A Virgin Mary in La Flotte-en-Ré, a statue of St. Michael in Les Sables-d’Olonne. “Cancel culture” or campaign for the presidential elections?
by PierLuigi Zoccatelli
France is one of the countries that still maintain old-fashioned anticlerical associations, which keep alive the flame of conflicts that many would regard as typical of the 19th century. One of these is the National Federation for Free Thought (Fédération nationale de la libre pensée), whose Web site proclaims “Neither God nor Master! Down with the Clergy and Long Live the Social(ism)!”
Periodically, the Federation starts court cases, asking that religious statues erected in public places be removed based on the principle of separation of church and state. In fact, the French law of separation of 1905 did prohibit to install religious symbols on public spaces from January 1, 1906, but the notion of “religious symbol” is not obvious. Those who want to keep the statues often counterclaim that they have a cultural or historical meaning rather than a religious one. Also, the Federation acts now against statues that have been erected decades ago.
In La Flotte-en-Ré, on the Ré Island, a statue of the Virgin Mary was erected in 1945 as a way of thanking the Virgin for the safe return home of local soldiers. The statue was hit by a car and destroyed in 2020. An identical reproduction has been reinstalled by the city where it was before, which caused the legal action by the anticlerical Federation.
In Les Sables-d’Olonne, in the Western department of Vendée, a statue of St. Michael marks from more than 80 years the city’s neighborhood known as Quartier Saint Michel. Here, again, the Federation asked a local court to have it removed and won in December 2021, but the city appealed, and published a press release criticizing the “cancel culture” coming to France.
The Federation’s actions are generally unpopular. The statues have been there for decades, most citizens like them, and city councils claim that they do not promote any religion but are part of the local landscape and history. One possible solution they are considering is to transfer the plots where they stand to privates.
The Federation’s actions may be regarded as old-fashioned anti-clerical folklore but the presidential elections in France are scheduled for next April. The Free Thought Federation, apart from its general approach to a French-style “cancel culture,” may want the political parties to take a stand. Some do, not necessarily supporting the Federation. For example, the member of the European Parliament François-Xavier Bellamy, from The Republicans party (which is part of the European center-right People’s Party) went to La Flotte-en-Ré to support the statue. So did the flamboyant and controversial right-wing candidate Eric Zemmour, who went in January to Les Sables-d’Olonne and visited the location where, pending the appeal, the statue of St. Michael still stands.