France accused of 'totalitarian secularism' after nativity scene removal

(Photo: Margaret Young)

A row has broken out in France after a court ruled that a nativity scene must be removed from a council building in La Roche-sur-Yon.

Critics have accused the strict adherence to France's secular law as "stupid and blinkered", and Le Parisien insisted that 86 per cent of its readers were against the removal. The newspaper ran a headline declaring: "Spare us a nativity war" on Sunday.

The order for the scene to be removed followed a complaint from the president of secular campaign group Fédération Nationale de la Libre Pensée, who argued that it is "clearly a religious symbol".

"A nativity scene is a religious symbol, representing a specific religion," Jean Regourd said.

"In theory it doesn't respect the law of neutrality of public buildings nor of the State, and it doesn't respect the freedom of conscience of a citizen who sees a religious emblem imposed on them".

A judge in Nates subsequently ruled that the scene contravened "religious neutrality in public spaces".

Local senator Bruno Retailleau condemned this decision as "grotesque", however, and announced that he would be launching an appeal.

"Next we'll be banning epiphany cakes at the Elysee Palace," he added in a statement. "Respecting secularism doesn't mean abandoning all our tradition and cultural heritage. Should we also ban the Christmas stars hanging on our streets right now, under the pretext that a religious symbol will tarnish public space?"

His denouncement has been backed by his predecessor, Philippe de Villiers, who branded the court's ruling "totalitarian secularism".

"It's a form of modern terror with incalculable consequences," he said.

France enshrined the separation of Church and State in law in 1905, but sectarian tensions are high.

It has faced criticism for its ban on women publicly wearing the Muslim veil, and the French interior minister warned on Sunday that anti-Semetic threats and incidents have more than doubled so far this year.