France’s law dividing the state and religion has often been praised for ensuring that the country’s traditions are upheld and that multiculturalism does not tread on the toes of French culture. But it is that very Christian heritage that has fallen foul of the latest court ruling – which banned the baby Jesus from a council building in the Vendée region of the country.
The Local reports that Nante’s administrative court ruled this week that the traditional nativity scene of the Christ Child in a manger surrounded by shepherds, angels and cattle does not fit with France’s 1905 law on the Separation of Churches and State.
Following a complaint made by the ‘Free Thinking Association of France’ the whole festive scene – or at least the crib containing the representation of Jesus – which has stood in the entrance to the town’s council building in La Roche-sur-Yon for years, must be removed.
The court ruled that “It undermined the neutrality of public service” something which the President of the FTA in Vendée Jean Regourd agreed with.
“A nativity scene is a religious symbol, representing a specific religion,” said M. Regourd. “In theory it doesn’t respect the law of neutrality of public buildings nor of the State, and it doesn’t respect the freedom of conscience of a citizen who sees a religious emblem imposed on them when going into Vendée’s departmental council,” he said.
This isn’t the first time Regourd has tried to ban the nativity scene from public buildings: he has already written several letters to Nante’s administrative court following a visit to the offending building in December 2010. At the time it fell on deaf ears, but now the ruling in his favour has resulted in outrage as the story spreads across the country and beyond.
An online poll by French website Direct Matin asked their readers; ‘should nativity scenes be banned from public spaces?’ An overwhelming 87 per cent of people responded that they should not be.
This isn’t the first time that such an iconic Christmas tribute has been at the heart of controversy. In Brussels, an activist group called ‘Collectif Anonym’ destroyed a nativity scheme in the centre of Brussels, starting a debate in both Belgium and neighbouring France over whether this Christmas tradition should be outlawed.
But the President of the General Council of Vendée Bruno Retailleau said they would be appealing the decision. “Respecting secularism doesn’t mean abandoning all our traditions and cultural heritage,” he said.
“Should we also ban the Christmas stars hanging on our streets right now, under the pretext that a religious symbol will tarnish public space?”
And Retailleau’s predecessor and former MEP Philippe de Villiers called the verdict “sinful”, saying “The Free Thinking Association isn’t free thinking, they want to get rid of all our cultural heritage.”
“France is an ancient Christian land and the nativity scene is part of its roots regardless of beliefs and sensitivity. Why not ban bells?
“I reject this totalitarian secularism, it’s a form of modern terror with incalculable consequences.”
The 2004 law which banned the wearing of traditional religious symbols in schools and other public buildings was seen by some as an attack on Islam and its main target as the Muslim headscarf in response to an increase in support of right wing parties such as the Front Nationale.