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Christmas nativity scenes spark debate in France

Debate over the legality of public nativity scenes in France has been sparked again this year after activists sent a note to all departments, reminding them of the “steps to take” to respect the law.

The discussion centres on the law of 1905, on the separation of church and state; often known as securalism, or laïcité.

Activists from the group la Fédération de la Libre Pensée (“the Federation of Free Thought”) sent a reminder to all departments this week, to warn MPs and mayors of the legal steps they would need to take if they are planning to display a public nativity scene (crèche de Noël, in French).

The group’s actions are supported by the State, it said.

Christian Eyschen, vice-president of the federation, said: “We are seeing a trend of drastic decline [in nativity scenes]. “Wherever we have taken action, we have won. Our action...supported by the Conseil d’État, has had a positive effect.”

Nativity scenes of note

Some mayors say they have chosen to use the nativity scene to send a positive message.

Robert Ménard, mayor of Béziers (Hérault, Occitanie) unveiled the city’s nativity in front of the Hôtel de Ville last week, but did so surrounded by “representatives of five religions…to show that this is not a polemic, not a provocation, but a sign of union”, he said.

In 2017 and 2018, the city’s nativity was found to have infringed on the 1905 law.

Mr Ménard said: “This year, we have tried to conform a little more to the recommendations from the Conseil d’État. A while ago, the deputy prefect sent me a calm letter, reminding me of the rules. I replied to him in the same tone, and I have received no complaints.”

Yet, the Hérault branch of la Fédération de la Libre Pensée said it denounced what it called “a Catholic nativity, installed in a public building belonging to all Béziers residents, preached by the mayor”, and said it was “ready to make a complaint”.

Another high-profile scene is that of the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, whose nativity has been displayed each year in the entrance of the regional council building since 2016. Yet, since 2017, regional president Laurent Wauquiez has been careful to incorporate local artwork and traditions into the nativity, in a bid to widen its appeal.

Federation president Mr Eyschen said: “If it is an [art] exhibition, then it’s fine. We are not maniacs.”

Plans to hold the seventh annual “living nativity” in Toulouse (Haute-Garonne, Occitanie) have also drawn some debate. This Saturday (December 14), around 40 children and some adults will bring animals to the city’s Place Saint-Georges, to sing and present traditional nativity scenes.

Erwan Demonlins, from the association Vivre Noël Autrement, said that this “public display” had been authorised by the mayoral office. But lawyer and secularism specialist Pierre Juston explained to newspaper Le Figaro that “the problem [with a living nativity] is that they want to tell ‘the real story of Christmas’ - which is for them, the birth of Jesus Christ”.

This would not be allowed under the 1905 law.

Similarly, the same event drew ire three years ago, when someone at the event distributed leaflets showing the timetable for a local Catholic mass.

But Mr Demonlins defended the event, saying: “It is in a public place, but it’s not exactly praying in the street! Our event is not claiming to be any one thing. There are much more serious issues going on at the moment.”

Yet, Mr Eyschen said that his federation would be making no further public complaints, and recommended that local branches avoid “all contentious action” so as “not to weaken” our argument.

This would not rule out local denouncement campaigns, he said, but he advised against action during the unveiling of a nativity scene in a public space - such as at a Christmas market - or in towns and cities in which a nativity is part of a local tradition.

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