On the island of Ré, a statue of the Virgin threatened with being moved in the name of secularism

She stands with arms wide open at the entrance to the village of La Flotte, on the Ile de Ré. The statue of the Virgin is at the crossroads of avenues du 8-Mai and that of Vieux-Moulins. For the past few weeks, it has been in the news and has brought to the fore debates relating to secularism and the 1905 law of separation of Church and State. The administrative court of Poitiers (Vienne) must decide on this subject on March 3.

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The statue of the Virgin was erected at the end of the Second World War, in 1945, “by families happy to see their children return from the war”, explains the mayor of La Flotte, Jean-Paul Héraudeau. Initially arranged in a private place, it was moved in the 1980s, following the expropriation of the land by the department of Charente-Maritime. The statue was erected a few meters further by the municipality of the time and displayed at the crossroads of several streets. “At the time, nobody said anything, everything was fine,” says the mayor.

The administrative court goes in the direction of the association

However, an incident calls into question the location of the statue. In 2020, she was hit by a motorist and shattered into pieces. The driver goes the next day to the town hall and the decision is made to rebuild it identically, “thanks to the money from the motorist’s insurance and not from public funds”, says Jean-Paul Héraudeau. When he arrived at the town hall, he decided to continue the work of his predecessor and reinstalled the Virgin on his crossroads.

It was at this time that the association La libre-pensée 17 seized the administrative court of Poitiers, invoking article 28 of the law of 1905 on the separation of Church and State: “It is forbidden, future, to erect or affix any religious sign or emblem on public monuments or in any public place. »

The national secretary of La libre-pensée, Christian Eyschen, assures him, “there is a violation of the law of 1905. It is obvious, the law applies”. According to him, as soon as it moved into the public space in the 1980s, the statue was already illegal. And if it was not removed at that time, it is because of the context: “A post-war atmosphere, people had other things to think about, it was not a priority. But it is not because it was tolerated for a time that we must continue on this path. » A few weeks ago, the rapporteur of the administrative court issued his conclusions, which go in the direction of the association.

A “grotesque” situation

Faced with the probable displacement of the Virgin, many voices are raised on the island of Ré. “The inhabitants are attached to this religious background, it is part of the landscape”, affirms Father Michel Cottereau, parish priest of the pastoral complex of the island. Around the statue of the Virgin, a bus shelter of the same name, a dead end and the crossroads very often associated with it.

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“I find this questioning of part of the history of our village grotesque. If there hadn’t been the accident, there wouldn’t have been a story.” deplores the mayor of La Flotte. For the lawyer at the Paris Court of Appeal Me Alain Garay, specialist in cults, “the question of heritage may arise if the statue is listed in the heritage inventory and is recognized as such”.

In the municipality of La Flotte, two petitions were launched at the initiative of residents, one in paper format in shops, the other on the Internet which has already collected 6,500 signatures. Jérôme Vignon, president of the association of friends of the church of Ars-en-Ré, a neighboring town of La Flotte (and former president of the Social Weeks of France), planned to sign the petition. “Statues and churches belong to everyone, it’s cultural and it’s not just for believers. These are elements that bring us together and that tell the past ”he said.

Similar cases of seizure by La libre-pensée have already taken place in Sables-d’Olonne (Vendée), and in Ploërmel (Morbihan), where statues representing Saint Michael and John Paul II respectively have been moved. “You have to understand that in these cases there is also an anthropological and religious heritage which relates to the religious wars that raged in France. It’s the only country in the world where we have this kind of debate.”, explains sociologist Olivier Bobineau. The mayor of La Flotte has already announced that he will appeal the decision if it included moving the statue.


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