Explained: Why are Christmas cribs a political issue in France?

Just a few days into his new job as leader of France's Les Républicains party, Eric Ciotti was trying to score points using pictures of a traditional Christmas nativity scene - but why is this a political issue in France?

Explained: Why are Christmas cribs a political issue in France?
A traditional Christmas nativity scene. Photo by Yann COATSALIOU / AFP

Ciotti tweeted this image, with the comment: “Magnificent crib in the hall of the Alpes-Maritimes département [local government office], to keep our traditions alive. Let’s be proud of our roots!”

What are we talking about?

This is the traditional Christmas crib or nativity scene – a model of the stable in Bethlehem where Jesus was born, usually showing Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, some animals and often shepherds and wise men/kings. 

Are these banned in France?

Absolutely not, you will see them all over the country in the run-up to Christmas, from life-size ones in public spaces to little models on sale in shops to display in your home.

Some towns even do a ‘live’ nativity with real animals (sheep, donkeys etc) in a pen around the crib, and in parts of south-west France you will see the fun Catalan addition to the nativity scene – the Crapper.

So why are politicians talking about them?

There are some restrictions on displaying a crib, and they are to do with France’s laïcité (secularism) rules.

You can read a full explanation of what laïcité really means HERE, but the broad principle is that no religious displays are allowed in State buildings – which includes schools, town halls and government offices.

This is the same principle that bars Muslim women from wearing headscarfs (hijab) in such public buildings (with the exception of visitors) and State employees such as police officers and civil servants from wearing religious clothing such as a hijab or kippah while on duty.

And the crucial thing about laïcité is that it applies to all religions, which means that a Christmas crib (a religious display celebrating the Christian festival) is not allowed in State buildings such as the town hall or schools.

If you have kids in French schools, you’ll notice that there are no Nativity plays at this time of year, for the same reason.

Cribs are allowed, however, in outdoor spaces such as the town square, in private businesses such as supermarkets or other shops, cafés etc and of course in private homes and in churches.

Have these rules changed recently?

No, laïcité has been part of the legal code since 1905, but the Christmas cribs rows come round fairly regularly.

Usually they are the territory of the far-right, and there have been multiple cases over the years of far-right mayors setting up a Christmas crib in their town hall, and trying to create headlines through their ‘defiance’ of the laïcité rules and references to France as a ‘Christian country’.

This time it is Ciotti, who has just been elected leader of the Les Républicains. The party (that of presidents Charles de Gaulle, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy) is traditionally described as centre-right, but Ciotti himself is much closer to Marine Le Pen and the far-right Rassemblement National in his views on immigration, identity and Islam.

His tweet refers to the crib as ‘living our traditions . . being proud of our roots’.

Of course, laïcité is one of France’s most well-known traditions and dates back over 100 years. But another tradition that’s almost as old is politicians pretending to misunderstand laïcité rules in order to score political points.

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French govt faces new no-confidence vote over pensions row

France's government will face a no-confidence vote next week after a latest attempt to repeal an unpopular increase in the retirement age prompted left-wing opponents to announce the motion on Thursday.

French govt faces new no-confidence vote over pensions row

The pensions overhaul, a flagship measure of President Emmanuel Macron’s second and final term, lifted the retirement age to 64 from 62, sparking the country’s biggest protests in a generation.

The government has already survived multiple no-confidence votes over the pensions overhaul, even though Macron’s centrist party lost its overall majority in the lower-house National Assembly shortly after his re-election last year.

Facing the reform’s potential defeat in the Assembly, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne had invoked in March a controversial constitutional mechanism that passed the law without a vote.

Parliament’s speaker Yael Braun-Pivet on Wednesday said she would block on constitutional grounds a move by a small independent faction aimed at repealing the reform with new legislation, prompting the latest attempt to oust the government.

Mathilde Panot, a leading figure in the hard-left La France Insoumise (LFI)  party, told reporters that the leftist NUPES alliance submitted a no-confidence vote due to be examined early next week after the “anti-democratic” move.

The LIOT group that tabled the latest challenge to the pensions overhaul withdrew its text on Thursday, after the key article on repealing the retirement age rise was removed.

Panot said “discussions were still ongoing” with LIOT, which had not yet decided whether it would back the initiative.

The no-confidence motion appears to have scant chance of success because the right-wing Les Républicains party is unlikely to back it.

The far-right Rassemblement National (RN) party is also considering tabling a no-confidence motion.

“When a government allows itself to attack the workings of democracy to this extent, it deserves censure,” said its leader Marine Le Pen.

Panot said the NUPES coalition would “never abandon the fight” against the higher retirement age and would continue working towards its common goal of lowering the age to 60.

Thursday’s stormy parliamentary debate on the pension reform was interrupted when news broke of a mass stabbing attack in the Alpine town of Annecy, with MPs holding a minute’s silence in honour of the victims.