Court cases call for removal of religious statues in France
A Virgin Mary in La Flotte-en-Ré, a statue of Saint Michel in Les Sables-d’Olonne. “Cancel culture” or campaign for presidential elections?
by PierLuigi Zoccatelli
France is among the countries that still maintain old-style anticlerical associations, which keep the flame alive in conflicts that many would consider typical of the 19e century. One of them is the National Federation of Free Thought, whose website proclaims “Neither God nor master! Down with the clergy and long live socialism!
Periodically, the Federation takes legal action, demanding that religious statues erected in public places be removed based on the principle of separation of Church and State. Indeed, the French law of separation of 1905 prohibited the installation of religious symbols in public space from January 1, 1906, but the notion of “religious symbol” is not obvious. Those who want to preserve the statues often claim that they have cultural or historical significance rather than religious. Additionally, the Federation is now taking action against statues that were erected decades ago.
At La Flotte-en-Ré, on the Ile de Ré, a statue of the Virgin Mary was erected in 1945 as a thank you to the Virgin for the safe return of the local soldiers. The statue was hit by a car and destroyed in 2020. An identical reproduction was reinstalled by the city where it previously stood, prompting legal action by the Anticlerical Federation.
In Les Sables-d’Olonne, in the western department of Vendée, a statue of Saint Michel has marked the area of town known as Quartier Saint Michel for over 80 years. Again, the Federation asked a local court to have it removed and won in December 2021, but the city appealed, and issued a press release criticizing the coming “cancellation culture” in France.
Federation actions are generally unpopular. The statues have been there for decades, most citizens love them, and town councils say they don’t promote any religion but are part of the landscape and local history. A possible solution they are considering is to transfer the plots where they are located to private individuals.
The Federation’s actions may be considered old-fashioned anticlerical folklore, but presidential elections in France are scheduled for next April. The Federation of Free Thought, in addition to its general approach of a French-style “culture of cancellation”, may wish that political parties take a stand. Some do, without necessarily supporting the Federation. For example, MEP François-Xavier Bellamy, from Les Républicains (part of the centre-right European People’s Party) traveled to La Flotte-en-Ré to support the statue. Just like the flamboyant and controversial right-wing candidate Eric Zemmour, who traveled to Les Sables-d’Olonne in January and visited the place where, awaiting the roll call, the statue of Saint- Michael.