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An exclusive interview with Jean- Louis Bianco President of the Observatory of Secularism

Dernière mise à jour : 8 juil. 2020

For any problem concerning the respect of secularism

"Any citizen, as well as any association, trade union, company or public service, can refer to us at any time about the difficulties encountered.

We respond within 48 hours."

Respect for secularism is a concern for the Freemasons. In France, the Observatoire de la Laïcité is the official body responsible for monitoring the application of the principle of secularism defined by the 1905 law. Its current president, Mr. Jean-Louis Bianco, submitted his activity report to the Prime Minister on July 10. We have asked him for an interview to discuss the current state of secularism. He agreed to answer our questions!

Question N°1 : Mr. President, you are today the President of the Observatory of Secularism, a public body under the authority of the Prime Minister, are you a believer or a non-believer?

JLB: I am an agnostic.

Question N°2 : Does your long experience of political life as a socialist activist lead you to be rather optimistic or rather worried about the acceptance and respect of secularism by the different components of the French people?

JLB: As the annual report of the Observatory of Secularism shows, the situation is contrasted.

Direct attacks on secularism are better contained thanks to the multiplication of training courses on secularism and the management of religious events.

For its part, the Observatory for Secularism has helped to train or educate more than 250,000 people.

However, the tensions and tensions on these subjects, which are causing a great deal of commotion, remain very lively, in a fragile social context, with the rise of communitarian demands.

A clear distinction must be made between what is secular and the necessary respect for the rules of our life in society. In both cases, any breach must be sanctioned with serenity and firmness.

Question N°3 : Is it relevant to consider three periods in the History of France for secularism :

- a period of maturation (from the French Revolution to 1905)

- a time of affirmation and consolidation (from 1905 to 1940)

- an era of official and institutional secularism (since 1945)?

JLB: We can indeed reason as you do. But without forgetting that secularism is the product of history, our history of France, and the result of struggles that are still being fought today.

Question N°4 : The media regularly echo the demands of certain associations to see ritual and/or religious practices taken into account in the context of work or leisure; some companies and public authorities seem to be listening favourably to these demands; what do you think? Is this compatible with respect for the law?

JLB: The rule is clear. In a company, as in an association, what must be imposed is the proper functioning of the structure and the fulfillment of the mission.

Question N°5 : When you analyse French society today, how do you assess the respect of secularism by the public authorities at the different levels of the functioning of the State and in particular in the overseas departments, communities and territories?

JLB: On the whole, the public authorities respect secularism. In case of doubt, the observatory of secularism is there to remind us of the rules of law and justice, as is its role, ensures the necessary regulations in concrete situations when these are problematic.

Overseas departments and territories obey specific rules that are the product of history, but respect for the principle of secularism applies to all.

Question N°6 : Everybody knows that there are groups and organizations in our country that do not see the respect of secularism in a positive light: how do you appreciate the influence of these movements and in particular with regard to certain fragile groups?

JLB: You have to be rigorous and precise in your analysis. There is social pressure in some neighbourhoods that tends to impose the law of the neighbourhood, whether it's the drug economy or a certain vision of the Muslim religion.

Any pressure, any breach of the common law must be sanctioned. On the other hand, there is what is known as "political Islam" which, like certain currents of other religions, aims to impose religious law over civil law.

In any case, the fight for secularism must be tirelessly and firmly fought on the ground in concrete situations.

Question N°7 : As President of the Observatory of Secularism since 2013, what actions and initiatives in favour of secularism have been taken by the Observatory during these six years of which you are most proud?

JLB : First of all, the Secularism Prize of the French Republic, which rewards each year initiatives taken by associations, companies, local authorities and schools.

We receive more than 100 applications a year, which testify to the vitality of the actions undertaken to promote and publicise secularism.

On the other hand, the training courses carried out for the most diverse audiences which ultimately aim to make every citizen a militant of secularism.

Question N°8 : What are the difficulties you may have encountered in your function?

JLB : The two main difficulties are the lack of knowledge of secularism, which is still too widespread, and its instrumentalization by certain political groups.

Secularism should not be charged with solving all the difficulties and problems that our country is encountering.

It should not be invoked to justify discriminatory, anti-Semitic or racist behaviour.

Question N°9 : The observatory of secularism is also an assembly where debates and exchanges take place: have you observed any dynamics likely to "move the lines"?

JLB : The members of the Observatory are very diverse: representatives of the 7 ministries who are members by right, two deputies and two senators divided between the majority and the opposition, and qualified personalities of very diverse origins and experiences.

The vast majority of our opinions are unanimous, which obviously gives them greater weight.

Question N°10 : Historically, at the beginning of the 20th century, the implementation of respect for secularism was imposed on the Catholic Church; since then, in France the presence of religions has changed with in particular the emergence of a large Muslim community, does the law still allow secularism to be respected today?

JLB: That's a very important point. Secularism has this exceptional strength to enact principles that are valid whatever the times and countries.

Question N°11 : In 2018, the President of the Republic raised the concern of many social organizations by announcing a reform of the law of December 9, 1905; it seems that the President has renounced this project: is this your opinion?

JLB: We must not touch the major principles that were laid down by the 1905 law. It represents a balance that makes it possible to reconcile freedom of conscience for all and the free exercise of religion with respect for common citizenship, what is commonly known as living together.

Question N°12 : Do you have any information that testifies to the difficulties of public services in enforcing respect for secularism? And if so, what is the nature of these difficulties?

JLB : Any citizen, as well as any association, trade union, company or public service, can inform us at any time of the difficulties encountered. We respond within 48 hours.

Question N°13 : Among the societies and associations that defend secularism are the Masonic obediences: how do you appreciate their concerns? Do you see a specificity compared to other lay associations?

JLB: We are in regular contact with the main Masonic obediences, as well as with lay associations, popular education movements, and representatives of the cults.

The specificity of the Masonic obediences lies in their history and their principles. How to forget the capital role played by Freemasons in the philosophy of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the development of the law of 1905!

Secularism is part of their DNA.

Question N°14 : The debate during the campaign for the European elections has seen the fear of secular organisations expressed that European institutions will be less demanding on the respect of secularism than the French Republic: do you share this fear? and how to respond to it?

JLB: France must always remember that for it the principle of secularism is non-negotiable.

Question N°15 : Wouldn't it be relevant to organize colloquia with organizations that have their own conceptions of secularism to confront points of view and highlight agreements and disagreements?

JLB : The role of the Observatory is not to express a particular conception of secularism. It is to tirelessly remind us of the content of the principle of secularism and the rules of law that apply to everyone.

Question N°16 : Secularism implies the freedom to believe or not to believe; do you think that today in France, the right to be an unbeliever or atheist is accessible to all without risk of reprisals or discrimination ? What advice would you give to those who consider themselves victims of the ostracism that targets non-believers?

JLB: The freedom to believe or not to believe, to be atheist, agnostic, indifferent, is in principle guaranteed today in the secular Republic.

But there are shortcomings. We shouldn't hesitate to refer the matter to the Observatory or to the courts.

Question N°17 : Citizens often forget that the respect of secularism concerns above all the functioning of the State and public authorities; would not the notion of public service impose an extension of legal obligations to extra-state activities?

JLB: Respect for secularism concerns all citizens. But it is in fact the State, the public authorities and the public services that are under an obligation of neutrality.

Question N°18 : Secularism implies tolerance, respect for others and benevolence: is this compatible with our culture of "social struggles" and how can they be implemented?

JLB : Secularism, like the Republic, presupposes first of all respect for the common rule. In the absence of a democratically voted law, it's the law of the strongest or the law of the jungle that prevails. The political struggle must not exclude respect for those who do not think like you.

Question N°19 : There seems to be some divisions among associations that want to be in the vanguard of the defence of secularism and in particular one that opposes two visions of the reality of Islamophobia: what do you think of this division and where do you stand?

JLB: Islamophobia is a word that is a trap. It can be used to challenge any criticism of Islam. That's why it's more relevant to talk about anti-Muslim acts, behaviours and words.

Question N°20 : At the end of August the representatives of the Masonic lodges of the Grand Orient of France met in Rouen; the present Grand Master Jean-Philippe Hübsch has placed the defence of secularism as the first concern of his mandate; what message would you like to convey to them?

JLB: Quite simply: "Thank you for your struggle! »

Question N°21 : Does the expertise you have acquired allow you to give an opinion on the relevance of the Observatory of Secularism as an institutional structure intended to anticipate and suggest answers to possible problems related to the reality of the respect of secularism in our country?

JLB : The relevance of the Observatory of Secularism, after six years in office, is recognised by the public authorities, by local authorities, by associations, companies and trade unions.


The Observatory of Secularism, what is it?

It was created on 25 March 2007 (see the decree) by President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin. It is a consultative commission responsible for advising and assisting the Government in respecting and promoting the principle of secularism.

Its existence was extended for 5 years from 1 November 2017 by Decree No. 2017-1466 of 12 October 2017 signed by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe.

The observatory of secularism is composed of :

In addition to its president, appointed by decree for a period of four years, the observatory is composed of:

(a) The Secretary General of the Ministry of the Interior:

- The Secretary General of the Ministry of Justice;

- (b) The Director General of Administration and Civil Service;

- (b) The Director General of Health Care Services;

- the Director of Legal Affairs in the Ministry of National Education, Higher Education and Research;

- the Director of Political, Administrative and Financial Affairs in the Ministry of Overseas France;

- the Adviser for Religious Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs;

(b) Two deputies and two senators appointed respectively by the President of the National Assembly and the President of the Senate;

(c) Ten persons designated on the basis of their competence and experience.

The ten persons designated on the basis of their competence were appointed by Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve in an order of 3 April 2017:



Mr. Abdennour BIDAR;

Mrs Armelle CARMINATI;


Mrs Nathalie APPERE;

Mr Patrick KESSEL;

Mrs Laurence LOEFFEL;

Mr. Daniel MAXIMIM;

Mrs Dounia BOUZAR.

The President Jean-Louis Bianco is assisted by a general rapporteur, currently Mr Nicolas CADENE.

See the site of the Observatoire de la Laïcité.

How to access the Observatoire de la Laïcité?


101 rue de Grenelle

75007 Paris

Telephone: 01 42 75 76 46


Contact form on the observatory site

Jean-Louis Bianco, a career as a great servant of the State

Jean-Louis Bianco (see his biography on wikipedia), born on January 12, 1943, is first of all a politician, member of the Socialist Party, elected from Digne-les-Bains and the Alpes Côte d'Azur Region. In 2012, he gives up his elective mandates. In 2013, he was appointed President of the Observatory of Secularism; although the Observatory of Secularism was created in 2007, no member was appointed under the presidency of Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, so Jean-Louis Bianco was its first President. He was reappointed to this post in 2017.

Jean-Louis Bianco made a name for himself when he was appointed Secretary General of François Mitterrand's Republic. He stayed there for 9 years.

He was then 8 years President of the National Forestry Office.

He is the author (or co-author) of :

- After Charlie: Twenty questions to debate without taboo (2015) Jean-Louis Bianco and Lylia Bouzar

- My years with Mitterrand: Behind the scenes at the Elysée Palace

Jean-Louis Bianco

- Words (and actions) for living together - 2016


- If I were president... Interviews with Sylvie Turillon-Manuel (Essays -

Documents) - 2013

Jean-Louis Bianco

- Portraits of workshops with artists in Haute-Provence - 2006

Isabelle de Rouville and Jean-Louis Bianco

- The Forest: a chance for France - 1998

Jean-Louis Bianco


The 6th Annual Report 2018-2019 was handed over by President Bianco to Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on 10 July 2019. It can be downloaded and consulted by clicking on this link.

The synthesis report is about twenty pages long with seven chapters:

- an overall observation,

- the answers that need to be provided,

- opinions and studies adopted in 2018-2019,

- the actions proposed by the Observatory on Secularism

in progress or awaiting implementation,

- a reminder of the main public policies and

actions promoting and defending the principle of secularism since the installation of the Observatory of Secularism,

- The Observatory of Secularism in figures,

- The 800 journeys of the Observatory of Secularism

carried out in France at the request of administrations,

of local authorities and actors in the field.

The overall observation, while noting that "Direct attacks on secularism (whether they emanate from individuals, associations, administrations or communities) are in reality not very widespread at the national level", emphasises that "In this context, which persists..., The fact that the debate on secularism is at the same time a source of concern and emotion, but also of confusion between secularism and other fields, including violent radicalism and terrorism, makes it more essential than ever to take stock of the state of secularism with great rigour of analysis. "

Furthermore, the report stresses that "the need to

training is still huge."

The complete report is nearly 600 pages long but deserves to be read in order to have a complete approach of the reality of the secular problematic in France today.

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