PARIS - Officially, French public authorities continue to back nationally-sponsored training courses set up for Muslim religious leaders. Courses include law, secularism and religious history classes. An Interior Ministry official insisted to Le Monde that: "an end to government funding for the programs is completely out of the question." 

And yet, the reality on the ground is much more complicated.

The training courses were unprecedented when they were created in 2008, in conjuction with the Catholic Institute of Paris, and aimed at giving future imams and Muslim organization leaders a better understanding of relations between the state and religion. But now, facing a shortage of signups, the program is about to be "revamped."

Recruitment difficulties are blamed on a lack in career opportunities, problems of clarity in the certification program, and insufficient efforts from several Muslim organizations to register candidates. The course has largely run out of steam over recent years, leading to the departure of some of the original core group of educators, including Olivier Bobineau, a religion sociologist who co-founded the project in conjunction with the office of religious affairs of the Interior Ministry.

The result is the numbers of students – and even more, actual graduates – has been continually decreasing since 2008. Out of the 60 who have passed through the course since the launch four years ago, only 9 got their certificates in 2011. This despite 120,000 euros ($158,000) earmarked for a 40-students class. Fourteen people registered this year, but not all of them will complete the course. For next year, the Catholic Institute banks on "about 20" students, and may receive a subsidy suited for this new, smaller size.

Philippe Bordeyne, the superintendent of the Catholic Institute of Paris, believes the course, which until now has been primarily focused on Muslim students, "should be opened up and aimed at offering a vocational training." An emphasis on "mediation and interfaith dialogue" should be introduced to allow better job opportunities. Above all, the Catholic Institute hopes to attract officials from other faiths, and especially Catholic priests from Asia and Africa, as well as Orthodox priests.

That unique French secularism

Development difficulties for the programs, and their limited impact on their target, sharply contrast with French politicians' speeches on the need to train religious leaders about uniquely French value of "laicité," which aims to keep religion largely out of public life. (Attitudes towards Islam, including debate about the presence of halal meat in French butchers, has been a front-burner issue in the race for presidency that now pits incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy against Socialist challenger Franςois Hollande in a May 6 runoff. The stakes were raised after the killing spree last month in Toulouse by a French citizen of Algerian descent who claimed to be part of al Qaeda)

At Strasbourg University, there is a continuing education program similar to the one in Paris, which also includes courses on law, institutions, religious plurality, and sociology and religion history. The course opened in 2011 and the number of enrolled students is small there too. Twelve are following the course this year, all religious or community leaders, and mostly Muslim.

Francis Messner, one of the founders of the Strasbourg project, insists that a "pool" of candidates already exists, but just has not been reached. "But we have to broaden the scope to other religions so that we avoid a situation where the course is de facto Muslim-only."

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - Stéphane Martin