The conservative weekly Valeurs Actuelles blames Dalil Boubakeur, rector of Paris's Grand Mosque and president of the French Council of Muslims, for the controversy the magazine has inflamed.
Asked by a presenter on Europe 1 radio station if disused French churches should be transformed into mosques, Boubakeur replied: “Why not? It’s the same God. The rites are similar, fraternal. I think Muslims and Christians can coexist.”
The outcry was immediate, and Boubakeur withdrew his statement the same day.
Valeurs Actuelles nonetheless published a cover story and a petition titled "Touche pas à mon église!" ("Don't touch my church!" – an allusion to the famous anti-racist slogan "Don't touch my buddy.")
Drafted by the conservative author
, the petition calls for “Resistance, because our churches, even disused, are not destined to become mosques. [We] launch an appeal to preserve these sentinels of the French soul.”
Within a day, 25,000 people signed the petition, including former president Nicolas Sarkozy and much of the right-wing intelligentsia.
Philosopher and member of the Académie française Alain Finkelkraut said "converting a church into a mosque . . . conveys the image of a veritable cultural substitution".
Finkelkraut's words echoed Renaud Camus's theory – espoused by many supporters of the National Front (FN) – of a Grand Remplacement of the white, Christian population by Arab Muslims.
Other signers include the former cabinet minister Jeannette Bougrab, who was the companion of the murdered director of Charlie Hebdo, Stéphane Charbonnier, the philosopher Pascal Bruckner, the essayist Elisabeth Lévy, the novelist Jean Raspail – whose 1973 novel Le Camp des Saints foretold the mass arrival of impoverished immigrants on European shores – and Eric Zemmour, whose Le Suicide Français was a controversial bestseller.
The former president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing called Boubakeur’s statement “clumsy” and “provocative” and noted that “Catholic churches have been part of the historic patrimony of the French population for ten centuries” .
Only 6 per cent of the French attend Mass every Sunday, but Giscard said it would nonetheless “be shocking and ill-advised to try to use them for other purposes”.
The former prime minister Édouard Balladur said Boubakeur’s statement was “absurd” since most disused churches were in rural zones where there are few Muslims.
Valeurs Actuelles found two French churches that had been converted into mosques, in 1981 and 1984. Most of France's 45,000 churches belong to the state, which has no intention of selling them. In Italy, dozens have been sold and transformed into various incarnations including a museum, a nightclub, a luxury hotel, a library, concert hall and garage.
The controversy is polarising politicians, intellectuals and media.
newspaper accused Sarkozy of signing the petition to seduce the Catholic electorate, whom FN leader
Marine Le Pen
is also playing to.
The French philosopher and member of the Académie française Pierre Nora denounced "the totally artificial and monstrous hysteria over French churches being replaced by mosques".
Exactly six months ago, nearly four million French people marched to protest a jihadist rampage that killed 17 people in Paris. “At the time, everyone said, ‘We’re not afraid,’ and ‘We’re united’,” Nora said. Both statements were false, he added.
Laurent Joffrin, the director of Libération newspaper, called the petition "an appeal for intolerance . . . an insidious sermon for hatred", and accused those who had signed it of "flying to the rescue of churches that are in no way threatened, unless it's by lack of parishioners".
The alarmist rhetoric “is based on nothing other than a primitive hostility towards Islam,” Joffrin continued. He argued that “Ceding churches to Islam would be a beautiful symbol of concord and fraternity . . . the recognition of the filiation between these two religions of the book.”