Freethinkers in France will remember fondly the Easter weekend of 2008 for many years. On the allegedly Good Friday of 21 March about 50 banquets were organised by Freethinkers. This is a tradition that goes back to a grand anti-religious banquet organised in 1868 in Paris, at the behest of Sainte-Beuve, Ernest Renan, Prince Napoleon and other republicans of the time: it was to break a religious taboo as on this day it was traditionally forbidden to eat ‘flesh meat’.
350 in Paris, many thousands in the country
To commemorate the 1868 banquet, the Libre Pensée (the Freethinkers Association) and its Institut de Recherche et d’Études sur la Libre Pensée (IRELP; Institute for Research into Freethought) organised an anti-religious banquet on the eve of the International Colloquium of IRELP «1848 -2008: 160 years of the Libre Pensée» at Lycée Henri IV. Nearly 350 participants were present: amongst them a descendant of Prince Napoleon who participated in the first banquet as well as the daughter of Jean Cotereau who was a close collaborator of André Lorulot and one of the great presidents of the Libre Pensée.
Of course, there can be no banquet without speeches. While Jean-Marc Schiappa and Louis Couturier spoke on behalf of IRELP and placed the banquet in a historical perspective, the bursar of Lycée Henri IV spoke of the activities of his establishment – with its magnificent cloister, it is one of the most reputed institutions of the capital. A message from Jean-Claude Pecker of the College de France was read. Babu Gogineni from the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) spoke about the necessity of the worldwide battle for Freethought, Then, Marc Blondel, President of the French Freethinkers Association concluded with a forceful defense of Laicité.
Elsewhere in the country, nearly 50 more banquets were organised in the same republican and secular spirit that animated the Parisian Freethinkers. In all, the banquets organised by the Libre Pensée around the so-called good Friday brought together 3000 persons. In Ariège, after a lecture by Jacques Lafouge which attracted 200 persons, a hundred stayed back to join the festivities for laicité. 50 in Ardèche, 49 in Charente-Maritime, some 30 in Dijon, 60 in Bordeaux, 90 in Hérault with the group Victor Hugo, 60 in the Federation of Hérault, 22 at Rennes, some 50 in the 2 banquets in Loire, 30 at Laval, 35 in the High Pyrénées, 30 at Nancy and at Metz, 40 in the two banquets of Puy-de-Dôme, 40 in the Tarn, 50 in the Vaucluse, 30 in the Maine-et-Loire, 60 in the 3 banquets in Sarthe and so on.
200 at the Panthéon
At the end of the first day of the Colloquium organised at the Salle Monnerville at the French Senate, thanks to our precious collaboration with the Senator Gérard Delfau, over 200 participants and Freethinkers from the capital region met in the heart of the great monument, the Panthéon. They met in front of the Statue de la Convention with the inscription «Live Free, or Die» to honour the Freethinkers whose mortal remains are buried in the Pantheon.
Marc Blondel paid his tributes, and spoke of Rousseau, Voltaire, Condorcet, Marcellin Berthelot, Léon Gambetta, Victor Hugo, Jean Jaurès, Victor Schoelcher, Émile Zola – and also of Jean Zay whose ashes the Libre Pensée has been actively demanding be shifted to the Panthéon. Jean Zay’s grand-son stood next to the president of the Libre Pensée. At the end of the solemn ceremony, the Freethinkers laid a wreath in honour of the Freethinkers who have been buried in the Pantheon.
At the Paris Town Hall
On Friday 21 March at 17.00 hrs the Paris Mayor’s office received officially the Scientific Board of the Colloquium of IRELP. In one of the magnificently decorated halls reputed treasures of the Republic, Madame Anne Hidalgo, re-elected just that morning as the First deputy Mayor of Paris, received a delegation of the Libre Pensée led by Marc Blondel and Jean-Marc Schiappa, President of IRELP, accompanied by representatives of the French, Italian and Burundi Libre Pensée movements, along with Babu Gogineni, representing the IHEU, et professeur Michel Vovelle.
Madame Anne Hidalgo, with great charm and courtesy underlined the importance of the role of the Libre Pensée in the fight for secularisation. She paid tributes to the firm and determined action of the French Freethinkers who are a valuable asset for the French Republic. While thanking her, Marc Blondel expressed the wish that other elected representatives may also be able to say what Mme. Hidalgo articulated in her speech.
And Finally the IRELP Colloquium
The first day’s events were held at the Senate where an unusual difficulty arose – we had to turn away many people because the room could not accommodate all! So the Freethinkers made voluntary arrangements so that each person could attend at least one session. The second and the third days the Colloquium moved to the magnificent halls of the Lycée Henry IV. There, on an average, some 180 persons attended, and followed with great interest the 4 sessions.
15 countries were represented: France, Poland, India, Belgium, Spain, USA, Italy, England, Germany, Russia, Burundi, Netherlands, Slovakia etc. Sonja Eggerickx, President of IHEU co-presided a session and also spoke in her intervention about the role of IHEU and the problems of laïcité in Belgium.
Well known personalities like Michel Vovelle, Henri Péna-Ruiz, Jean-Paul Scot, Jean-Jacques Marie and Jean-Michel Quillardert, Grand Master of the Gand Orient de France Free masons, debated with a large number of academics, philosophers, historians, sociologues and the Freethinkers, all of them engaged in what the famous Anatole France, an Honorary President of the Libre Pensee, called the ‘mêlée sociale’.
But this was no ecumenical debate. Different positions, and even contradictory points of view were aired, but with the full respect for the terms of a free debate, of free examination, and in the light of each one’s freethinking. From all the different points of view, from all the opinions expressed and those debated, each of the participants could gather their nectar, in the great tradition of the Libre Pensée, which is a tradition of freethinking.
Christian Eyschen, Secretary General of the Libre Pensée, summarised the Colloquium at the end: «Something is happening on the international plane. Let me give two examples: under the aegis of the IHEU we will organise a grand meeting in Paris on 14 September 2008, against the public financing of the Pope’s visit, in support of secularism in Europe, and for the Separation of Religions and the State. Already a large number of organisations in France, in Europe and on all continents are showing their interest, indicating the progress we have been making.
In a few weeks, in relation with the IHEU’s World Congress in Washington-DC, there will be a meeting of the International Liaison Committee of Atheists and Freethinkers which we founded in 2005 in connection with the IHEU’s World Congress and with IHEU’s active cooperation. It is not for nothing, and definitely not just on a symbolic level, that the invitation letter to this international letter is signed by the French Fretehinkers, by the National Secular Society of the UK and by the American Atheists of the US. A new page of history is opening for the construction of a real International of Freethinkers.
Often, in the tumultuous history of the Libre Pensée, the straight line not always the shortest route. We have often seen the reunification at an international level even before the national groups came together. But the one did not happen without the other following.
In Paris today, in Washington DC tomorrow, and in 2011 in the bastion of freethought: Oslo in Norway. We say with the same enthusiasm and the same will shown by those who founded the first International «Onwards with the International Association of the Freethinkers».