La Flotte-en-Ré: The Case of the Virgin Mary Statue Goes On

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In a case started in France by secular humanists, the court ordered the removal of the statue. The city appealed.

31 Marzo 2022

by PierLuigi Zoccatelli

Last month, Bitter Winter reported about the strange case of a statue of the Virgin Mary in the French village of La Flotte-en-Ré, on the Ré Island, that the secular humanist organization National Federation for Free Thought (Fédération nationale de la libre pensée) wanted removed or destroyed.

The case is legally complicated. When it was erected in 1945, to thank the Virgin Mary for the safe return home of local soldiers in World War II, the statue stood on private ground. In the 1980s, the municipality decided to create a new roundabout, and needed the part of the ground where the statue was. An agreement was reached, and the statue was kept and moved just a few meters in what was now public ground.

Theoretically, the French law prohibits to “install on public ground” religious symbols. However, in this case, the municipality had not “installed” or “erected” a statue. It had just slightly moved a statue that already existed on private ground, pursuant to an agreement with the owner.

However, on May 17, 2020, a car hit and destroyed the statue. The municipality reconstructed it, and the National Federation for Free Thought argued this was a new “installation” of the statue, as such forbidden by the 1905 law separating church and state.

On March 3, 2022, the Justice Court of Poitiers sided with the freethinkers. It concluded that what the city did was a “new installation,” and ordered the statue removed within six months. It can be a precedent for two similar cases pending about statues at Les-Sables-d’Olonne (Vendée) and Cogolin (Var).

In Cogolin, the case is about two statues, one of St. Maurus and one of the Virgin Mary. The second one has a curious story, as it was already moved in 2013, after some inhabitants complained that it was disrespectful to the Virgin Mary that it stood on Chemin de la Radasse, since “radasse” is a slang term for “prostitute.” It was then moved to the more appropriately named street Chemin Notre-Dame-des-Anges, but it remained on public ground.

One element not considered in the Poitiers Court decision is the overwhelming opinion of the citizens of La Flotte-en-Ré to keep the statue of the Virgin Mary where it is. They argue that the statue is not devotional but has become a local landmark and an opportunity to reflect on the anguish of the wars.

On March 22, the city appealed. The mayor, Jean-Paul Héraudeau, expressed the city’s willingness to go to the State Council and the European Court of Human Rights if needed. He is supported by the mayors of nearby cities in what they perceive as a case where judges do not really understand local traditions and local sensitivity.

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