In February 2018, french president Emmanuel Macron said :

"I want to lay the foundations for the whole organization of Islam in France"

He plans to do this to diminish the number of young Muslims radicalizing themselves, to diminish the Arabic countries influence over french practicing Muslims (and maybe to gain some points in opinion polls I guess).

[EDIT 1] --

Islam is a sensitive subject in France since a few years. ISIS has perpetrated about 17 attacks on French soil since January 2015 and a lot of laws, reforms and actions were taken by the previous government (François Hollande - left-wing) and the current one (Emmanuel Macron - middle).

Before 2018, the different laws were mostly about police and intelligence services freedom of action as well as proclaiming France in a "state of emergency" to have a more secure state. What Macron is planning to do is directly about Islam.

As always, he isn't really talkative about what he precisely plans to do but he already have met some influential Islamic intellectuals, academics, philosophers or Imams. If the government is involved in the way the religion is structured, we can expect new laws (apart from that, I don't know how it can be done, if you have any idea please enlighten me !)


I do not want to ask if this kind of thing would be useful or simply a good thing to do, but rather of its legality.

As stated in the 1905 law on the Separation of the Churches and the State :

The Republic does not recognize, pay, or subsidize any religious sect. (Article 2)

This law also state that the state have an obligation of neutrality towards its citizen

So, my question is :

can the French government legally reform something it doesn't recognize ?

(if I take in consideration the comment made by phoog : How can the French government act (in any way) on a particular religion (and so, the people practicing it) while it has an obligation of neutrality towards its citizen ?)

  • 1
    It would help if you would add some context to the statement by Macron. Not regarding what his goals are, but rather regarding the methods he wants to use to do that.
    – Philipp
    Mar 30, 2018 at 11:42
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    It may be a good idea to note that "recognize" has many senses, as does reconnaître in French. In particular, the law does not state that the republic denies the existence of all religious sects.
    – phoog
    Mar 30, 2018 at 11:53
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    @user4012 not necessarily. The question is a good one; I just wanted to discourage people from posting answers that say essentially "no, it's not legal because the law says that the republic may not take into account the fact that religions exist."
    – phoog
    Mar 30, 2018 at 15:36
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    @RedGrittyBrick I think that when you get into the guts of the question it is really as much about politics as it is about law. (I also don't think French.SE would be more appropriate.) Ultimately, notwithstanding the quote, what France could do is enact facially neutral laws that favor on thing over another disproportionately in Islam (as it has with head scarves). The French free exercise right is weaker than in the U.S.
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 30, 2018 at 17:18
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    It should be noted that, in France, the Ministre de l'Interieur (roughly, the Secretary for Homeland Security) is also in charge of the relation with religions. So the French Republic is not completely blind to religions.
    – Taladris
    Mar 31, 2018 at 0:39

3 Answers 3


I'm aware that this is an old question but there's a lot of confusion both in the question and in the accepted answer:

Can Macron legally reform Islam in France?

Obviously not, a religion is not something defined by a government.

In the quote cited by OP, Macron said: [emphasis mine]

"I want to lay the foundations for the whole organization of Islam in France"

It's a quite different thing to reform a religion and to reform how it's organized, i.e. the aspects of religion which interact with the rest of the society: how Islamic schools are evaluated, how religious organizations receive money, whether these donations are tax-exempt or not (they are), how prison imams are selected, the process for building new mosques, etc. All these aspects and others have nothing to do with what people believe, but are important for the way people practice their religion in a society.

The 1905 law on the Separation of the Churches and the State means that the state is separated from any religion (the catholic Church was clearly the main issue at the time). It indeed implies an obligation of neutrality, that's what "The Republic does not recognize" means: the state doesn't have any official religion (precision for the sake of clarity: it doesn't mean that the state pretends that religions don't exist).

It is important to mention that various past French governments have always maintained relations with the main religious organizations through their representatives. A particular difficulty with Islam was that there is no established hierarchy (as opposed to the Catholic Church for instance), this is why Sarkozy created a specific organization in 2003: for all means and purposes, the Conseil français du culte musulman is considered by the government as the main representative of Islam. These religious organizations are (presumably) consulted for the matters such as the ones mentioned above.

While I'm not aware of any details about what Macron wants to do, it's likely that the government wants to be able to monitor (if not control) certain things such as which kind of Islam is being taught in Islamic schools. The question of the origin of the funding for Islamic institutions (schools, mosques) is also a sensitive one.


Actually, not paying those who conduct religious service is not the same thing as no state money whatsoever going to religious organizations.

Since 1959, the French government pays the salaries of teachers in private schools, most of which are religious, and gives subsidies directly to those schools.

So unless something has changed in that respect, the state does have leverage in that area.


Churches, temples and synagogues built in France before 1905 are the property of the state. National and municipal governments maintain these buildings, which are used free-of-charge by the clergy.

Surely getting all-expenses-paid buildings free of rent is nice too. There's probably not many of those buildings that are Muslim though.

Other mechanisms of leverage:

The law on “dangerous cults” simply grants the government the right, under judicial review, to dissolve such associations if they violate French law. The French government also retains the right to review decisions granting a special tax status to religious organizations under the 1905 Law of Separation if worship is not their “exclusive activity.”

And to be more precise Marcon even intended to amend the 1905 law:

Macron began a consultative process toward this end, stressing the need to set up an interlocutor for French Muslims (similar to those of other religious groups), create a framework for financing places of worship and collecting donations, and a system to vet and train imams working in France. Macron’s initiative sought to amend of the Law of 1905 on the Separation of the Church and the State (Law of 1905) with the goals of intrusively reforming religious organizations and ending foreign funding pouring into Muslim communities, which Macron felt prevented “French Islam from entering into modernity.”

[Macron] went a problematic step further, warning that he would make no concessions to a “political Islam…which wants to secede from our Republic” and appearing to say that he would cut off foreign funding for Islam in France.

Historically, France had accepted foreign-paid imams for the better part of the 20th century as well as other forms of forging funding:

Algeria, and Turkey considered themselves to be legitimate interlocutors with the French state on issues of religion. They sent paid imams to France, funded prayer rooms, and organized national federations to serve as conduits for their influence. [...] France understood, perhaps a little too late, that delegating the management of Islam to foreign powers was no longer sufficient and perhaps even creating new problems. [...]

During the second phase (1990-2000), the state exerted its control over French Islam through a representative council. [...] But that was not an easy task: Algeria, for example, was reluctant to give up its role as a caretaker of the Great Mosque of Paris. Then Interior Ministers Pierre Joxe and Charles Pasqua tried to build an Islam of France based on the supposed influence of the Great Mosque of Paris throughout France. For example, in 1994 Pasqua granted the Great Mosque of Paris monopoly authority over the certification of halal meat.

So there you have a concrete example how the French state tried to exercise influence despite the separation.

However, the creation of a French representative body of Islam has not ended the influence of those countries, partly because of the ineffectiveness of the CFCM, and with Algeria and Morocco fighting a proxy war for the allegiance of French Muslims. [...]

One of the few goals achieved in these efforts concerns the organization of chaplaincies. While Muslim chaplains are relatively well-organized in the army, they remain too weak in prisons and in hospitals and practically nonexistent in public education. Furthermore, foreign imams remain in France in high numbers. According to the ministry of interior, 151 imams have been sent by Turkey (which has undertaken a spate of religious outreach to Muslims across Europe over the past decade), 120 by Algeria, and 30 by Morocco. The official dialogue with these countries has made it possible to establish a rule requiring imams sent to France to follow civic and administrative training provided in French. The aim is to remind imams and chaplains of the rules they must follow, and to familiarize them with the history of laïcité, or France’s distinct conception of secularism.

For example, passing a law declaring some organizations or even persons to be "foreign agents" (in the style of Russian or US laws) could probably be used to further hinder the activities of foreign imams etc., although it's unclear what exact measures Macron has in mind for now, but it seems rather clear whom he has in mind (at least had in mind in late 2018):

French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told reporters last week that although they have not finalized reform plans, the training of Islamic clerics and their funding “are at the heart of the manner in which we are rethinking the relationship between the Republic and Islam.”

“Why is the question of funding of Islam central for us? Because today, we know that the funding comes from foreign countries, and it is not desirable to have a religion in France funded by foreign countries who in fact will be defending their interests. And so, it’s a political Islam,” he said.

Interestingly, Germany seems to think it has a similar problem. More recently Austria has expelled some Turkey-trained imams.

  • Not to mention, that unless thing have changed, priests in Alsace receive stipends from the state. And, in the 80s and 90s, a lot of mosques were being built with Saudi funds. Which probably has a lot to do with radicalization issues in France. At the end of the day, the churches in France represent centuries of not always voluntary tithes being paid by people living there, so claiming that the state cannot in any way support the needs of a large congregation of believers is somewhat disingenuous. Getting Saudi, i.e. Wahhabi, funds for mosques ranks as one of the stupider ideas ever. Jan 16, 2020 at 22:24
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica: yes the 1905 law apparently doesn't apply in Alsace. multiple-secularities.de/bulletin/imam-training-in-europe Jan 16, 2020 at 22:46

Formally yes, practically no.

Although religious practice is nominally free in France, with a completely secular state that does not interfere in religious beliefs, there are mechanisms that could be used against "dangerous" cults which threaten rule of law, especially if said cults endanger human life. Therefore, theoretically, the French state could act against the Islamic community if it does not disavow parts of Islamic doctrine that call for violence and killing of unbelievers.

But in practice, non-Islamic government could never be authority in Islam, and even Islamic scholars could not simply erase over hundred verses in Quran that call for violence. In fact they could not erase single one. What would probably happen would be employment of Taqiya-lying to unbelievers, where official leaders of Muslim community in France would publicly claim lots of thing like aforementioned verses in Quran are no longer valid, how Islam is religion of peace etc...but inside the Islamic community violent parts of the Quran and Islam in general would still stand because none has right to change ostensibly words of Allah given to Prophet Muhammad.

Therefore, it is absolutely clear that any reform of Islam started by the secular French state would inevitably fail.

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    While there is something to this answer, I think it both deeply underestimates more subtle tools that the French secular state could apply to create incentives for French Muslims to decide internally to change in various respects, and deeply overestimates the extent to which French Muslims are a cohesive group with a central organization that can coordinate collective action. Institutionally, Sunni Islam, which is the branch of Islam to which most French Muslims belong, is very decentralized. It doesn't really have close analogs to a Catholic Pope or even to Catholic Bishops.
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 2, 2018 at 2:56
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    I think you underestimate the fact that mainstream religion has always ignored the parts of religion that did not fit into the society of the time. Even pious Christians seldom have embraced the "turn the other cheek" idea, nor did they typically kill homosexual men on the spot as is called for by the Bible.
    – Thern
    Apr 3, 2018 at 9:10
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    @Thern You fall into typical leftist trap of equating Christianity and Islam, and then drawing wrong conclusions. Christianity was always religion, with very vague guidance for earthly behavior. Islam on the other hand is more of political ideology that use religious parts. Christianity is not bound by rules set by Moses (Judaism) because "law is fulfilled" . Islam is bound Quran, you could either accept it or become apostate and risk your life.
    – rs.29
    Apr 4, 2018 at 6:23
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    @rs.29 While no one has the authority to change the Quaran, differences in emphasis and interpretation are already widespread among the major schools of interpretation within Islam. What it means to be a Muslim in day to day life is very different in Saudi Arabia from Indonesia to Turkey to Iran to Nigeria to London to Detroit, and day to day life as a Muslim in Paris is likewise already very different from Muslims in many other places. None of these global Muslims are less Muslim or apostates for having their own practices. Parisian Islam could shift somewhat too; it's not entirely static.
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 4, 2018 at 18:38
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    @rs.29 Christians often take Bible allegorically. This is true for the majority of the European Christians (Catholic/Orthodox/Anglican) but certainly not the case in US "Bible belt" (it has that name for a reason). Also in South America, Brazil particularly, and South Korea and Africa the alarming growth of fundamentalist, hence Bible literalist, protestant sects flies in the face of your eurocentric statement.
    – user16282
    Apr 7, 2018 at 1:46

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