At the time the law was passed, Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish institutions already had a wealth of buildings and facilities and assets, and they retain them to this day. What's more, a number of those holy buildings were linked to "cultural associations," which the state continues to fund generously. Muslims have no such assets, and their religious traditions make it harder for them to use the political arena to obtain any. Islam doesn't have a hierarchical clergy the way the Catholic Church does. Nor can the Muslims of France, drawn from various countries and religious traditions, form community institutions as easily as, say, the mostly indigenous Jewish population can. The sociologist Franck Frégosi, of CNRS Strasbourg, a national center for scientific research, draws out the comparison rather starkly: France's 45 million Catholics have 40,000 cathedrals, churches, and chapels. Its 900,000 Protestants have 957 houses of worship. Its 500,000 Jews have eighty-two synagogues and large oratories. Its four million Muslims have eight formal mosques (some count 1,600 mosques, but many of these are better described as informal prayer rooms in cellars or spare workrooms). There are Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish -- but no Muslim -- chaplains in the French army.
The unequal position of Islam makes it harder for Muslims to integrate in two ways, Hagoug thinks. First, it radicalizes the religion in practice, because freelance "mosques" tend to be set up by poorly trained, fiery, self-appointed imams. Given the interplay between religion and politics in Islam, this in turn radicalizes Muslims' politics. Second, the formal mosques that do exist are funded by foreign Islamic governments often hostile to France's interests. Paris's grand mosque is mainly funded by the government of Algeria, others by Saudi Arabia. This can lead the français de souche to suspect -- sometimes with justification -- that their Muslim fellow citizens constitute a kind of fifth column. And no justification is necessarily needed for their suspicions. "After the Algerian war," Hagoug says, speaking of a humiliating debacle that remains fresh in many minds, "we're a symbol of a French failure."
Benmarnia is intent on making the Muslim presence in France normal, regular, nonsymbolic. Ultimately, the couple's mission is not so much about separatist claims as about family values. This leads one to wonder if they recognize any commonality with William Bennett and other American conservatives. "We're not the Moral Majority," Hagoug says with a laugh. But when asked if the primary problem is a secularized France with little concern for protecting the interests of families, he nods. "That's it!"
To an American, what's most interesting about Hagoug is his extreme patience in talking about subjects that elicit strident rage in the United States. He loves Marseille, but thinks that a certain amount of racism may be part of its warp and woof. "The identity of the Marseillais," he says, "is often formed by striking out at the last to arrive." He admits that taxi drivers in Marseille are notably xenophobic, but adds that it is possible to negotiate with them; in the mid-1980s their union even petitioned for a loosening of visa requirements for Algerians, worrying that the government's crackdown on immigration was curtailing tourist revenues. In his opposition to a xenophobic politics that would permanently eliminate any room for such negotiations, though, Hagoug is uncompromising. "A National Front victory," he says, "locally or nationally, would be a mortal wound to Marseille."
It may be in the fascistic National Front that the most surprising shift in attitudes toward Arabs has taken place. During the European elections of 1998 Samuel Maréchal, the party's director of communications (and son-in-law of its founder and leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen), addressed what he called the "multi-denominational" aspect of France. The National Front, he said, would continue to battle against "clandestine" immigration and to back the deportation of new arrivals who were criminals, but it now favored reaching out to Islam. It would continue to oppose the foreign financing of mosques, but would be in favor of changing the law of 1905 in order to ensure French government funding for them. In fact, the National Front is "absolutely" in favor of Muslims' building mosques, so long as they're not "cathedral mosques," with minarets and other symbols on display in ways that might provoke other religions. When the National Front adjutant Bruno Mégret broke with Le Pen over this and other issues, the movement split in two.