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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British PM promises ‘new impetus’ to French ties

Britain's Prime Minister Keir Starmer promised on Thursday to bring a "new impetus" to ties with France and to work with Paris to oppose Russia's invasion of Ukraine and end migrant-trafficking across the Channel.

British PM promises 'new impetus' to French ties

Starmer was to meet France’s President Emmanuel Macron later in the day for one-to-one talks on the sidelines of the European Political Community summit in Blenheim Palace, near Oxford.

In a piece published in French newspaper Le Monde to mark the meeting, the new British premier acknowledged Britain is no longer one of France’s EU partners, since the previous government left the union.

But, Starmer wrote, 120 years after the Entente Cordiale agreements resolving colonial disputes between Paris and London, “we are still bound by many things”, citing the G7 group, UN Security Council and NATO.

And he recalled the key role Britain and France have played as European military and economic powers in resisting Russia.

“I never thought, in my lifetime, that I would hear the rumble of war echoing across Europe. I never thought a leader would choose such an absurd and destructive path,” Starmer wrote.

“And yet, Russian President Vladimir Putin made this choice. Our determination to face it must never waver.”

Freshly elected at the head of a Labour Party government with a large House of Commons majority, Starmer also addressed the issue of cross-Channel migration, which has hurt ties in the recent past.

As prime minister, Starmer has already abandoned his predecessor’s efforts to expel asylum-seekers arriving in Britain by boat to Rwanda, but is still seeking a way to slow arrivals from France.

“A veritable criminal empire is today at work throughout Europe. It profits from human misery and despair, sending countless innocent people to their deaths in the waters of the English Channel,” he said.

“For me, this problem is no longer a challenge, it is a crisis. We will therefore work with France and with all our European partners to resolve it,” he wrote, vowing that Britain would respect international law.

The former senior lawyer stressed that Britain would continue to respect the European Convention on Human Rights, which the previous government had considered quitting.