PARIS, Oct 31 (AFP): A call for a change to a century- old French law to allow the state to fund new mosques has sent sparks flying in a society deeply attached to the separation of religion and state.
Concerned that a shortage of mosques is allowing extremists to gain a foothold among France's 5.5 million Muslims by funding places of worship, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy earlier this month named a panel to look into the prickly question.
Due to report to the government in June next year, the committee is being asked, among other things, to suggest ways of reviewing the 1905 secularity law that bans the state from funding places of worship.
The initiative placed Sarkozy squarely at odds with both President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who sees the century-old law as one of the pillars of our republican system and rejects the idea of updating it.
True, more work is needed to recognise the rightful place of France's Muslims, Villepin said, but as members of a strictly secular community.
The two men, rivals both aiming for the presidency in 2007, tried to smooth over their differences on this and other matters at a joint press conference this week.
Sarkozy has repeatedly argued that breaking the French taboo to provide public money for mosques and imams would be the best way of bringing the Muslim community into the mainstream, out of the garages and basements it is often forced to use as unofficial prayer rooms.
"To separate French Islam from foreign influences," he said last month, "let us give it the means to be independent."
Islamic radicals are already thought to control 20 mosques in the country, according to France's domestic intelligence service, which also says militants are increasingly congregating in secret prayer-rooms, out of sight of the authorities.
A year after a hotly-disputed ban on Muslim headscarves and other religious signs came into force in French schools, the debate on funding is the latest in a string of delicate negotiations between France's government and its large Muslim minority.