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French local councils ordered to scrap Christmas cribs

Béziers mayor Robert Ménard with his town council's crib, known as a "crèche" in French
Béziers mayor Robert Ménard with his town council's crib, known as a "crèche" in French AFP

French officials have ordered local councils to take down Christmas nativity cribs in public buildings because of France’s strict secular law on the separation of church and state. One far-right mayor said this week he will defy the order and keep a crib set up in his town hall.

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Responding to a complaint by the Federation of Freethinkers, a court in the western city of Nantes ordered the regional council of the Vendée region, which has a strong Catholic tradition, to remove the crib it has erected in its headquarters.

The practise was started by hard-right nationalist MEP Philippe de Villiers 22 years ago and the region’s current chairman, Senator Bruno Retailleau of the mainstream right UMP, has said the council will appeal against the ruling.

In an article on the website of right-wing paper Le Figaro, Retailleau dubbed the decision “grotesque” and attacked “the ayatollahs of secularism” for trying to ignore the “Christian roots of France”.

The mayor of the southern town of Béziers, Robert Ménard, this week refused to take down a crib in his town hall, despite a recommendation that he should do so from regional legal officials.

Ménard, a former press freedom campaigner who was supported by the Front National in this year's local elections, said that the crib is part of the local council’s “cultural policy for the end-of-year festivities”.

Another crib has been set up in municipal buildings in the southern town of Beaucaire, where the Front National controls the local council.

The Nantes court based its decision on France’s 1905 secular law, which forbids the “erection or display of any religious sign or emblem on public monuments or in any public place, apart from religious buildings, sepulchres and cemeteries, funerary monuments and museums and exhibitions”.

Catholic traditionalists, who took to the streets to oppose the legalisation of gay marriage last year, took to Twitter to attack the rulings, using the hashtag #TouchePasAMaCreche and former minister and outspoken right-winger Nadine Morano declared that “secularism should not kill our culture, our roots, our traditions”.

The secular campaigners ridiculed the idea that a practise that is just 22 years old was a tradition.

"If you have a nativity scene in the street there is no problem with the law of 1905. But when you have a nativity scene inside a public building you are outside of the law," Freethinkers Federation secretary general David Gozlan told RFI.

"We think that a nativity scene is like a stand of the Catholic church inside the republic. It is like an advertisement inside the building of the republic and the church and the state must be separated."

Not everyone on the left is convinced, however.

Socialist MP Julien Dray suggested that there might be “more important battles” and called for “tolerance” of cribs that are “part of the décor”.
 

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