the State and the Vatican. In Greece, the Orthodox faith is the State religion. In Poland the Catholic Church has a great influence. Belgium is a secular country very much like France. But whatever the State-religion constitutional arrangements, the principles that provide the foundation for secularism have for us a universal significance and are necessary to peace and harmony, within and between nations.

I am pleased to note that France is not alone in thinking this way. Despite all the different national systems that I have just mentioned, the European Union has adopted in June 2013 “Guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief”. Let me quote from the introduction of that important document : “With these Guidelines, the EU reaffirms its determination to promote, in its external human rights policy, freedom of religion or belief as a right to be exercised by everyone everywhere, based on the principles of equality, non-discrimination and universality. Through its external policy instruments, the EU intends to help prevent and address violations of this right in a timely, consistent and coherent manner. In doing so, the EU focuses on the right of individuals, to believe or not to believe, and, alone or in community with others, to freely manifest their beliefs. The EU does not consider the merits of the different religions or beliefs, or the lack thereof, but ensures that the right to believe or not to believe is upheld. The EU is impartial and is not aligned with any specific religion or belief. The Guidelines explain what the international human rights standards on freedom of religion or belief are, and give clear political lines to officials of EU institutions and EU Member States, to be used in contacts with third countries and with international and civil society organizations. They also provide officials with practical guidance on how to seek to prevent violations of freedom of religion or belief, to analyze cases, and to react effectively to violations wherever they occur, in order to promote and protect freedom of religion or belief in the EU’s external action”. As you can see, there are many commonalities between what I have told you about the French approach and the EU Guidelines.


Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me turn now more specifically to France’s foreign policy. How does it engage with religious movements ? What is the influence of religious groups on France’s foreign policy and positions ?

There are many examples around the world of situations where religion enters the political arena, leading potentially to violence and conflict. Everybody has in mind the Middle-East : there we have the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, which is primarily about land but is aggravated by religious considerations ; we have the deepening rift between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims with all its regional implications ; more recently, we have serious threats against Christian communities who have been living in the region for centuries. Closer to Europe, we had the wars in the Balkans, along religious dividing lines. In Asia, we have the rise of religious nationalist movements, for instance in India or Myanmar. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Institute, there are about 30 countries around the world that are affected by conflicts with some kind of religious dimension.

These few examples show how necessary it is to take fully into account the religious factor in a country’s foreign policy. I am sure that all foreign services do it in their own way. In our case, the Foreign Ministry has an Adviser for religious affairs. This position was created in 1920 when we resumed our diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Today, the position involves engaging with all religious movements, not only the Catholic Church, with a special focus, considering our history and the current situation, to Christianity, the Jewish faith and Islam.

For obvious reasons, the Middle-East deserves a special focus since no solution to the many crises the region faces can be sought without taking into consideration religious factors. I am not saying that all conflicts there have religious roots and I don’t deny that other factors do play a role : historical complexities, conflicts over land, competition between rival powers, economic interests etc. But no one can deny that some of these conflicts are aggravated by religious considerations. This is why religious leaders have an important role to play to preach tolerance, mutual respect, and peaceful coexistence. It is also their responsibility to reject any kind of violence in the name of religion. Religious leaders can therefore play a major role in peace processes and this is why political leaders and diplomats have to engage with them.

Recently, France has been paying very close attention to the fate of the Christian communities in the Middle-East under threat from the so-called Islamic State. It has been part of our historical tradition since the 13th century to protect these communities and France wants to remain faithful to that tradition, although in a different context. The issue, today, is to protect communities, not only Christians, but all other minorities that the Islamic State wants to brutally eradicate (Kurds, Yezidis…). This is why France has convened a special meeting of the Security Council of the United Nations on 27th March to discuss lines of action.

In this context, it is important to have a regular dialogue with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). It has been decided in 2012 that our Consul General in Jeddah, where the OIC is based, would be concurrently our special envoy to the Organization with which we have annual consultations.

In the same region, our Consulate General in Jerusalem also plays a very specific, unusual role in the protection of a number of religious communities. This is a legacy of a long history, dating back to the 16th century, and of international treaties signed with the Ottoman Empire and still valid today.

Another example, very different, provides an illustration of the need to engage with religious movements : I am referring to climate change. As you know, France will be the host, in December 2015, of the 21st conference of the parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. It will be a crucial meeting to reach a new universal and binding agreement to keep global warming below 2°C. We do not underestimate the challenge and we hope that religious leaders, who enjoy respect all across society for their wisdom, will use their influence and appeal everyone to work towards an acceptable compromise. In that context, we will welcome the publication in June of an encyclical by Pope Francis on climate change and the environment. The joint appeal on climate change that religious leaders of all faiths in France will address on 1st July to President Hollande provides a good example of interfaith dialogue.


In conclusion, here are the main principles which guide our foreign policy as far as religions are concerned :

- The first principle is to talk to everyone, to all the institutions and movements which have an influence on the life of a nation and on the relations between nations.
- The second principle is to remain faithful to our international commitments. This applies in particular to religious freedom, guaranteed by international instruments. It also applies to the special, historical relationship we have with Christian communities in the Middle-East.
- The third principle is independence. While exchanging views with religious authorities, France remains entirely free in its way of thinking and its actions. We want to make sure that civil and political rights always come first. This means that we oppose any relativist vision of human rights. In our view, human rights cannot be restricted by religious standards or considerations. This applies in particular to the rights of women or the issue of sexual orientation.
- The fourth principle is to remain neutral. Freedom of thought applies to all religions provided that they do not create a risk for public order and that they respect other people’s opinions and the rights of other cults.
- The fifth and last principle is the rejection of any instrumentalization of religion. Too often, religion is used, more or less openly, by political forces whose objectives have nothing to do with religion. As we know, some terrorist or criminal organizations justify their crimes in the name of religious considerations. We must expose these manipulations. One of the worst examples is provided by the so-called “Islamic State”, a double imposture since this barbaric group is neither a State nor represents Islam. At the same time, we cannot ignore that its superficial religious doctrine has attracted a number of followers, including young people in Europe, and this phenomenon deserves a thorough analysis and a firm line of action.


As you can see, today’s subject is very wide and I could only touch upon certain aspects. I am aware that I may have been superficial in order to stay within the time limits. I stand ready to listen to your comments and answer your questions.

Thank you for your attention.

Dernière modification : 15/07/2015

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