French court says Virgin Mary statue must go

Story highlights

Court rules Virgin Mary statue breaks French secularization laws

Far-right politician says the decision signifies a "new tyranny"

CNN —  

The small town of Publier in France’s eastern Haute-Savoie region has been ordered to remove a statue of the Virgin Mary from a public park overlooking Lake Geneva.

The Grenoble Tribunal Administration ordered the statue’s removal after a judgment found that it violates the country’s core values of secularization.

The tribunal’s ruling says the sculpture must be removed within three months. But the town’s mayor says he isn’t budging – yet.

The mayor’s special project

Publier Mayor Gaston Lacroix said he decided to order the Virgin Mary statue while on a hike in September 2011. Wanting to mark a summit, he said he “had the will to build a landmark.”

Lacroix ordered the statue soon after his hike, paying for it with 30,000 euros of public funds. He admitted that “for 48 hours, it was illegal” but said that he reimbursed the municipality with donations from around the world.

The statue, inscribed with the words “Our lady of Lake Geneva is watching over your children,” sits on 50 square meters of a public park near the Swiss border.

Breaking the law

The Grenoble Tribunal Administration first filed a request to the Publier authority in January 2015 after a local group called “The Free Thought Federation of Haute-Savoie” requested a review. The tribunal told CNN that Lacroix took no action last year.

The Virgin Mary statue sits on public land in a park overlooking Lake Geneva.

But the tribunal’s recent ruling on November 24 serves as an official judgment order – and says the statue must be removed because it’s in violation of French law. “It is forbidden to erect or put any religious sign or emblem on the public buildings or in any public place of any sort, excepting buildings dedicated to worship and cemeteries and funeral monuments or museums and exhibits,” says Article 28 of the 1905 French secular law.

If the statue isn’t removed in three months, the town will be fined 100 euros (approximately $106) per day.

In an interview with CNN, Lacroix said there was no state injunction that personally asked him to remove the statue. He said he’d wait for the regional authority to ask him directly.

Lacroix disagrees with the ruling. “It was made to be a landmark. I wanted to unify,” he said. “But unfortunately there is a minority that creates division.”

The larger picture

Critics of the judgment are voicing their opinions on social media.

“I think I have a very open mind, but I cannot stand this new tyranny,” tweeted Jacques Clostermann, a member of France’s far-right National Front party.

The Publier ruling touches on the wider debate surrounding the role of secularism in France today.

France’s secularization laws, ratified in the 1958 constitution under the concept of Laicite, were initially set up to protect religious freedoms while preventing state interference.

Yet, in recent years, the concept has come under public scrutiny. Critics believe that the subjective interpretation of the law has been unjustly used to curb religious freedoms and to push assimilation of French values on the country’s growing Muslim population.

In August, France’s secularist debate was thrown into the international spotlight when armed police officers forced a woman at a beach in Nice to remove part of her clothing as part of the city’s controversial ban on the burkini. The full-length swimsuit that covers the whole body except for the face and feet was initially banned in more than 30 towns. France’s highest administrative court eventually overruled the ban.

In April 2011, France became the first European country to ban wearing the burqa and the niqab in public. The burqa, a full-body covering that includes a mesh over the face, and the niqab, a full-face veil with an opening for the eyes, are worn by some Muslim women in accordance with their religious beliefs.

Headscarves and other “conspicuous” religious symbols were banned in France’s public schools in 2004.

CNN’s Océane Cornevin contributed to this report.