The small French town of Le Chesnay is not really known for anything other than its boring shopping center. But that is about to change – a 7,000 square meter site, two kilometres away from the Chateau de Versailles has been set aside to house France's first Mormon temple. Besides the temple (which should be completed sometime between 2016 and 2017) underground parking, public gardens and a hotel will also be constructed to welcome faithful Mormons from around the world.
I thought this was nice but many didn't, so I tried to get an interview with someone high-up on the ladder at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Unfortunately, their Media office was worried about "shocking" the faithful with "VICE’s sex-related articles” and my request was declined. So to discuss making the world a more accommodating place for Mormons, I got in touch with the mayor of Le Chesnay Philippe Brillault instead.
VICE: You authorised the construction of a Mormon temple in late 2011, but initially you were not in favour of this project.
Philippe Brillault: Just like most French people, I used to think of the Mormons as a big sect. I had a lot of prejudice towards them because I thought they were a small, reclusive community, and that to me was strange. To be honest, when you’re a mayor and you have to deal with the Mormons, your first thought is, "Great, here's another load of controversy I didn't need."
What made you change your mind?
I finally agreed to meet with some of their representatives in order to understand who they were, what they wanted and what they were actually doing. Anyway, the only way to prevent their temple from being built was to buy the construction site – which was out of the question. So we did a bit of research and realised they weren’t a cult, they were just like everyone else. People accuse them of polygamy, but they don’t really do this anymore. And I don’t think they really do more proselytism than anyone else.
Just as you expected, many contested your decision. Some have even written petitions to stop the construction of the temple.
The first people who contested my decision were my political opponents. They got the country all riled up and got to shouting against the Mormons. But the only petitions that interested me were those of Le Chesney residents. We organised a meeting with the residents association and the Mormons to discuss the project and try to improve it. Basically, these contestations were either politically motivated or related to the building of the temple itself. We solved the building problem and, politically speaking, I was elected in the first round of municipal voting with 60 percent of votes so I assumed that there was no problem.
Some associations have said the Mormons had sectarian deviances. What do you think about that?
I took a good look at the people who made these statements and I do wonder about the quality of their research. Official associations that seriously address the phenomena of sects have never argued with me. Real international associations have never written to me. I contacted the prefect, I contacted the bishop and none of them seen to have a major problem with it.
Some of their practices are still questionable, like the fact that Mormons must give 10 percent of their income to the Church.
What about church tax? I think the bishop would be glad if Catholics had to give 10 percent of their resources. Everyone is free to do what they want. If you are a free person who gives 10 percent of your income to your church, it means you have accepted that you have to do so.
Are you a practicing Catholic?
Yes, of course – I’m deeply religious. But it might be that we all worship the same God. I can go to a synagogue or a mosque and I can pray to God with anyone. We might not have the same perception of the face of our gods and their ways of being, but we’ll probably only figure that out in the afterlife.
Has your religion influenced your decision?
No, I’m a representative of secularism and I respect every human being if their ideas are compatible with the rules of the Republic. The Mormon temple project fully complies with those laws. As a believer, I thought that Catholics don’t have to fear the Mormons in a city where there are three churches which are always full on Sundays. When you’re self-confident, you’re not afraid of competition.
What is the impact you expect the Temple to have on your city?
I can’t really know yet. I did ask them what the tourism benefits could be. In the 1970s, people came to visit our shopping centre, after that they came for the Orly airport – will they visit the Mormon temple tomorrow? I don’t know yet. But I think everyone will be very happy to have an interesting monument to look at.
We're talking about a project that could cost around €80 million. Isn’t that a bit excessive for a city of 30,000 inhabitants?
It isn’t the taxpayers' money so I don't see the problem. Americans and all those who invest in the project are free to do what they want. I consider it a private matter. I’m even tempted to say that it will benefit the French economy. At least, this project will give French people some work.
Did your city need a Mormon temple?
The answer is clearly, no. But it’s all relative. Will this project be a disadvantage to the city when it's over? The answer is also, no.
Thank you, Mr. Mayor.