The United States may get its first Mormon president this year, if Republican candidate Mitt Romney prevails in his bid. But in France, the Mormon faith is viewed with deep suspicion and a project to build the country's first Mormon temple in the Paris suburb of Chesnay is proving to be controversial.
Until recently, Chesnay was mostly known because of its proximity to Versailles, the dazzling 18th-century palace that was home to French "Sun King" Louis XIV. But today, this small town west of Paris is making news because of another monument, a 7,000-square-meter Mormon temple, expected to be built here in the next few years.
From his office window, Chesnay Mayor Philippe Brillault points to an abandoned, asbestos-filled energy plant. This is the property the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has acquired for its temple. Further away, the spire of the Versailles palace church sparkles in the sun.
Brillault admits he was not thrilled to receive the church's request to acquire the property. He says the Mormons have a negative image in predominately Catholic France, even if they may not deserve it. Brillault says he granted the building permit after an investigation he commissioned found no reason to refuse it.
With 36,000 members, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in France is among the oldest and largest of Mormon churches in Europe. Missionaries arrived from the United States in the 1850s.
But only recently have ordinary French become aware of the Mormon faith, partly through media reports about U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who spent time in France as a young Mormon missionary. And partly because of the controversy surrounding the Chesnay temple.
Political analyst Michelle Bacharan says that unlike the United States, French history has shaped a public deeply wary of any religion invading public space.
"Mormon temples tend to be really big, you can not miss them. You can have some architectural disagreements with that and some people in a particular town may not like it. And only real Mormons can attend ceremonies in temples, so that can create suspicion of what is going on there," Bacharan said.
Today, France's Mormon community gathers in ordinary churches, like one in the neighboring town of Versailles. But church spokesman Christian Euvrard says there are special services that can only take place in temples.
"A temple is a place for communion. It is a place for spiritual retreat. It is a place where families will come once or twice a year," Euvrard said.
For now, Mormons like 40-year-old American Darla Pape, who attends the Versailles church with her family, must travel to Britain or Germany to go to temple.
"For us, going to the temple is a wonderful experience ... so I think that for church members in France to have a temple close that they could go to more regularly, they will see many blessings in their lives from that regular attendance," Pape said.
But opposition to the temple project is growing. An Internet petition circulated by a Chesnay group has gathered 6,000 signatures, although Mayor Brillault says most are not local residents. The mayor's opponents criticize the project, mostly it appears, for political reasons.
Others, like Marie Drilhon, local chapter head of UNADFI, a group fighting religious extremism, view the Mormon faith with skepticism.
Drilhon says the Mormon church demands a lot from its members, both financially and spiritually. It uses marketing methods to proselytize, which Europeans are not used to. And she doubts the temple will benefit the local community.
But Michelle, another local resident, has no objections to a Mormon temple in Chesnay.
Michelle says she has visited Salt Lake City in Utah, the headquarters of the Latter-day Saints, and she knows about the religion.
Church spokesman Euvrard says the Chesnay temple will allow other French to discover his faith.
"For us, it is a great opportunity to explain who we are, to introduce ourselves and to say 'yes,' we have been here for a long time, we are here and we are very present in society," Euvrard said.
Euvrard says the temple project includes gardens that will be open to the public. With time and greater awareness, he believes, French fears about the Mormons will disappear.