It was a gesture meant to mark the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah – it gave rise to an incendiary controversy. The lighting of a candle at the Élysée Palace by the Chief Rabbi of France on Thursday, December 7, in the presence of Emmanuel Macron, has sparked a torrent of criticism of the French president.

Accused of derogating from the principle of secularism on the separation of church and state, Emmanuel Macron said on Friday that he did not regret the ceremony "at all", assuring that it had taken place "in a spirit that is that of the Republic and concord", in the presence of "all the other religions that were invited". However, this argument is difficult to convince.

Neutrality of the State

"Since 1905, the fundamental principle of secularism has been the separation of church and state. That's why there is such an outcry, quite unanimous, around the lighting of this candle within the Élysée Palace itself," analyses Gwénaële Calvès, professor of public law, University of Cergy-Pontoise, author of "La laïcité" published by La Découverte (2022).

The law of 9 December 1905 on the separation of Church and State stipulates that "the Republic shall ensure freedom of conscience". This includes the freedom to manifest one's beliefs "within the limits of respect for public order," according to the government's website.

The first two articles respectively state that "France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic" and that it "does not recognize, pay or subsidize any religion".

Secularism therefore implies the neutrality of the state and public officials (not users). It imposes the equality of all before the law, the administration and public services, without distinction of religion.

For the Chief Rabbi of France Haim Korsia, who lit the candle, the moment was "very respectful of secularism" because "it is not the president who lit the candle". Moreover, the Élysée Palace is "not a sanctuarised place, like the school", he said on BFMTV.

Also present at the Elysee Palace on Thursday, the president of the Protestant Federation of France, Christian Krieger, believes for his part that "it was not a religious ceremony". Of course, "there is a gesture from Judaism", but it happened during "a private ceremony" to award an award, he told AFP, deploring "a controversy that is a little overplayed".

But for Gwénaële Calvès, there is no doubt that there has indeed been "an attack on the constitutional principle of separation of church and state".

"In a public building, there can be no religious demonstration," she said. These can take place "in temples, churches, synagogues or even in the street, through processions or the lighting of Hanukkah candles, as happens in several municipalities. But not in a town hall, in the National Assembly, or in the Élysée."

The same tone was taken by the Vigie de la laïcité, an organization that defends an open vision of secularism: "If a President of the Republic can participate in a religious ceremony, but without showing any adherence to the religion," the public building that is the Élysée "cannot be intended for a religious ceremony," it says.

A clumsy catch-up after the march against anti-Semitism?

The celebration took place as the head of state received the annual Lord Jakobovits Award from the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) on Thursday evening, which recognises the fight against anti-Semitism and the safeguarding of religious freedoms.

The event had not been announced by the Élysée, but videos, widely viewed on social networks, ignited the controversy.

Faced with the controversy, the President of the Republic asked for "common sense and benevolence", pleading to "give confidence" to "our compatriots of the Jewish faith", in a context of rising anti-Semitism in France, linked to the war between Israel and Hamas.

The ceremony took place a few weeks after the 105,000-strong march against anti-Semitism in Paris on Nov. 12, in which the president chose not to participate. Accused by some of doing the wrong thing to the Jewish community, he claimed an "unambiguous position" against anti-Semitism and said his "role was not to hold a march" but to work to "preserve the unity of the country."

In this context, some observers see the lighting of the candle at the Élysée Palace as a clumsy attempt to catch up with this community, or even a political mistake.

"A president of the Republic must be present at a large cross-party rally against the prevailing anti-Semitism, but must not celebrate the Hanukkah celebrations at the Élysée," Laurent Burgoa, a senator for Les Républicains du Gard, said on X, formerly on Twitter.

A President of the Republic must be present at a large cross-party rally against the prevailing anti-Semitism but must not celebrate the Hanukkah holidays at the Elysée Palace#laïcité@EmmanuelMacron

— Burgoa Laurent (@BurgoaLaurent) December 8, 2023

The risk of double standards

After Thursday's ceremony, left-wing officials lashed out at a president who they said "doesn't understand secularism." Some also believe that the ceremony risks fuelling a sense of "double standards" in relation to the Muslim community. In the context of rising tensions linked to the war between Israel and Hamas, this is "real nitroglycerin", said Senator Laurence Rossignol (PS).

By allowing this gesture at the Élysée, has Emmanuel Macron opened Pandora's box? Could other religious representatives, for the sake of equal treatment between religions, claim the right to organize religious events within institutions?

"It's a bit early to tell. But as we are a few days away from Christmas, the President of the Republic could decide to set up a nativity scene at the Élysée Palace and bring in a priest to bless it. It's the same logic," says Gwénaële Calvès. "We are in a spiral that I hope will be interrupted soon," she concluded.

In September, Emmanuel Macron had already provoked a controversy over secularism by attending Pope Francis' Mass in Marseille.

For Iannis Roder, director of the Education Observatory at the Jean Jaurès Foundation, the sprain is now "more obvious" because "the pope can be seen as a foreign head of state" but, with the candle, "we are really dealing with a purely religious question."

On X, historian Éric Anceau recalls that General de Gaulle had a chapel installed at the Élysée, but that it was intended for "strictly private use".

Since the end of the 19th century, "never before has a President of the Republic dared to celebrate a religious ceremony at the Élysée Palace," he said.

Try as you might, you won't find... Since the victory of the Republicans in 1879, never before had a President of the Republic dared to celebrate a religious ceremony at the Élysée Palace.
How, then, can we refuse Christianity and Islam? What has just been granted...

— Eric Anceau (@Eric_Anceau) December 7, 2023

With AFP

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