Today is the hundredth anniversary of a law that explains a lot of the strange things about France: the Loi de 1905 sur la Laïcité (law on the separation of church and state). The relations between France, the "eldest daughter of the Church," and the Catholic Church have been tense since before the Revolution. The Church was seen by many of the revolutionaries as another kind of tyrannical ancien régime. The Church in turn views the secularism of the government as attacking not only itself as an institution but also the cultural identity of the nation. The law was violently fought by the Church, but in the end it brought some peace to the subject and is considered a given in France today.
It says that all churches and other religious buildings belong to the government, which maintains them and lets religions use them for free as long as they are used for religious purposes. Of course, when the Law of 1905 was passed, there was not a single mosque in France. Now Islam, in spite of its non-European roots, is the second religion in the country. This law has now forced some French mayors to finance the construction of mosques.
Another quirk of the French church-and-state "separation" is that religious schools, and any private schools, are subsidized, as long as they agree to follow the standard French curriculum. This is called being "under contract," and it makes the schools quite cheap compared to the "out of contract" schools. About 13% of elementary schools are private, but 40% of lycées.
Every country in Europe deals with religion in its own way. In Germany, they ask you on your tax form what your religion is. When D first moved there, he thought it was an arbitrary question and none of the government's business. For a joke, he scribbled in "Hindu." To his dismay, he found out that he was now a fairly large contributor to the Hindu church of Germany! These church tax payments have another real-life result. If you don't pay, you often can't get married in a church, have your child christened, or have a Christian burial. Most people are Christian enough in their major life ceremonies that they pay up-- the default choice. You have to sign a declaration to leave the church. In Bavaria, which is aggressively Christian, to the point of having crosses in every public school classroom (they are removed only if a parent formally objects), there is even a school holiday called Buss- und Bettag (Repent and Pray Day). It's in November. Until 1995 it was a national holiday.
It is strange to us Americans that in Europe, religion is something the government must somehow pay for. Yet that doesn't seem to keep it going. There is no more secular society on earth. An Italian friend once told me that after two world wars fought on European soil, most people could not believe in Providence any more.
...Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in....
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
--From "Dover Beach" (1867) by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)