No Church or Priest Necessary for France's Civil Baptisms

December 13, 2016

No Church or Priest Necessary for France's Civil Baptisms

By Andrew Parrish

Dec. 12, 2016

(C. Doody / BBC) – No church, priest, Bible, or water, presided over only by “Marianne,” the female symbol of the French Republic: this is the way civil baptisms are performed in France, in a rite which dates back more than 200 years and traces its origin to the humanistic Revolution. Its practice is now on the rise, seen as a way to affirm the humanist values of the French Republic at a time when they are perceived to be under threat.

Rachid and Emmanuelle Bensaci are two parents who decided to baptize their daughter, Tessa, in the Republican rite. The solemn ceremony took place on the 9th of October, in the town hall of Cormot-le-Grand, near Dijon in Central France. The mayor, Marc Denizot, wearing the tricolor band of the French Republic, presided over the ceremony. Tessa was baptized and sponsored by Julie and Valerie, the godmothers and friends of the parents. This symbolized the reception of the one-month-old into the republican community of France. The civil baptism or sponsorship is on the rise in many of the mayorships of the country.

“For us, civil or republican baptism corresponds to our convictions and commitments as French citizens and citizens of the world,” Rachid told BBC World. “We believe in the universal values of the French Republic in relation to religion; I and my wife are personally agnostic. Baptism fits our humanistic and republican values. . . It’s very official, but has no legal character. It is for love, brotherhood and friendship that we entrust our child to our friends,” he said.

His wife Emmanuelle added, “For me it is a way to have the advantages of religious patronage, that is, that a child should be the protégé of people other than his parents, but in a secular way. It is important that our child should have protectors who are not her parents.”
The rite with which such lay baptisms are celebrated does not have an obligatory norm. In most cases, the mayor officiates, and in most cases it is attended by relatives and close friends of the child’s parents. So it was for Tessa Bensaci.

“You can call it a kind of party,” says Rachid. “The mayor prepares a room where - as, for example, in weddings – you must have the image of Marianne, the symbol of the republic. They deliver some documents to sign, even if they have no legal value.”

“The mayor explained why we were there and then gave the floor to the godfathers or godmothers, who give a speech with much love and friendship, profound sentiments about how they will accompany our son: it is a moral commitment. Then, the mayor says a few words and at the end, with the consent of the parents, he declares the godparents and they sign the documents,” he added.

The origin of this rite – whose formula has been evolving – must be sought in the aftermath of the French Revolution of the late 18th century. According to the most widespread version of the story, the National Assembly, headed by Robespierre, adopted a law instituting the practice of civil patronage on June 8th, 1794. By the same account, it was Robespierre himself who celebrated the first baptisms of this type in Paris.

“There has not always been the same story about this baptism. The terminology and the story of its origin vary . . . and, as far as I know, it does not exist in other countries,” says the ethnologist Rachel Guidoni, who notes the almost mythical character of the origin story of civil baptism.

“The original significance is that, after the French Revolution, they wanted to reintroduce rites, especially rites of initiation, but without the religious content they had had previously. They wanted to create secular, republican rites – and with reference to rites of initiation, in the Catholic tradition, that is baptism,” she adds in conversation with BBC World.
In addition to this character as “rite of passage”, the civil baptism is also used as a tool by groups which support undocumented migrants, to make the living conditions of such people visible.

“It is a way of pressuring the prefect into regularizing the situation of the person being sponsored,” suggests Emmanuelle. “Papers are not automatically granted, but [sponsorship] can have an impact when their dossier is reviewed, though it does not always happen,” Rachid adds.

More than 200 years after French revolutionary fervor has faded, and virtually forgotten for decades, the civil baptism is gaining adherents once more. At the moment, a draft law is under consideration that will introduce formalization of the civil rite. There is no official count of how many republican baptisms are performed annually in France, but a recent article published by the newspaper Le Monde provides some clues. In Lyons, 181 ceremonies were held in 2015. In Nantes, there were 135, an increase of 15% from 2014. In Paris, where 13 of 20 district councils offer this service, there were 325 civil baptisms.

For Rachid, republican baptism is an act vindicating equality in the fact of the identity conflicts which, in his view, are alive in France.

“For us this is a possible response to cultural, religious or other discrimination. In my case, I am of Maghreb origin, of the Arab culture, a Muslim and a Berber. My wife is from a Christian culture. We have decided that our son should have the lay values of the republic, and that is a complete response to the current problem,” he said. “The republican baptism was born in the French Revolution to confirm that, beyond the Church, and within the framework of the separation of Church and State, the republic can have moral values; that morality is not the unique heritage of religion.”

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By Andrew Parrish

Andrew Parrish is a 2015 graduate of the Catholic University of Lublin in Poland. He holds a BA in Philosophy.

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