A bitter row has erupted in the Catholic pilgrimage town of Lourdes over the planned privatisation of dozens of tiny shops and stalls selling holy water and religious trinkets.
For generations, the stalls and shops have been leased by the municipality to local families for minimal rents as a way to distribute the wealth brought to the small French town by pilgrims travelling from around the world.
The local council now wants to sell the shops to private owners in order to pay off municipal debt, but the tenants are up in arms over the plan.
Many families in the town of 13,500 people in the foothills of the Pyrenees hold stakes in the 66 shops and stalls. They argue that their sale will jeopardise their livelihoods because they will be unable to find the money to buy them.
Josette Bourdeu, the town’s left-wing mayor, is anticipating a windfall of at least a million pounds from an initial round of sales this year – with more to follow in subsequent years.
“All my predecessors have grappled with the issue of the stalls, in view of the low revenue that is collected compared to their sales figures,” Ms Bourdeu said.
The municipality receives annual rent of €390,000 (£334,000). Stallholders declined to divulge their turnover when asked, but Lourdes attracts more than six million visitors a year according to the local tourist office, and many purchase bottles of holy water, statuettes of the Virgin Mary or rosaries.
The trade in devotional items and Lourdes water, reputed to have healing properties, has flourished since apparitions of the Virgin Mary, reported in the 19th century, transformed the town into one of the world’s best known Roman Catholic pilgrimage sites.
The Virgin Mary is said to have urged Saint Bernadette of Lourdes to drink and bathe in water from a spring in the Grotto of Massabielle. Many pilgrims have claimed to have had illnesses cured by the water. The Church has certified some 70 miracles at Lourdes but has never formally encouraged the devotional use of the water.
Claudine Aubert, vice-president of a local union to which many stallholders belong, said: “A third of the 66 shops do well, but another third are just about making ends meet, and the rest are really struggling.”
Bruno Vinuales, a former deputy mayor, has resigned over the plan, accusing the mayor of “selling the family jewels to fill up the coffers which she herself has emptied with reckless spending”.
Mr Vinuales said some families that operate shops or stalls could not afford to pay themselves a working wage. “It will be impossible for them to borrow money [to buy their stalls]. They’re being kicked out into the street.”
The mayor, a former nurse who is standing for re-election next year, acknowledged that the row may “make things complicated”.