Every year during Advent, the French administration wages a fierce battle against the installation of Nativity scenes in public spaces—town halls and seats of regional or departmental governments—on the grounds that they would constitute clear violations of secularism as defined by the 1905 law on the separation of church and state. Several political figures resist, in the name of the importance of local traditions and the Christian roots of France.
The mayor of Béziers, Robert Ménard, is used to legal wrangling with the authorities. As he does every year, he has set up a superb Nativity scene in the courtyard of his town hall in the purest tradition of southern France. Every year, he knows that he is liable to be condemned for this. On December 2nd, as soon as the creche was in place, it was attacked by the League of Human Rights, an old anti-clerical organisation born at the end of the 19th century that continues to fight with great vigour against any form of Christian identity in the public space in France.
The league lodged an appeal with the Montpellier administrative court and was eventually successful under an accelerated procedure. On Thursday, December 15th, Robert Ménard was forced to move the Nativity scene, leaving the inhabitants of Béziers only two short weeks to enjoy the holy display. The removal of the Nativity scene had been ordered to take place within 24 hours, with a fine of €100 per day of delay, plus a compensatory indemnity of €1,500 to be paid to the League of Human Rights. The mayor complied with the court’s injunction but did not fail to publicise the court’s decision, inviting all residents to come and admire the creche that had been assembled in front of the town hall.
Last year, his opponents accused him of “instrumentalising religion for political ends,” “harming freedom of conscience,” and even brandished the accusation of “separatism.”
Robert Ménard, with the majority support of the inhabitants of Béziers, is striving to reinstate the essential place of the Nativity scene in the traditions of Christmas in the south of France, where the Nativity has been celebrated for several centuries thanks to reconstructions of santons—or ‘little saints’ in Occitan. These small figurines made of wood, plaster, or clay represent the Holy Family, the Three Wise Men, or even villagers in traditional costume, and are part of a long renewed local tradition of arts and crafts. There is no doubt that the battle will resume in 2023.
A few kilometres from Béziers, at the town hall of Perpignan, Louis Aliot, a member of the Rassemblement National leadership, is facing the same battle. In the courtyard of the town hall a pessebre—a typical Catalan Christmas Nativity scene—has been installed. On Wednesday, December 21st, the administrative court of Montpellier also ordered the removal of this creche according to the same modalities as in Béziers: a removal within 24 hours, with a fine of €100 per day of delay.
Louis Aliot declared that he “respected” the court’s decision, and announced that he would comply with it … but not immediately. In a very clever and provocative way, he explained during a press conference that the technical agents responsible for the dismantling of the Christmas crib were on holiday and that this could not be done before January. He will therefore dismantle the Nativity scene on January 2nd, i.e., on the date initially planned, at the end of the Christmas celebrations. The town hall is therefore liable to pay a fine for each day of delay. The town council decided to contribute to the costs and to guarantee a few extra days for residents to enjoy the Christmas creche.
The opposition members of the town council supported the principle of financing the fine, out of “solidarity,” as explained by councillor Chantal Bruzy—a political opponent of Louis Aliot. With his lilting accent, Aliot justified his choice as follows:
Secularism is not about banning religions, but about allowing them to be visible in the public space. The pessebre is not linked to a religious matter, but to traditions. Today, the pessebre is targeted. What will it be tomorrow? Sant Jordi [St George’s Day, a popular festival in Occitania]? La Sanch [a procession that takes place in Perpignan on Good Friday]? And what about the names of the communes where there is the word ‘Saint’?
The issue is particularly sensitive in the south of France, where the tradition of Nativity scenes is especially strong and widely followed by the population, despite the absence of widespread religious practice. But the battle to keep them in the public space goes far beyond the borders of Provence and Occitania. Many French people have made the representation of the baby Jesus in his straw and wood creche the symbol of a Christian identity that does not want to disappear. Some shopkeepers—in Paris, Versailles, or Lille—put up a small one in their shops—regardless of the possible jeers of freethinkers.
Laurent Wauquiez, president of France’s second largest region, the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, has also played the game of arm wrestling with the administrative authorities over the creche. In 2016, he was forbidden to set up a Christmas creche at the regional council’s headquarters in Lyon. In 2017, he was publicly condemned for having installed Nativity scenes on the premises of the regional council, on the occasion of an exhibition on the art of santonniers (craftsmen carving santons), again following a denunciation by the League of Human Rights.
The League accused him of having found a way to get around the 2016 decision by organising this exhibition on santons. Scandalised by the court decision, he appealed. The court finally ruled in his favour in 2021, considering that there was no proselytising in favour of the Catholic religion. Despite the obvious “religious connotation” of the exhibition, “the regional cultural and artistic dimension of the disputed exhibition remains predominant,” the judges concluded. Gloria in excelsis Deo!