Raphael, “St. Michael Vanquishing Satan,” 1518 / Public Domain
CNA Newsroom, Oct 11, 2022 / 06:25 am (CNA).
The recent decision of a French Court of Appeal to confirm the removal of a statue of St. Michael the Archangel from a seaside town stirred strong reactions across the country and attracted widespread media coverage.
Yet, this case in Sables d’Olonne, in the Vendée, is far from isolated.
Indeed, court rulings targeting Catholic symbols or monuments in the public space have increased in recent years, prompting a group of citizens to create an association to defend this heritage of France.
The Sept. 16 Appeal Court’s decision is the result of a complaint filed by the “Fédération nationale de la Libre Pensée” (“National Federation for Free Thought”), an association of local organizations that opposed the installation of a statue of St. Michael in front of a church dedicated to the archangel in 2018.
The statue’s installation, which between 1935 and 2017 was located on the grounds of a private school, was widely approved by the inhabitants of the Sables d’Olonne. Last March, nearly 95% voted in favor of its retention during a popular consultation organized by the town mayor Yannick Moreau.
It is in the name of laïcité, a French term for secularism, that the members of La Libre Pensée started this legal action in 2021.
The legal argument was based on Article 58 of the 1905 law on the separation of the churches and the state, which provides for the prohibition of religious symbols and images in public spaces, except for places of worship, cemeteries, monuments, or museums.
For Baudouin Poupon, president of the association Touche pas à ma statue (“Hands off my statue”), recently created in the Vendée as an attempt to defend the maintenance of the statue of St. Michael and any other Catholic work threatened with removal, the appeal of the mayor of the Sables d’Olonne to the Council of State — the highest administrative jurisdiction of France — has little chance of success.
Indeed, he said in an interview with CNA that the now-famous statue only represents one of the targets of this reputedly anti-clerical association, whose motto is “Neither god nor master, down with the clergy and long live the Social!”
It has accumulated legal victories in recent years and achieved the removal of a number of crosses and nativity scenes from public spaces.
In 2017, after a protracted legal and media battle similar to that of Sables d’Olonne, the Council of State ordered the removal of a cross overhanging the statue of St. John Paul II in the Breton town of Ploërmel, once again against the advice of its inhabitants.
More recently, it was a Virgin Mary statue installed at the village entrance on the Ile de Ré (in the Nouvelle Aquitaine region, western France) that attracted the wrath of zealous secular activists, who obtained the order for its removal from an administrative court.
The statue was erected in the aftermath of the Second World War to give thanks to all the soldiers who returned safely from the war. Heavily damaged after being hit by a car a few years ago, it was rebuilt identically and reinstalled in the same place by the current mayor of the village, Jean-Paul Héraudeau.
“The city council financed the repair of the statue because it is a high symbol of the city’s history and heritage,” Poupon said. “Therefore, its defenders consider that it has, just like the Statue of St. Michael in Vendée, a cultural dimension rather than a religious one.”
Poupon’s association, which has surrounded itself with several lawyers to explore the legal avenues still available in the Sables d’Olonne case, is basing its legal argument on this cultural aspect of the statues involved to counteract the accusation of infringement of secularism.
“Unfortunately, we are not very optimistic about the outcome of the case before the Council of State, given its previous decisions in other legal cases initiated by the Libre Pensée,” he continued, highlighting the scope of action of this federation, which is leading legal actions in the whole country.
“They are pretty much everywhere and because of their pressure on mayors and public officers, many other Catholic monuments and statues will be removed or not restored in the future.”
Poupon said that several other cases were not reported in the media and not opposed by citizens or politicians because of a sense of defeatism caused by their accumulated legal victories.
“It is an association of anti-clerical pensioners who occupy their time with these legal battles. It is a small but very influential minority,” Poupon lamented, adding that the anger of the inhabitants of the cities targeted by their actions is reinforced by the fact that none of the members of La Libre Pensée live there.
“We believe it is time to react to this growing threat to our heritage and culture and we have created ‘Touche pas à ma statue’ with the aim of publicizing these cases as much as possible, to encourage networking and to raise awareness among the greatest number of people.”
Apolitical and nondenominational, the association, which is currently collecting donations, aims to promote the emergence of local antennas across the country to favor more concrete actions, including demonstrations that will continue in Vendée and all the cities targeted in the future.
“We’re receiving a large popular support,” Poupon said, “including from many non-Catholics for whom these statues, crosses, and nativity scenes are the guarantors of their French identity.”