Ploërmel – a small town of 9,000 inhabitants in Brittany, France – recently made the news over a controversy surrounding a monument honouring Pope John Paul II. A 7-meter-high statue of the pope was gifted to the town in 2006 by the Russian artist Zourab Tsereteli, who also sculpted the monumental statue of Peter the Great in Moscow. The trouble with the statue of the pontiff, which stood in a square named for him, is that it was topped by an arch with a large cross – and secularists said it violated the French doctrine of the separation of church and state.
Erected after a decision by the Ploërmel city council on October 28, 2006, the monument did not seem to disturb anybody – except for the “Morbihan Federation for Free Thought” and two inhabitants of Ploërmel. They petitioned the court for the monument to be removed from any public location, seeing it as a violation of the principle of secularism (laïcité), particularly of article 28 of the December 9, 1905, French Law on the Separation of the Churches and the State. This provision states that “in the future, it is forbidden to put up or affix any religious mark or emblem on public monuments or any public location, with the exception of buildings used for religious worship, burial grounds in cemeteries, funerary monuments, and museums or exhibitions.”
Thus, by a judgment of October 25, 2017, (“Morbihan Federation for Free Thought and Others,” no. 396990), the French Conseil d’Etat gave the town of Ploërmel six months to remove the cross atop the monument – but ruled the statue of Pope John Paul II and the arch could remain. Some pointed out the “outstanding exercise of legal contortion” performed by judges to reach such a decision. The court did not assess the work of art in its entirety but separated the statue itself from the overhanging cross – yet even the judgment mentions that “the monument would have included these two elements from its creation by the artist.” The judges accomplished this feat by ruling, on the one hand, that the installation of the statue resulted from a deliberation of the city council, and the council’s decision had been lawfully published. As the period for bringing a legal action had expired, it could not be challenged. On the other hand, the council’s deliberation mentioned the statue but no other element, like the arch or the cross. As such, the court ruled, “the installation of an arch and a cross above the statue should thus be considered as revealing a [distinct] decision by the mayor” which had never been published. This decision remains subject to challenge, as the period for bringing an action never began. So, the highest administrative jurisdiction in France explained in a release, “As the cross constitutes a religious mark or emblem within the meaning of article 28 of the 9 December 1905 law and, as its installation by the town does not fall in any of the exceptions foreseen by this article, its presence in a public location is inconsistent with this law.”
Reactions to the judgment of the Conseil d’Etat were immediate. About 300 people demonstrated around the monument to protest against this form of “Christianophobia.” Many posted pictures of the cross, or other crosses, on Twitter under the hashtag #ShowYourCross. The association “Don’t touch my Pope” proposed to buy the ground on which the monument was erected, making it private property. The mayor of Ploërmel considered bringing the case before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The outcry was also heard beyond France’s borders. “The Polish government will try to save our compatriot’s monument from censorship, and we will propose to transfer it to Poland, if French authorities and the local community agree,” declared the Prime Minister Beata Szydło. He added that Pope John Paul II, “our great Pole, a great European, is a symbol of a Christian, united Europe.” József Michl, the mayor of the Hungarian town of Tata, also proposed to host the monument, affirming that “France has an evident problem with Europe’s Christian roots.”
Indeed, this case is symptomatic of the identity crisis suffered by France and Western Europe in general: They reject their Christian roots, culture, and identity. As Pope Benedict XVI said in 2010, “Christianity has enabled Europe to understand what the freedom, responsibility and ethics that imbue its laws and social structures actually are. To marginalize Christianity also by the exclusion of the symbols that express it would lead to cutting our continent off from the fundamental source that ceaselessly nourishes it and contributes to its true identity.”