French far-right mayor’s city hall menorah sparks controversy

Cnaan Liphshiz

(JTA) — A French mayor with ties to the far-right National Front party lit a menorah in city hall despite protests that doing so violated the separation of church and state.

Robert Menard of Beziers, who was elected mayor earlier this year, lit the menorah Tuesday, the first night of Hanukkah, at the seat of his municipality, the Actualite Juive newspaper reported Thursday.

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Aime Couquet, a well-known former leader of the French Communist Party who lives in Beziers, told the Midi Libre daily that it was “a violation of the French constitution and of the law on the separation of church and state” and that the mayor “installed a new ostentatious religious symbol inside city hall.”

Maurice Abitbol, president of the local Jewish community, told Actualite Juive that he asked the mayor to erect a menorah but that the local branch of the Consistoire – French Jewry’s organization responsible for religious services – “applied heavy pressure” to prevent the event from taking place due to  Menard’s National Front affiliation.

Representatives of France’s Jewish community are boycotting the National Front, which they say needs to distance itself from party officials like honorary president and founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, who has multiple convictions for inciting hate against Jews and for Holocaust denial. His daughter and successor as party leader, Marine Le Pen, has tried to reach out to French Jews.

Abitbol said Menard was ”impartial.”

On Friday, an administrative court in the nearby city of Montpellier rejected a motion filed by a local human rights group requesting that the court issue an injunction against a nativity scene, or crèche, that Menard had placed at city hall several weeks ago.

Judge Marianne Hardy ruled that the crèche posed neither a danger to public order nor to “the principles of secularism and neutrality.”

Secularism in the public sphere, or laicite, is a principle of the French government and constitution. Many are concerned the principle is being eroded, in part because of the arrival to France of millions of Muslims from the 1950s onward.