Hidden in the Burgundy hills on the site of an old summer camp, the main institute in France to train Muslim prayer leaders hardly looks like an idea whose time has come. The tree-shaded campus center resembles a country inn and its mosque, a converted garage. There are seven full-time faculty members for 160 students.
The full course of study takes eight years -- two for Arabic, four for theology and two to memorize the Koran -- and the prospects for a paid job afterward are dismal.
Even so, the half-dozen imams who graduate each year feel they are the wave of the future. The French government, eager to counter radical Islam preached by foreign imams, has begun pressing for prayer leaders born and trained in France.
"The training of imams must match the requirements of the republic," Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin declared last month in urging the 5 million-strong Muslim minority -- Europe's largest -- to develop a moderate "French Islam."
Among the imams in France's 1,500 mosques, 90 percent are foreigners and half speak little or no French. Most come from Arab states and preach views ranging from traditionalist to radical, with scant relevance to life in Western societies.
Worried by a small but extreme faction in France's second-largest religion, the government is considering ways to boost the number of home-grown imams and educate prayer leaders working here to ensure they preach a moderate Islam.
As with all ambitious visions, the devil is in the detail. Who'll do the training? How will it be financed?
Although modest in size and scope, the European Institute of Human Sciences in this village in eastern France is the largest of three centers training imams in this country.
The second is a small institute annex in a Paris suburb, and the third is an even smaller program at the Grand Mosque of Paris, which traditionally imports imams from its sponsor, Algeria, to preach at about 100 mosques affiliated with it.
Although he already has plans to expand, institute director Zuhair Mahmood cautions against expecting any quick fixes. "I don't see any immediate solution," said the 52-year-old from Iraq, who has been living in France for the past 30 years.
"The Muslim community is getting organized, but it needs time and money," he said, noting that most of the institute's initial funding came from Gulf states but that tuition and contributions from French Muslims now cover three-quarters of the budget.
The institute opened its doors in 1992, when the Muslim minority was changing from a marginalized community of predominantly North African immigrant workers to a population that included many full-fledged French citizens.
Mosques and prayer halls appeared quickly, and imams had to be brought in from Arab states or Turkey to lead prayers and preach in Arabic. Older Muslims felt at home, but younger ones born and raised in France were increasingly cut off.
"A natural process of integration was setting in, and we saw that these Muslims would need imams," Mahmood said. These new imams should be able to preach in French and know France well, so they can help young Muslims integrate, he said.
Although this comes across as parallel to the government's concerns, Mahmood was careful to distance himself from politicians he believes want to mold Islam for their own purposes.
"Certain politicians still have a colonialist vision, one of superiority over Islam," he said. "They think they can choose which kind of Islam suits them . . . one that is emptied of its content and renounces its values."
The most visible of those values is the head scarf, which the institute defends as a religious duty for all Muslim women but which France has banned from its state schools. "Some want us to say this is not part of our religion, but we refuse this," Mahmood said.
Many institute students come to this campus just to learn Arabic or to study their faith.
Youcef Yalaoui preaches occasionally back home in Belfort, in eastern France, but doubts that he could make a living that way.
"Many imams live off welfare," Yalaoui, 26, explained. "The imam in Belfort gets a monthly salary of only about 1,300 euros ($1,570). I have a university degree in biology, so I could teach that and work as an imam on the side."
The job outlook is even tighter for the women who make up 40 percent of the institute's students. Because there are no female imams in Islam, many hope to teach religion or Arabic in Muslim associations or schools expected to open in coming years.
Myriam Ramdane, a 21-year-old from Tours, wants to teach but has no illusions about her chances in a French school.
"If I studied at university to become a history teacher, do you think they'd take me with my head scarf?" she asked.