As Mitt Romney continues to work toward his goal of replacing Barack Obama one aspect of his past is achieving success after a long struggle — in France, not the U.S.
French Mormons are preparing to break ground in construction of the country’s first temple, to be built in the leafy Paris suburb of Le Chesnay, right near the Palace of Versailles, one of the country’s major international tourism draws. The plan, though, is not without controversy.
“Symbolically, it’s an important development,” says Bernadette Rigal-Cellard, an expert on Mormons in France. The Mormons have had trouble in the past persuading French authorities. A proposal for the purchase of a site in Villepreux, another community near Paris, was rejected in 2007, while the sale of 46 Boulevard Saint Antoine in Le Chesnay also has met popular resistance.
The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints (LDS) has grown in France since Romney’s experience there in the 1960s — there are now an estimated 35,000 Mormons.
As to Romney’s days in France, they may not figure in his official campaign biography but others have said much of his his 30 months spent as a missionary and of a fatal car accident.
Romney’s eventful French mission
It was probably that accident — near Bordeaux in June 1968 — that was one of his most life-changing experiences. Romney was behind the wheel when another vehicle swerved into his lane, hitting the car straight on. Romney was carrying a delegation of the mission, which included the French mission’s president, H. Duane Anderson, as well Anderson’s his wife. She was killed and Romney was badly injured. (Rescue personnel, in fact, thought Romney was dead at the scene.)
After making a relatively quick recovery Romney stepped in for the mission’s president, who returned to the U.S. That effort led to Anderson’s son to be forever in Romney’s debt. “I’m really, extremely grateful to Mitt for when he took charge of things when my dad had to go back to the States for surgery,” says Richard B. Anderson.
Anderson has known Romney for more than 50 years and believes that, in part due to that traumatic event, Romney has the leadership skills to help solve “intractable” problems in difficult situations. For Anderson, his own time spent in France as a missionary confirmed that “certain people are raised up to do certain jobs.”
Not all agree. Bernadette Rigal-Cellard, a professor of North American studies at the University Michel de Montaigne-Bordeaux, for one, remembers Mormons at her university during that era and has a different opinion. “Romney was just one of the cogs in the whole system. He was just a regular missionary,” she says.
Rigal-Cellard rejects the frequently held opinion in France that the LDS Church is a cult or that they hold unusual, fringe beliefs. Rigal-Cellard says, if anything, Mormons place more emphasis on the family than other religions and members may give a higher proportion of their money to their church than people in other faiths.
Rigal-Cellard says that Romney did not particularly shine during his time in France. Romney found it tough as a missionary in France, she believes, and “hated the way they didn’t listen to the message.”
France’s first Mormon missionary: 1849
The first Mormon missionary in France, Howard Lowell, arrived in Le Havre in 1849, and had a considerably harder time. Mormon church spokesman Christian Euvrard says early missionaries in France “were hoping and expecting to arrive in a land of freedom.”
Under the rule of Napoleon III, though, missionaries had no authorization to meet or to preach. They were ultimately forced into exile in 1853, moving to Jersey in the Channel Islands.
By Romney’s days, though, things had changed significantly. America’s Marshall Plan for post-World War II reconstruction resulted in a perceivable change in the French state’s attitude toward religion, according to Rigal-Cellard. To some degree, she says, it resulted in the “imposition” of freedom of religion in France.
Building the temple – not all the neighbors welcoming
Back in the Paris suburbs, Euvrard says the Mormons are clearing out asbestos in the building formerly occupied by the French national energy company EDF to prepare it for demolition.
Euvrard says the Mormons had considered several sites and had “no particular interest” — or agenda — in settling on Le Chesnay.
However, one local organization, the activist group Avenir46 (Future46) has collected more than 7,000 signatures in an online petition against building a Mormon house of worship in Le Chesnay. They said they were not against the Mormon faith being on French territory, but were critical of Le Chesnay’s mayor and the local political process that allowed the church to be built at the Le Chesnay site.
The mayor told the Huffington Post earlier this year that he wasn’t “overjoyed” by the Mormon presence. But as he is at pains to explain in a detailed statement, there were no grounds to contest the project.
The building was sold in a private transaction to the Mormons for $26 million. Construction costs are estimated at $79 million. The church will fund the project completely.
“This is what we had been working for all that time,” says Richard Anderson. He believes that construction of the first temple in France is “wonderful,” giving those who spent time as a missionary in France “a huge sense of fulfillment.”
So, we are left to wonder, does Romney feel a sense of achievement from what his former mission has accomplished as he prepares to do battle with President Barack Obama?
There are other issues on the minds of today’s Mormon missionaries in France. Euvrard says he’s heard some concern about what Romney’s bid will do for the perception of Mormons in France. Certainly people are much more aware of the LDS church now because of press coverage of Mitt Romney’s campaign. Even the mayor of Le Chesnay refers to the Republican candidate in his official statement about the temple project.
And if Mitt Romney wins? Spokesman Euvrard says some in the church find it “amusing to think of a Mormon becoming president of the United States.”