In France and some other French-speaking countries, laïcité (pronounced /la.i.si.te/) is a prevailing conception of the separation of church and state and the absence of religious interference into government affairs (and vice versa). The concept is related to secularism, but does not imply hostility towards religious beliefs.
The term "laïcité", in its current sense, implies free exercise of religion, but no special status for religion: religious activities should submit to about the same set of laws as other activities and are not considered above the law. The government refrains from taking positions on religious doctrine and only considers religious subjects from their practical consequences on the inhabitants' lives.
The French government is legally prohibited from recognizing any religion (except for legacy statutes like those of military chaplains and Alsace-Moselle). Instead, it merely recognizes religious organizations, according to formal legal criteria that do not address religious doctrine:
whether the sole purpose of the organization is to organize religious activities;
whether the organization does not disrupt public order.
Today, laïcité is accepted by all of France's mainstream religions. Exception includes far-right or monarchist reactionaries who wish the return to a situation where Catholicism was a state religion with a political role, as well as with some Islamist leaders that do not recognize the superiority of civil law over religious law.
Laïcité does not imply, by itself, any hostility of the government with respect to religion. It is essentially a belief that government and political issues should be kept separate from religious organizations and religious issues (as long as the latter do not have notable social consequences). This is meant both to protect the government from religious organizations pushing their agenda on the public, and to protect the religious organization from political quarrels and controversies. Of course, once religious organizations or religiously-motivated individuals take a political or social position motivated by religious feelings, they expose themselves to criticism, as with any ideologically motivated position.
French political leaders, though not prohibited from making religious remarks, generally refrain from demonstrating openly that their policies are directly inspired by religious considerations. Christine Boutin, who openly argued on religious grounds against homosexual domestic partnerships (see PACS; partnerships available regarless of the sex of the partners), was quickly marginalized. Religious disputation is generally considered incompatible with reasoned political debate — note the difference with the United States. Of course, political leaders may openly practice their religion (for instance, president Jacques Chirac is a Catholic), but they are expected to refrain from mixing their private religious life with their public functions.
When it comes to individuals, the French consider religion a private matter whose ostentatious display is generally out-of-place. Civil servants are supposed to be neutral with respect to politics and religion and to keep a certain reserve; ostentatious displays of religious affiliation may be banned. Recently, more and more countries are considering legislation towards more strictly neutral public services.
The term was originally the French equivalent of the term laity, i.e. everyone who is not Catholic clergy. After the French Revolution this meaning changed and it came to mean keeping religion separate from the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of government. This includes prohibitions on having a state religion. This also includes prohibitions for the government to endorse any religious position, be it a religion or atheism.
Although the term was current throughout the nineteenth century, France did not fully separate church and state until 1905. In the areas occupied by Germany at that time, which did not return to France until 1918, some German-style arrangements for the cooperation of church and state are still in effect today (see Alsace-Moselle).
Today the term is a core concept in the French constitution and many see being discreet with one's religion a necessity of being French. This has led to frequent divisions with non-Christian immigrants, especially with France's large Muslim population. The most recent debate has been over whether ostentatious religious displays, such as the hijab, Sikh turban and large Christian crosses and Stars of David, should be banned from public schools. Finally after a lot of political debate a law has been recently voted to ban them in schools, see French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools.