France’s struggle to overcome disaffection among its large Muslim population has provoked a battle over plans for the “backdoor public funding” of new mosques.
In a project calculated to counter extremists’ attempts to indoctrinate young Muslims on sink estates, civic leaders in Marseilles have set aside 60,000 square feet of wasteland for a Islamic centre in the La Pomme district.
An even grander scheme would create a central mosque for up to 8,000 worshippers.
But opponents say the plans amount to public aid for a religious group in defiance of a 1905 law separating church and state. The issue is likely to end up in court.
Marseilles sees itself as the France’s most cosmopolitan city. Muslims number 200,000, one in four of the population. The moves to encourage Islam’s moderate voices echo last year’s call by Nicolas Sarkozy for a review of the law to allow mosques to be built with state aid.
Then finance minister, now head of the interior ministry, Mr Sarkozy saw his idea shot down as opinion backed France’s secularist ideals.
For senior Muslim figures in Marseilles, however, the city’s plans reflect his hopes of dismantling the network of makeshift mosques in poor areas.
Abderrahman Ghoul, an imam, said: “We want to find ways of changing the negative images of our faith – extremism and suicide bombers. Helping people with facilities to meet and worship with dignity will contribute to that.”
But the Left-wing Free Thinkers’ Association claims that Marseilles officials are relying on a 1942 amendment passed by the Vichy regime.
“We understand the anger of Muslims who feel we are discriminating against them,” said Henri Huille, the association’s area president.
“But we were just as strongly against the use of public money towards restoring the Notre Dame statue overlooking the city.”