A French archbishop has expressed his “sadness” at the secularist disruption of a live Nativity in Toulouse, leading to the event’s cancellation.

Driving the news

A group of some fifty self-proclaimed “anticapitalists” protested December 14 against the manger scene set up in the Place Saint-Georges in Toulouse, France’s fourth-largest city and some 680km away from the capital Paris.

Though no injuries were reported in the protest, the demonstrators came looking for a “confrontation” and used “provocative language” against police and Christians, according to local media reports.

The live Christmas crib was organised by the association of young Christian professionals Vivre Noël autrement (“living Christmas in a different way”), who have received authorisation for the event “every year”, recalled on Twitter Toulouse mayor Jean-Luc Moudenc, who also condemned the disruption.

Vivre Noël autrement had expressed its desire that its Nativity would be “open to all, believers or not”, convinced that the manger scene “sends a message of peace, unity, sharing and joy for all”.

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In a statement after the live crib cancellation Saturday, Toulouse archbishop Robert Le Gall condemned the boycotters’ actions and called on Catholics, believers and wider society to “peacefully defend freedom of expression”.

“I regret that the simple reminder of Jesus’ birth and the values it conveys of tenderness and welcoming the stranger is no longer respected in our country and even provokes acts of verbal and physical violence”, Le Gall said, also expressing to La Croix his “sadness” at the turn of events.

Senator Bruno Retailleau went further than the archbishop, and blasted the demonstrators’ actions as “the ultimate stage of stupidity” and “the alliance of ignorance and sectarianism”.

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen blamed “extreme left militias” for the manger disruption and criticised authorities for not cracking down on the protesters.

Why it matters

Nicolas Cadène, general rapporteur of the Observatory of Secularism, was more circumspect than Retailleau and Le Pen, and said interruptions of religious events like that of Toulouse were quite rare.

Still, the expert said the Toulouse incident proves that in France it is “obvious that we are witnessing a resistance against the public manifestation of religious symbols”.

Cadène pointed to the ongoing controversy over the wearing of the hijab and to the recent dust-up over a nun who was refused admission to a retirement home if she insisted on wearing her habit as evidence that the debate about public secularism, or laïcité, is still alive and well in France.

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