In France, Overwhelming Support for Public Nativity Scenes

In France, Overwhelming Support for Public Nativity Scenes

France may be one of the more secular states in Europe, but according to a study released Sunday, seven out of ten French (71%) favor the presence of Christmas crèches in public spaces.

The highest percentage of approval came from the Catholic population, both practicing and non-practicing, of which 81% support the public displays. Even among those who identify themselves as having “no religion,” however, a majority (60%) still favors the Nativity scenes as “an element of cultural tradition.”

Only 18% of respondents said they are “somewhat opposed” to the displays, because they consider the crèches “a religious symbol incompatible with the principles of neutrality and secularism of public services.”

The survey, conducted by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP), followed on a judgment of the Nantes Administrative Court in late November asking the General Council of the Vendée to remove the manger scene he had installed in a public building. Similarly, in Béziers, the prefect also ordered the mayor to remove the Nativity scene which he had set up in the town hall.

In the Vendée, the General Council complied with the order, but on December 12 officially announced its intention to appeal. The General Council will “use all possible legal remedies, including before the European Court of Human Rights if necessary,” declared the Council president, Bruno Retailleau.

“The General Council takes the view that it absolutely did not contravene the principle of secularism as the crèche has formed part of popular traditions and the French imagination for centuries. This is confirmed by the response of many French, believers or nonbelievers, who have shown their support by mail, phone, social media or the media,” said the Department in a statement.

In Béziers, on the other hand, the mayor, Robert Ménard, has decided to stand up to the prefect, ignoring his order and keeping the Christmas crèche installed in the town hall. “I have placed this crèche as part of the overall cultural display for the city’s year-end holiday season,” the mayor said, and added that he had sent a letter to the prefect and was waiting for “his reply.”

Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome