Far-right presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen attacked her main rival Francois Fillon on Tuesday over the link he has made between his political stance and his Christian beliefs, exposing a thorny issue facing their campaigns.
In an interview with France 2 Television ahead of the presidential election in April, the National Front (FN) leader evoked the French principle of secularism in public life.
Known as ‘laïcité’, the principle aims to separate religion from state affairs and has spawned a culture where civil servants cannot wear headscarves at work and children at state schools do not learn about religion.
Modern references to it are made in the context of tensions with the country’s Muslim community, but a mistrust of religion in government dates from the 18th century when revolutionaries identified Catholic Church leaders with the royalty they overthrew. A law that enshrines it goes back to 1905, long before large-scale immigration by people of other religions.