VALANJOU, France The village church and its steeple have dominated the skyline of rural France for centuries, surviving feuding warlords, foreign invasion and the upheavals of the French Revolution.
But as local mayors look to the future, some are thinking the unthinkable and threatening to demolish the crumbling churches they have to fund, prompting cries of sacrilege from a heritage lobby that says the French way of life is under attack.
Hundreds of 19th-century edifices face the wrecker's ball or wilful neglect, a crisis that reflects deeper shifts in society including the exodus from rural areas and falling church attendance, as well as spiraling upkeep costs.
In the quiet commune of Valanjou in the western wine-producing region of Anjou, mayor Bernard Briodeau is locked in a bitter battle with opponents who suspect him of plotting to rob their village of one of their three churches.
The dull outside walls of St Martin de Joue mask an elegant interior of white stone and boast an array of listed stained glass windows. But even if costly repairs enabled it to reopen its doors after five years, Sunday mass is now said nearby and the Catholic Church has no plans to resume services.
"On the one hand, I'm being asked to repair a church which is not going to be used for services because there are already two others," an exasperated Briodeau said.
"On the other, we have a young population which needs schools and creches. What am I to do? Look after churches or this young population which is the future of Valanjou?"
At a cost of 285,000 euros ($409,500), Briodeau says he wants to remove the church's crumbling steeple and put a roof on its 14th century fortified bell tower, which was once guarded by a knight-at-arms to protect the village from marauding brigands.
Renovating the entire church would cost 1.5 million euros, he says: but warns that at some stage the commune must bite the bullet about the empty building's long-term future.
His rivals say that price tag is deliberately inflated and regard talk of the long-term as evidence of a more radical plan to destroy the church, which remains a potent symbol for many of the commune's 2,200 inhabitants.
WAY OF LIFE
"It represents the heart of the village, a local way of life, an entire civilization," said Rene Cottenceau, a Briodeau rival who is fighting to save St Martin.
Mayor Briodeau could now face a challenge from the pro-St Martin's lobby in 2008 elections, he says, such are the passions aroused by the church.
"This is going to bury people. It's going to kill lots of people," said Marie-Cecile Leger, another member of the St Martin's defense league, underlining the point.
Feelings are also running high in Geste, a village around an hour's drive west of Valanjou which plans to spend 1.35 million euros replacing the bulk of its existing church with a new, more comfortable one built around the bell tower.
"The church is, first of all, a place of worship. I'm fighting for it because I'm convinced that if we do nothing the church will close for safety reasons," mayor Michel Baron said.
"And if that happens it won't reopen, because it's not necessarily a priority for future generations," he said in his notary's office, sited within earshot of the church bells.
The crisis stems in part from a 1905 law separating church and state which foisted maintenance costs for existing churches on the 36,000 "communes" or districts that make up France.
Beatrice de Andia, the president of the Religious Heritage Observatory, said 83 percent of the estimated 100,000 churches in France were "at risk of everything -- rural depopulation, a decline in faith, the number of Christians and priests".
Most at risk -- and the only churches to date to have been demolished -- are 19th-century ones which she said were quickly and badly built and the most expensive to maintain.
The Church of England and other faiths in Britain long ago grasped the nettle and sold off churches deemed surplus to requirements. Decommissioned places of worship have been converted into homes, arts centers and even nightclubs.
But the movement is in its infancy in France, says Alain Guinberteau, whose www.40000clochers.com Web site aims to draw attention to the plight of France's ancient places of worship.
"I've had four or five inquiries from individuals, notably in Paris, asking about churches that might be up for sale for conversion into a workshop or a loft," he said.
"But the phenomenon is in an embryonic stage."
The Catholic Church has kept a low profile in the debate, perhaps conscious that a chronic lack of priests as well as shrinking attendance means it would be impractical to retain all the country's churches as active places of worship.
In 1948, 37 percent of Catholics regularly attended mass compared with 8 percent now, according to a poll in the Le Monde des Religions magazine published in January.
The Bishop of Angouleme, Claude Dagens, acknowledged last month that "the cries of alarm are sometimes justified", but called for such decisions to be made by common accord.
At the Religious Heritage Observatory, De Andia argues for studied neglect of the churches that must go.
"Let them abandon them, I can understand that since no-one wants to look after them. But to destroy them is an act of sacrilege," she said.