Can a French municipality erect a statue of the Virgin Mary in a public park? The answer is No. France's Administrative Court has given the mayor of Publier, in eastern France (population 6500), three months to comply with the ban on religious symbols in public spaces and to remove the statue. If the municipality fails to do so, it will be fined €100 ($105) a day. Mayor Gaston Lacroix said he will try to relocate the marble statue on private land.
France's 1905 Law on the Separation of the Churches and the State (Article 2) states that "The Republic does not recognize, pay or subsidize any religious sect"; article 28 prohibits any religious symbol on public monuments.
The Virgin May statue in Publier, on the bottom of which is inscribed "Our Lady of Geneva Lake watch over your children", has a long story. It was installed in the town park in August 2011, without debate. The statue was acquired with taxpayer money: €23,700 (USD $26,000). Acknowledging at the time that he had "joked a little with the 1905 law" on the separation of church and the state, the mayor had to sell the statue to a local religious association.
Now, the mayor has to remove the statue from the public park. He tried to privatize the piece of land where the statue is erected, but the land-sale project was rejected by the court.
This story of a statue of the Virgin Mary illustrates the difficulties of secularism, the defense of French identity, the fight against Islamism, and the contradictory interests of different political parties in France.
Originally, secularism in France was established to push religion out of the public sphere. An authentic war was conducted at the end of 19th century and beginning of 20th to push a very obscurantist Catholic Church out of all public spaces. According to historian Jacques Julliard:
"Mgr de Quélen, Archbishop of Paris, remains famous for having said 'not only was Jesus the son of God, but his mother came from a very good family'. For the Republic, fighting the church was a fight for the liberation of the minds, for the construction of a school for knowledge (against belief) liberated from priests, the building of an open society..."
Now, after more than a century of separation of powers between church and state, an intolerant and extremist Islam is disrupting the rules of the game, invading public spaces, schools, universities and companies with the veil, halal food and open violence. But instead of uniting against this troublemaker, French society today is openly divided.
French state institutions and the political class (left and right) are fully responsible for this division, which is also the result of confusion. Instead of naming Islamism the enemy, all governments, left and right, have chosen the wrong path of appeasement and increasing concessions -- refusing to name Islamism as solely responsible for terrorism, refusing to consider the Islamic veil as a tool of separatism, and letting Salafist mosques multiply -- in the vain hope of calming what is claimed to be the legitimate anger of Muslims against "discrimination".
Because the state refused or was unable to elaborate a strategy for a renewed secularism, actors on the ground (especially mayors of the 35,000 municipalities of France) were left alone. In 2014 and 2015, some of them (no one knows how many) chose to install or subsidize nativity scenes in the lobbies of their city halls. Immediately, French political passions burst into the debate.
Free thinkers, all parties of the left and the extreme left, green parties and partisans of multiculturalism went to court to fight the Christ child's cribs. On the opposite side, some on the right and the extreme right supported the Christ child's crib. In the middle, some supporters of secularism tried to calm everyone down, but without great success.
On November 14, 2014, the Administrative Court of Nantes decided on appeal to strike down the initial prohibition of a Christmas nativity scene in the Departmental Hall of Vendée. In another case, on October 8, 2015, the Administrative Court of Paris struck down on appeal an initial judgement authorizing the mayor of Melun to display a nativity crib.
On December 1, 2016, the Lille Administrative Court cancelled the decision of the municipality of Henin-Beaumont (affiliated with the "far right" Front National) to install a Christmas nativity crib in the lobby of City Hall.
In November 2015, just before the Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris, in which 130 people were murdered, the powerful Association of Mayors of France (AMF) relaunched the controversy by recommending, in the name of secularism, not to install Christmas nativity scenes. Immediately, three mayors from the Front National, and some others from the opposition party, Les Republicains, left the AMF. Marion Maréchal-Le Pen of the National Front, and the granddaughter of the party's founder, stated:
"This recommendation is a provocation. Secularism is the neutrality of public authorities regarding religions, separation of Church and State, and refusal to finance any sect, but secularism does not mean the disappearance of our folk traditions that may have a religious connotation. Catholic in particular."
Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, president of Debout La France ("Stand Up France"), said AMF's decision is "silly". He added:
"French people cherish their culture. Some mayors put Christmas cribs in their town halls, others do not. If French people love Christmas trees, find it convenient to call Easter holidays "Easter holidays," and have Christian cribs in city halls, let them do it. Do not cut the roots of the French, stop denying our people the right to be themselves."
On the left, most leaders refused to comment because they were afraid to engage in a debate with the Front National.
On November 9, 2016, the Conseil d'État (Council of State), the highest administrative court in France, edited guidelines for local administrative courts to allow Christmas nativity scenes in city halls, but under strict conditions (no proselytizing). In others words, a Christian display is authorized if all elements of Christianity are removed from it. A nativity scene must be "folklore" to be authorized, and nativity cribs that belong to a religious organization remain prohibited in city halls.
If nativity scenes are an extremely ancient Christian tradition, the installation of Christmas nativity scenes in city halls is very recent. One of the oldest was inaugurated in 1989. In most instances, displaying nativity scenes was a reaction to try to preserve French culture, and a claim to preserve the Christian roots of France -- mostly, and without saying it -- against Islam.
François Fillon, a former Prime Minister of France, who is running for president in the 2017 election as the candidate of the main center-right party, welcomed the decision of the Council of State. In Valeurs Actuelles, he said:
"Christmas has long since left the only sectarian domain, the one of religion, to get into the cultural universe, that of civilization... By making the public space empty of everything that brings us together, by sucking everything that makes the thickness and depth of the collective being French, secularism is, paradoxically, the useful idiot of sectarianism: all the space it empties, Islamists are eager to fill it, especially in disillusioned, brainless and uprooted young heads".
This argument, of "secularism as a vacuum", was also developed by Philippe de Villiers, a prominent figure of the right and founder of Movement for France (MPF). In the weeks before the Council of State's decision, Villiers gave an interview to Le Figaro entitled, "Yes to nativity cribs, No to djallabas". He explained:
"I expect the Council of State to make the choice, not of a secular vacuum, which would be an in-draft to Islam, but to make the choice of a living secularism, which is consistent with our traditions.... The Council of State said "yes" to the burkini. If they say "no" to Christmas nativity scenes, (they) will no longer be the Council of State of France that protects us. They will become the Council of Islamic State".
The debate seems booby-trapped. Because the left has been unable to renew and impose secularism, today the "right" and Islamists have agreed to get rid of it.
"Secularism is just becoming a religion opposed to all other religions", said Tariq Ramadan, a prominent figure of the Muslim Brotherhood in Switzerland and France, in 2014. He congratulated mayors on Christmas nativity scenes probably because he sees it as an opening for Islamic opportunities in the public sphere. "We need a Republic authorizing the visibility of diversity, and not a Republic of neutrality," Ramadan said.
Yves Mamou is a journalist and author based in France. He worked for two decades for the daily, Le Monde, before his retirement.