Brexit, 1905?

Guest post by Robert D. Priest (Royal Holloway, University of London)

At first sight, few events seem less similar than Britain’s announcement of its departure from the European Union in March 2017 and the French state’s separation from the Catholic Church in December 1905. For a start, separation was a movement of the radical left while Brexit is a pet project of the populist right. But in each case a state set out to separate itself legally from a powerful transnational organisation that commanded a degree of identification from many of its members: the Catholic Church and the European Union. And when your mind wanders in the library of a Friday afternoon, the similarities suddenly seem quite remarkable…

Bendy Bananas and Troublesome Priests

Neither of these relationships had commanded easy consensus for a long time. Ever since the Reformation, the French government’s link to the Catholic Church had been a source of tension and debate. During the French Revolution’s radical ‘dechristianisation’ in the 1790s, the government disembowelled not only church property but also a fair few priests. As recently as 1871, during the Paris Commune, the city’s bishop had been dispatched by a summary execution.

Just as the British tabloid press never really warmed to the European institutions and kept its readers fed on a diet of outrageous stores – the famous bendy bananas – so a faction of free-thinkers and secularists in France had never accepted the Concordat that Napoleon struck with the Pope in 1801 and vibrant anticlerical caricature broke out whenever censors allowed it. But much like Euroscepticism, separation sat far from the top of the political agenda, and mostly remained a minority position for committed activists.

Le_Rire_-_Séparation_de_l'Eglise_et_de_l'EtatLaïcité: Hard or Soft?

What brought about separation in the end was a sequence of events that unexpectedly landed advocates in the ascendant in the 1902 French elections. We recall how David Cameron found himself having to appease Tory Eurosceptics after the 2015 General Election, which most commentators and probably Cameron himself thought would result in another Lib Dem coalition. Likewise, historian Maurice Larkin argued that the Bloc’s leader Émile Combes was not himself an enthusiast for rapid separation, and only raised it ‘to bully Rome’ and appease the left of his Radical Party.

Once separation hit the legislative agenda in 1903, there were plenty of unresolved questions to deal with. What would happen to church property? What would be the ongoing relationship between church and state? How would the transition be managed? France in a sense witnessed a struggle between Hard and Soft Laïcité that is reminiscent of our Hard and Soft Brexit.

For what I’ll call Hard Laïcité, talk of transitional arrangements was for cowards. There were great prizes to be had, after all, if the state could get the church budget for itself – but they didn’t think to put the figure on the side of buses.

By contrast, Soft Laïcité feared leaving without a plan. As the moderate Jules Simon wrote as early as 1883: ‘In my opinion the surest means of making separation impossible forever would be to do it without being prepared; the following day, everybody would demand a new Concordat.’ Separation needed to be a work of compromise that established a sustainable future relationship between Paris and Rome.

In the end the failings of Hard Laïcité nearly derailed the whole project: Combes’ government was brought down in 1905 when it transpired they had been spying on Catholic civil servants and blocking their promotions. It was left to the dextrous socialist Aristide Briand to negotiate what amounted to a Soft Laïcité – largely based on the ideas of the moderate Protestant Francis de Pressensé. Hard-line Radicals and Radical-Socialists actually refused to vote for many of the law’s articles, so Briand ended up relying on the opposition benches.

The most important compromise was that while all church property passed into the hands of the French state, churches and synagogues would remain available to religious institutions. Notably, the government would continue to pay for the upkeep of these buildings – just as the UK may well end up paying to keep certain benefits of the Single Market.

After the Divorce

In a quip that transfers easily to some of today’s Brexiteers, France’s future prime minister Georges Clemenceau remarked: ‘The dominant feeling of the Republicans in power was fear of the ideas that had brought them there.’

When we look back on the Separation that passed into law on 5 December 1905 it is easy to imagine it was the natural culmination of a process that extended back to the French Revolution, or at least to the triumph of Republicanism in the 1880s. In reality the process was messy, the timing was arbitrary and the negotiations were complex.

One imagines the same will one day be thought of Brexit: the UK, always the awkward child of the European project abroad and bombarded by a Eurosceptic media at home, simply fulfilled its historical destiny and cut ties. Let’s be cautious about accepting that narrative too easily.

Durable as the 1905 law has been, what is remarkable is that it did not so much end the question of what ‘laïcité’ means in practice as begin it. Likewise, one imagines we will still be debating the meaning of ‘Brexit’ decades after the ink has dried on the divorce settlement.

One final thought… Many advocates of the separation expected their work would be frustrated by public disorder and mass opposition from devout Catholics. There was some, but much less than they expected, a fact which encouraged them. Something for Remoaners to muse on?

Further Reading

Great online summary: Virtual Museum of Protestantism, ‘The Law of 1905’ [online]

Jean Baubérot, La Laïcité expliquée à Monsieur Sarkozy… et à ceux qui écrivent ses discours (2008)

Chrisophe Bellon, ‘Aristide Briand et la séparation des Églises et de l’État : Du travail en commission au vote de la loi (1903-1905)’, Vingtième siècle 87 (2005) [online]

Maurice Larkin, Church and State after the Dreyfus Affair: The Separation Issue in France (1973)


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