Baby Jesus is no longer welcome in French government buildings.
An administrative court in the city of Nantes ruled December 1 that the government in Vendée — an area in western France — must remove its traditional Christmas nativity scene from the local council's building in La-Roche-sur-Yon, a small city about 420 kilometers southwest of Paris.
The court ruled that the traditional Christmas scene, also called a "crèche," was not in line with the "neutrality of public service."
Crèches, which are ubiquitous in France this time of year, are an ancient tradition that started appearing in churches as early as the 15th century. Crèches made their way into private homes in the 19th century with the manufacture of "santons" — small, hand-painted terracotta figurines produced in the south of France that depict the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and shepherds, as well as local craftspeople and characters from French village life.
The legal proceedings against the council of Vendée were initiated by the French National Federation of Free Thought, a group devoted to preserving secularism in France.
France could not have picked a better time to reignite the debate over cultural and religious symbolism in its public institutions. Yesterday was the 109th anniversary of the passage of the country's law mandating the separation of church and state.
According to French law, public spaces such as town halls and schools cannot be used for religious purposes, and state representatives are prohibited from displaying their personal religious beliefs while they are in office.
The ruling implies that traditional nativity scenes are a more of a religious phenomenon than a cultural one. The line between cult and culture is a thorny issue in France. In March 2004, the country banned the wearing of any "ostentatious" religious symbol — including the Muslim veil — in public schools.
The nativity scene in the town of Béziers, in the south of France, is also embroiled in the recent dispute. Robert Ménard, the controversial mayor of Béziers, was elected in April 2014 with the support of the far-right French National Front party.
A former director of Reporters without Borders, Ménard publicly announced his decision not to dismantle the scene, ignoring a written request from the prefect of Hérault, an area west of Marseille.
Speaking to RMC radio on December 5, Ménard defended his decision. "It's cultural because it's part of our culture," Ménard said. "Everything has a religious connotation. Next thing we'll be unable to give today's date because the calendar starts with the birth of Christ […] We are dealing with secular ayatollahs."
In an opinion piece published by the largely conservative weekly news magazine Le Point, French essayist Jean-Paul Brighelli tried to unearth the French Christmas crèche's cultural roots — an effort to minimize the religious connotations of the baby Jesus-centric scenes. For Brighelli, the ancient tradition is rooted in French folklore, and its origins are more pagan than Catholic. Brighelli also denounced the anti-nativity scene campaign as a desire "to eradicate our traditions to impose multiculturalism."
The loss of cultural identity is a cause widely trumpeted by far-right politicians in France, who fear the watering down of France's traditions in the face of political correctness.
Following the ruling in Vendée, a number of elected officials have spoken out against the ban on crèches in their town halls and local council buildings. Mayors from the conservative UMP and far-right National Front parties have been posting pictures of nativity scenes under the hashtag #TouchePasÀMaCrèche (#HandsOffMyCreche).
A tweet from an account followed by National Front party president Marine Le Pen shows the stained glass windows of a church in Vendée, which depict revolutionaries executing rebellious priests who refused to pledge allegiance to the civil constitution of 1790.
Jean Regour, president of the Vendée branch of the Federation of Free Thought, told VICE News his group brought the issue to court because they consider nativity scenes to be a religious, not cultural symbols. "The crèche in the general council of Vendée was deemed to be a religious symbol," he said, "people can display it in their homes, but it has no place in a public forum."
Regour claims he has received a number of threats since the ruling, and has been accused by crèche defenders of wanting to "raze churches down to the ground." He is particularly concerned by the way identity-obsessed, traditionally Catholic, far-right groups have co-opted the pro-nativity movement.
"Far-right militants have accused us of wanting to ban religions," Regour said. "But it's about respecting the law, and people have veered off topic. In France, we, French citizens, have access to certain freedoms that are guaranteed by the separation of church and state."
Speaking Sunday on France 2, French Prime Minister Manuels Valls called for reconciliation over the issue, saying, "We must be careful not to become divided."
The law separating church and state applies to 98 of France's 101 departments, which are the country's equivalent of states. Bas-Rhin, Haut-Rhin and Moselle, which were annexed by Prussia following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, were not a part of France in 1905, the year the law on secularity was adopted. Since France took possession of the departments in 1919, they have remained under the regime of the Napoleonic Concordat of 1801, which recognized four official religious traditions in the region: Judaism and three branches of Christianity —Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed.
The general council of Vendée has said it will appeal the court's decision.
Follow Virgile Dall' Armellina on Twitter @armellina
Photo via Flickr.