Famously Secular France Now Finances Mosques

by David J. Rusin

“The Republic neither recognizes, nor salaries, nor subsidizes any religion.” So says the 1905 French law on the separation of church and state. Yet nowadays officials do everything in their power to promote the construction of mosques — even providing sweetheart land deals that push the bounds of legality.

A report finds that 30% of the funding for mosques in France can be traced to public coffers. While one Muslim leader credits “divine will,” the real driver is politics:

The mayors involved sometimes want more control but also to win votes in tight elections. With the explosion of land prices, granting municipal land proves decisive. The emphyteutic lease has become the principal tool of mayors, even if the courts sometimes punish rents which are too low, seen as explicit financing of religion. This was the case in Marseille and Montreuil.

Since then the system has become more refined. Mayors use the additional cultural activities of the mosque, sometimes a simple tearoom, in order to give subsidies.

An emphyteutic lease is a long-term contract that requires the lessee to improve the property. French cities have been using the mechanism to transfer land to Muslim groups for rates as low as one euro per year, thus provoking outrage. A lawsuit challenging the Marseille agreement ended with the rent being upped to €24,000. The Montreuil lease was struck down in 2007, but an appeals court overturned the decision, contending that the symbolic amount is not a subsidy because the grounds and mosque will revert to government control in 2107. Yes, 2107.

Ironically, the 1905 statute — which applies to all of France except Alsace-Lorraine — is used to argue for public support of mosques. That law ended the funding of faith groups and made their buildings the property of the state, which now maintains them. But critics assert that this favors Catholicism, whose pre-1905 churches were built with government aid, over Islam, whose late-arriving adherents bear the full cost of constructing and caring for new mosques. Politicians as high as President Sarkozy sympathize with this view and even talk of modifying the legal code.

France is not the only Western nation to provide land for mosques, at times stretching the law to do so. The government of Argentina handed off a parcel appraised at $10 million for a mega-mosque in Buenos Aires, while Boston has been embroiled in a scandal over the below-market-value sale of real estate to house an Islamic cultural center.

However, France stands out because the country, which banned religious symbols in schools five years ago, is reputed to be the most secular in Europe. That it now finances, more or less openly, Muslim places of worship speaks to the social changes sweeping the nation and the continent. For states looking to better manage those changes, here is a good place to start: resist the temptation to bend or alter laws for the exclusive benefit of any single group.