French High Court Orders Removal of Cross Above Statue of Pope John Paul II

The French administrative court has ordered the removal of a cross from a monument to Saint John Paul II in a public square in the northwest of France, saying it violates the secular nature of the state.

Italian media noted the irony of the ruling, remarking that the cross-removal is not taking place “in Raqqa, the capital of the Islamic State in Syria, but in Brittany, in the heart of Western Europe.”

The Conseil d’Etat, France’s highest administrative court, ruled last week that the statue of the Polish Pope in Ploërmel, Brittany, could remain but the large cross above the monument must be eliminated.

“Since the cross is a religious sign or emblem within the meaning of Article 28 of the Law of 9 December 1905 and its installation by the municipality does not fall into any of the exceptions provided by this article, its presence in a public location is contrary to this law,” argued the French court.

The law of 1905, which separates Church and State, forbids “raising or affixing any symbol or religious emblem on public monuments or in any public place,” with the exception of museums, cemeteries and places of worship.

The 25-foot high monument was donated to mayor Paul Anselin by Russian artist Zurab Tsereteli in 2006 and erected in a town square. The sculpture depicts Pope John Paul standing in prayer with his hands clasped, with a simple arch above him, surmounted by a cross.

In 2015, the Rennes tribunal had already ordered the removal of the entire statue but upon appeal, the high court allowed the statue to remain, provided the offending cross disappears.

The city of Ploërmel now has six months to eliminate the cross, and must pay €3000 to the National Federation of Free Thought (Fédération nationale de la libre-pensée), which has been leading the legal battle to have the statue removed since 2015.

Over the weekend social networks in France lit up with the viral hashtag #MontreTaCroix (“Show your cross”), with which many Internet users have shared images of crosses taken everywhere around the country. Many have used the campaign to recall France’s Christian roots, calling the symbol inseparable from the history of France.

Gilles Pennelle, the president of the National Front party in Brittany’s Regional Council, pointed out the paradox that “the French court allows burkinis on the beaches but bans a cross over the statue of John Paul II in Ploërmel.”

For his part, the current mayor of Ploërmel, Patrick Le Diffon, did not rule out bringing the case before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

“The statue is part of the landscape of Ploërmel for twelve years, and it does not disturb the inhabitants,” he said. “On the contrary, it is an undeniable tourist asset for the municipality. The mayor added that “this monument is a work of art and it requires the authorization from the artist to modify it.”

The Polish Prime Minister, Beata Szydło also weighed in on the argument, complaining of “censorship” and saying that if the cross must come down the statue should be transferred to Poland where it will be appreciated.

“The Polish government will try to save the monument of our compatriot from censorship, and we will propose to transfer it to Poland, if French authorities and the local community agree,” she said, adding that Pope John Paul “is a symbol of united Christian Europe.”

Poland may have some competition, however. A Hungarian elementary school has also stepped forward to request the cross if the French remove it.

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