French court orders town to remove Virgin Mary statue

A French court on Friday ordered a small town to remove a statue of the Virgin Mary, saying the religious display violates the separation of church and state.

French court orders town to remove Virgin Mary statue

The statue is located at a crossroads in La Flotte, a municipality of 2,800 inhabitants on the popular holiday island Ile-de-Re, off France’s Atlantic coast.

The statue was erected by a local family after World War II in gratitude for a father and son having returned from the conflict alive.

Its initial home was a private garden, but the family later donated it to the town which set it up at the crossroads in 1983.

In 2020, it was damaged by a passing car, and the local authorities decided to restore the statue and put it back in the same place, but this time on an elevated platform.

That move triggered a legal complaint by La Libre Pensee 17, an association dedicated to the defence of secularity, on the basis that a French law dating back to 1905 forbids religious monuments in public spaces.

A court in Poitiers followed the argument as did, on appeal, the regional court in Bordeaux, ordering La Flotte to remove the statue, according to a press statement. 

Local mayor Jean-Paul Heraudeau called the discussion around the statue “ridiculous” because, he said, it was part of the town’s “historical heritage” and should be considered “more of a memorial than a religious statue”.

But while the court accepted that the authorities had not intended to express any religious preference, it also said that “the Virgin Mary is an important figure in Christian religion,” which gives it “an inherently religious character”.

According to Catholic doctrine going back to the New Testament, God chose Mary to give birth to Jesus while remaining a virgin, through the Holy Spirit.

Catholicism, and several other religions, venerate Mary as a central figure in their faith, and she has been the subject of countless works of art over the centuries.

La Flotte has six months to remove the statue, the court said.

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Demands for inquiry after French police ask schools for information on pupils absent on Muslim festival of Eid

Teaching unions and anti-racism charities have demanded an inquiry after French police sent a request to schools for information on the number of pupils absent on the Muslim festival of Eid.

Demands for inquiry after French police ask schools for information on pupils absent on Muslim festival of Eid

The French government has confirmed that it asked for “an evaluation” of the number of pupils absent from schools in one south-western city on the day of Eid al-Fitr last month, but has rejected claims the controversial request amounted to a census on faith.

Such a study would be illegal under France’s secularism laws.

Police asked school principals in Toulouse to tell them the number of students absent on the day, according to reports as part of a “request from the intelligence services” to calculate “the percentage of absenteeism […] during the Eid holiday [on April 21st]”.

The request was made directly to schools, without the involvement of local education authorities, the Toulouse rectorate said.

“As soon as the heads of establishments and school principals informed us of this request, instructions were obviously given not to respond to it,” the rectorate told AFP. “We see this as a serious drift, a stigmatisation of Muslim students and an attack on their freedom of conscience.”

Human rights group SOS Racisme led widespread criticism of the request, which officials have tried to brush off as merely clumsily addressed: “For which other religious holidays does the Ministry of the Interior request an assessment of the absenteeism rate?” it demanded.

The Union of Mosques of France has called for a “proper investigation” into the matter. “Families must be duly informed and reassured of the fate of the information given by some heads of schools who have, unfortunately, responded to the request of the police,” it said.

Teaching unions, too, came out in condemnation. “We do not understand how we could have this initiative, without it having been discussed anywhere,” a spokesman for the regional section of teachers’ union SUD-Education, said. 

“SUD-Education 31-65 will call on the School Security Police Correspondents, the prefecture and the rectorate to request explanations regarding this procedure and to demand the official withdrawal of this injunction which is akin to denunciation.”

Secretary of State for Citizenship Sonia Backès has now acknowledged that the Interior Ministry requested some academies provide information for an “evaluation of the rate of absenteeism observed on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr” but denied any desire to file students according to religion.

“The ministry regularly studies the impact of certain religious holidays on the functioning of public services, particularly within the school sphere,” she wrote. And she insisted: “No nominative data has been requested or recorded at any time.”

Despite France’s secular laws, several Christian festivals are public holidays in France. Non-Christian pupils are permitted to take a day off school for religious holidays, provided the request is made in advance.

READ ALSO Reader question: Can I take my children out of a French school during term time?

A circular published in 2004 stated: “Authorisations of absence must be able to be granted to pupils for major religious holidays which do not coincide with a day off and the dates of which are noted each year by an instruction published in the Official Bulletin of National Education.”