French Masonry Today
Michael L. Segall, MPS
Very little is known outside France, particularly in the English-speaking Masonic world, about French Masonry. Most English-language Masonic encyclopedias seem to believe that it disappeared somewhere around 1877, after the Convent of Lausanne. Some people think that it is overwhelmed by problems, and divided into perpetually warring factions, since the beginning of the 20th century. It might be useful for our readers to have a description of French Masonry as viewed by a contemporary, experienced French Mason. Most French Masons do not think that there are any Masonic problems in their country, home of the second oldest Masonry in the world, if we speak in terms of Grand Lodge Masonry, possibly of the oldest in terms of Free Operative Lodge Masonry.
One of the first questions often raised by people who consult a Masonic encyclopedia is about the regularity of Masonry in France. The French, and the majority of continental Masons, have their own definition of regularity, very similar to the one used by English-speaking Masonry and just as ancient.
To be regular, a Masonic body must at least:
- Have male membership only and receive no women visitors in Lodge
- Work a regular, traditional ritual, to the Glory of the Grand Architect of the Universe
- Display in the center of the Lodge the Bible, the Square and the Compass
- Be founded by at least three regular Lodges coming from a regular Grand Lodge
- Not be affiliated with any political party
- Not be affiliated with any specific religion or Church.
French Masonry is very different from its Anglo-American counterpart. In a welfare state with relatively heavy taxes, which supports all hospitals, aged homes and other charitable activities, involvement with charities is unnecessary beyond what every Brother does on his own. The main activity of French Masonry is intellectual: historical, symbolic, moral, spiritual and philosophical. Most members are required to prepare once a year an original lecture on this type of subject. Most lectures are presented in Lodge, time permitting, and followed by a discussion where questions are asked, additional information brought, and different interpretations of the subject proposed. Such a lecture is required for promotion to each successive degree. True, there are many Masonic bodies in France, but there are just as many in the United States or the United Kingdom. Some of these bodies are regular, some are irregular. Some are recognized by US Masonry, some by UK Masonry, some by both and some by none. The same is true of Europe in general. In addition, some of the recognized bodies are definitely irregular, some of the unrecognized bodies actually regular. The French pay very little attention to being recognized or not by a foreign Masonic body, and mostly think of their diversity as of an advantage: a man—or a woman—have the right to join the type and variety of Masonic body of their choice, in accordance with their philosophical, spiritual or even political views, and within the rules of admittance of that body. Therefore the French consider that the more bodies, the better.
There are today about 80,000 masons of all kinds in France, 0.14% of the population. This is far less, percentage-wise, than in the United States or the United Kingdom, but France has nevertheless the greatest number of Masons of any continental European country. The reason behind the smaller number of members lies in the much stricter conditions of admission. The main French Masonic bodies are, by decreasing size:
a) The Grand Orient (or Grand East) of France (Grand Orient de France, G.O., G.O.E or G.O.d.F.) has about 27,000 members in 650 lodges. Very involved in social, political and some charitable activities, it is politically left-leaning and closely associated with the French Socialist party. Since 1877, most lodges of the G.O. have abandoned all reference to the Grand Architect, as well as the Bible. Recently, a number of its lodges have started admitting women. For all these reasons, the G.O. is quite irregular and has very few international ties. The G.O. works a variety of rites, the two main ones being the French Rite and a largely modified French Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (A.A.S.R.). The subjects of lectures and discussions in Lodge are mainly problems of society, ecology, human rights, the condition of the working class, problems of public health, AIDS and so on. The members of the Grand Orient are extremely vocal in public life and politics. They take the heavy responsibility, deplored by all other French Masons, of projecting worldwide an atheistic, left-leaning, politicking image of French Masonry as a whole.
b) The Grand Lodge of France (Grande Loge de France, G.L., G.L.F. or G.L.d.F.) currently has about 22,000 members in 550 lodges. Regular, and representative of the oldest and most regular Masonic tradition, it has existed in its current form for 100 years, in other guises for more than two centuries. The G.L. works the traditional Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite in all of its lodges but two, which work the Rectified Scottish Rite (Rite Ecossais Rectifie, R.E.R.). With no political afffliation, the G.L. sets very high intellectual standards for its work, which is mainly philosophical, symbolic, moral and spiritual. It is not currently recognized by either US or UK Masonry, but has wide international ties with many regular—both recognized and unrecognized—Masonic bodies. The fastest-growing Grand Lodge in France, among a fast-growing Masonry, its membership has doubled in size over the last ten years and the rate of growth itself is rapidly increasing.
c) The National Grand Lodge of France (Grande Loge Nationale Francaise, G.L.N.F.) has about 13,000 members and 400 Lodges. Initially a very small Grand Lodge (a few hundred members), founded in 1913 by two irregular Lodges issued from the irregular Grand Orient, it was joined in 1964 by a number of Brethren from the G.L. which filled it out. Before that, most of its members were English and American military and some civilians. This caused French Masons to always consider it an Anglo-American colony on French soil rather than a French Masonic body. The G.L.N.F. is currently the only Grand Lodge recognized by the English and American Masonry. Being recognized despite its origins has rendered it extremely strict and rigorous, more so than even the United Grand Lodge of England. For instance, mentions of the Grand Architect of the Universe are followed by the qualification "who is God" or "the Revealed God". The G.L.N.F. has relations only with the Anglo-American Masonic world and with other national Masonic bodies created by either the U.S. or the U.K. Masonry. It mainly works the Emulation and A.A.S.R. rituals. Politically, it is moderately right-leaning. Working methods and lecture subjects are extremely similar to those of the G.L. because of the relatively large influx of G.L. members in 1964.
d) The Order of the Human Right (Ordre Maconnique Mixte International du Droit Humain, D.H.) accepts both men and women. Created in 1893, it is quite widespread outside France, mainly in Europe, and notably in England. The D.H. works a highly (and recently—1948) modified version of the A.A.S.R. and gives lodges the right to individually decide on whether to work to the Glory of the G.A.O.T.U. or not. Most Lodges don't. The same is true of the Bible. For all these reasons, the D.H. is irregular and has very few international ties, except with Lodges it has itself created. In France it has very close ties with the Grand Orient and, just like it, its lectures and discussions in Lodge are mainly about problems of society, ecology, human rights, the condition of the working class, problems of public health, AIDS and so on. The D.H. has about 8,000 members, mainly women, in 120 lodges.
e) The Grand Feminine Lodge of France (Grande Loge Feminine de France, G.L.F.F.) accepts only women candidates. It is issued from the Lodges of Adoption (related to the Order of the Eastern Star) created at the end of the 19th century by the Grand Lodge of France for the wives, mothers, daughters and sisters of its Brethren. In 1948, the G.L. strongly helped these Lodges of Adoption federate themselves into the G.L.F.F. The rite of Adoption was abandoned for a modified A.A.S.R. The wisdom for women to work a masculine ritual remains to be proven. Despite the massive help received from the G.L. at the time of its creation, the G.L.F.F. reproaches the Grand Lodge for its refusal to accept women visitors and has preferential ties with the Grand Orient. Under the influence of the latter, which allows women in some of its Lodges, it has become quite left-leaning too. It also has in common with the G.O. the subjects of its lectures and discussions in Lodge, plus typically feminine subjects such as contraception, abortion and feminism. Currently the G.L.F.F. has about 6,000 members and 150 Lodges. In principle, individual Lodges have the right to decide whether to have the Bible and work to the Glory of the G.A.O.T.U., but very few do.
f) The Traditional and Symbolic Grand Lodge (Grande Loge Symbolique et Traditionnelle), formerly Grande Loge Nationale Francaise Opra (because of the proximity of its building to the Paris Opera House), is commonly called "G.L. Opra." It is the result of a schism of the Grande Loge Nationale Francaise. It was created in 1958 by a number of Brethren who, while in agreement with the principles of regularity and with traditional Masonic teachings, resented "the rigid and intransigent attitude of the G.L.N.E, as well as its blind submission to the United Grand Lodge of England". Perfectly regular according to the principles accepted by the vast majority of continental Masons, it mostly works the A.A.S.R. Some Lodges work the Rectified Scottish Rite. Currently, the G.L. Opra has about 2,000 members in some 50 Lodges.
There are half a dozen other Masonic bodies, some of them irregular, with memberships of between 100 and 1,000. It would be far beyond the scope of this brief description of French Masonry to go into further detail about them.
All this of course affects the matter of visits. The attitude of the Grand Loge de France concerning visits to other bodies is that of the vast majority of French Masons, except the Grande Loge Nationale Francaise. The French, and Europeans in general, consider that a Master Mason is implicitly mature enough to visit any meeting of any organization without being "tainted" in any way, as long as the visited body agrees to receive him. Therefore French Masons go and visit anyone they wish, anywhere, including of course women's Lodges. Only Brethren holding high office in the G.L. generally refrain from visiting irregular bodies, as their presence there might implicate the G.L. as a whole. Of course, regular French Grand Lodges only receive men in their Lodges and make sure, on an individual basis, that each conforms to their standards. The Grand Lodges also firmly advise against visiting those extremely small and few fringe groups that are truly suspect of shady activities.
The present status of mutual recognition among the French Grand Lodges is a simple matter, since it is not necessary to recognize an organization to visit it. The notion of recognition, as practiced by the Anglo-American world, does not exist on the continent. No one really recognizes anyone, officially. When high ranking Brothers from one Masonic Body visit another, this implies that one recognizes the other, but there is no elaborate paper signing. High ranking Brethren from a regular body will, of course, only visit regular bodies officially, but they too may visit any other body as simple Master Masons.
A final point that may be important if one is to understand continental Masonry in general and French Masonry in particular, is that most US and UK-type Grand Lodges are small, recent and resented by local Masons as a kind of "foreign beach-head". As an indication, the only recognized Grand Lodge in France, the Grande Loge Nationale Francaise, represents only 15 percent of French Masonry. In Belgium, recognized Masonry represents about 1,000 Brethren. The decline which currently affects Anglo-American Masonry also hits most of its representatives on the continent, while indigenous Masonry is in a period of accelerated development: as mentioned earlier, the Grand Lodge of France has doubled its membership over the last ten years and, with the increasing rate of expansion, expects to reach 50,000 members by the end of the century, seven years from now. French Masonry as a whole can be expected to reach the 150,000 mark by the same time.
French and European Masons, who have paid an immense toll to persecution since medieval times and notably during the Second World War, when tens of thousands of Brethren were killed by the Nazis and the communists just because they were Masons, do not view at all kindly the pretention of a few overseas Grand Lodges, who were never in danger, never persecuted and know very little about them, to act as self-appointed judges of their regularity. For the sake of world-wide Masonry it might be high time to implement the Fraternity we talk so much and do so little about, and accept each other as we are, with the imperfections that we all have, with our customs and our traditions, as bizarre as each might seem to the other side.