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Town hall cannot have a nativity crèche, France’s highest court rules

Debates about nativity scenes and France’s laws on secularism regularly surface each winter - and this year will be no exception

It is forbidden to display religious signs and symbols in most public spaces in France Pic: Ludovic Farine / Shutterstock

An appeal by a mairie in southern France that wished to show a nativity scene in its town hall has been rejected by France’s highest court.

The case dates to last Christmas when the mairie of Beaucaire in Gard put a nativity crèche on display between December 3, 2020 and February 2, 2021 in its municipal building.

It was ordered to dismantle the scene by Nîmes administrative court in compliance with France’s rules on laïcité (secularism). 

Beaucaire’s mairie, led by a far-right mayor, appealed, arguing that the crèche presented “cultural, artistic and festive values” however the case was rejected.

The mairie then turned to France’s highest administrative body the Conseil d’État, arguing that the decision amounted to “discrimination”. 

However, the Conseil d’État ruled earlier this month that none of the reasons put forward by the mairie justified keeping the nativity scene on display. 

The Connexion explains the rules.

Nativity scenes are allowed under certain conditions

It is forbidden to display religious signs and symbols in most public spaces because of a 1905 law separating Church from state.

This does not apply to churches, cemeteries, war memorials, museums and exhibitions. 

However, Christmas nativity scenes became caught up in an ideological battle around 2010 after several mayors argued that they held more of a cultural - rather than religious - significance. 

The polemic often involved mayors who tried to display crèches in local town halls or central squares and were told by judges to take them down. 

The Conseil d’État acknowledged that nativity scenes are both a symbol of the birth of Jesus Christ and “an element that is part of decorations and illustrations around Christmas, without any religious significance.”

The installation of a nativity scene is deemed legal under certain conditions. These include instances in which they “represent a cultural, artistic or festive decoration”, are “temporary”, “correspond to local heritage and tradition” and as long as their aim is not to convert people to Christianity.

This essentially means that a nativity scene would be allowed at a Christmas market, for example, but would be deemed inappropriate for an official public building. 

Several far-right Rassemblement National (RN) mayors have played on ambiguities within the Conseil d’État’s decision and the party published a press release in 2015 arguing that crèches within mairie buildings could not be related to France’s secular laïcité rules.

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‘Underlying racist and xenophobic message’

Christian Eyschen, general secretary of the Fédération nationale de la libre pensée, a not-for-profit federation of local associations concerned with free thought, told The Connexion that RN mayors systematically put crèches on display for two reasons.

One aim is to appeal to the traditional Catholic voters within the electorate by appearing to defend Christian values, he said.

He also said that the move carries within it an underlying racist and xenophobic message, suggesting that France is Catholic only and that other religions and cultures are not welcome.

Mr Eyschen said that his association regularly launches legal action against Béziers’ far-right mayor Robert Ménard, who has been systematically displaying crèches every year, resulting in a repeated cycle of legal action and appeals. 

“He wages these legal fights using taxpayer funds. It cannot go on,” he said. “They hope he will eventually get bored with it, but he won’t.” 

Béziers plans to display a nativity crèche in its city hall from Friday until January 8, 2023. 

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