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'Santons' in a nativity scene. Photo supplied

French state goes to court to take down nativity scene

The conservative, anti-immigration mayor of a French town is celebrating Christmas with a nativity scene, but the subprefect has announced that a summary charge will be filed in the administrative court of Montpellier against him.

Published: December 5, 2018, 6:41 am

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    Béziers

    Robert Ménard has once again set up a Biblical nativity scene in the town hall of Béziers and thus the legal battle around the crib of Béziers will resume.

    Ménard ordered the manger display in the courtyard of the town hall of his city and, according to regional daily Midi Libre, the subprefect is taking him to court, claiming that the installation at the city council does not respect the law of 1905 on the separation of the Church and the State.

    In the regional daily, Christian Pouget demanded “the immediate removal of the crib”. According to the subprefect, “in the case of the Christmas festivities, there are thirty-six thousand places where he could, without any difficulty, put the crib. He chose to do it in town hall. It is a deliberate desire to trample on the 1905 law”. Adding that it was “for the judge to decide,” the subprefect said that Ménard did not install the manger at the town hall “inadvertently”.

    It is interesting to note that Ménard was elected, while the subprefect has no such legitimacy. He is a political appointment, imposing his will on the inhabitants.

    The controversy was started in 2014, when Ménard installed a manger at the town hall. The Administrative Court of Appeal of Marseille then annulled in April 2017 a decision of the administrative court of Montpellier which had validated the decision of Ménard to install a manger at the city hall.

    The Conseil d’Etat estimated in November 2017 that nativity scenes should be banned in public spaces, “unless there are particular circumstances that show that this installation is of a cultural, artistic or festive nature”.

    The small figurines in a Nativity scene, known as Santons [little saints] in the Provençal dialect, represent a industry in the south of France.

    Usually hand-painted, the terracotta figurines represent various characters from the life of a Provençal village, together with biblical characters.

    Mary, Joseph, the donkey and the ox, the three Wise Men intermingle with typical Provençal village characters like the town crier, the poacher, an elderly couple Grasset and Grasseto, and the washerwoman.

    Santons are produced in workshops around in Provence but the most famous and specialised sellers are found at the Santons Fair in Marseille and Aix-en-Provence. Initially set up on the first Sunday of Advent, static Nativity scenes usually remain on display in France until February.

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