Robert Ménard, who is in charge of Beziers, installed the nativity scene, a traditional feature of a Christian Christmas in the hall of the building, despite opposition from other political groups.
No sooner was it installed than Menard received a letter from the prefecture warning him that it was against France’s principal of secularism (laïcité), the strict separation of the state from all things religious.
But Ménard is refusing to budge.
“I installed this nativity scene as part of the overall cultural policy of the city’s New Year celebrations,” he said, adding that he had sent a letter to the prefecture.
It is the second row in a week over whether Baby Jesus and co. should be allowed in state buildings.
The Local reported how the local council for the department of the Vendée, a traditionally Catholic region of France, had also been ordered by a court to remove the nativity scene because it undermined the neutrality of public service.
That sparked an angry row with the council promising to appeal the decision in time for Christmas.
“A nativity scene is a religious symbol, representing a specific religion,” said Jean Regourd, President of the Free Thinking Association of France’s Vendée department, the organization that had complained about the crib.
“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 when going into Vendée’s departmental council," he said.
But the president of the General Council of the Vendée Bruno Retailleau hit back.
“Respecting secularism doesn’t mean abandoning all our traditions and cultural heritage,” he said.
“Should we also ban the Christmas stars hanging on our streets right now, under the pretext that a religious symbol will tarnish public space?”