No Bad Sects in France
by Benjamin-Hugo LeBlanc
On May 30, the French National Assembly passed a new law for the
"Prevention and Repression of Cultic Movements." The law permits
the French judiciary to dissolve a religious organization when one of its
leaders, or the movement itself, is convicted of crimes. It also makes a
crime out of "the deceptive abuse of the state of ignorance or
weakness"—i.e. psychological manipulation.
For journalists, religion scholars, and civil libertarians outside of
France, it was only the latest reason to worry about rising religious
intolerance in the birthplace of liberty, equality, and fraternity. As the
International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights declared in its 2001
report, "While the State is obliged to protect its citizens against
abuse by members of any groups or associations, this should not be done
through the creation of discrimination, which is the case with [this new]
law. Such abuses should be dealt with under the Criminal Code and other
legislation and not through adopting a separate law targeted at religious
Such outside concern dates back to 1994, when French government
initiatives against Scientologists and Jehovah's Witnesses received
unfavourable notice in the U.S. State Department’s annual
country-by-country human rights reports. A 1996 French parliamentary report
identifying 172 religious groups as dangerous "sects" drew
But what really attracted international attention to the French
"anti-sect" campaign have been the annual reports that the State
Department began submitting to Congress in compliance with the 1998
International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). These country-by-country surveys
of religious policies and practices have embarrassed the French activists
and lawmakers who are attempting to legitimize—at home as well as abroad—the
use of new legal weapons against "sects." The 1999 IRFA report
asserts, for example, that the list of dangerous cults had been prepared
without proper hearings and "contributed to an atmosphere of
intolerance and bias against minority religions."
French media reaction was defensive, to say the least. How could France,
a bastion of Western democratic thought and a strong advocate of human
rights, be accused of violating something as fundamental as freedom of
religion? Citing the Internal Revenue Service’s 1994 grant of tax-exempt
status to the Church of Scientology, the national daily Le Monde
declared after the release of the initial report that freedom of religion
"is so deeply prevalent" in the United States that
"authorities have neither the power nor the will to regulate."
Le Monde went on to say that France was among many other European
countries targeted by Washington’s criticism, implicitly suggesting that
this was some kind of an American assault on Europe. Similarly, another
major newspaper, Libération, claimed that the reproach of France was
"nothing compared to Washington’s attack on Germany" for its
campaign against Scientology. The business-oriented newspaper Le Figaro
described the United States as a "paradise for the cults" that
protected religious practice "with excess."
Following the release of the 2000 IRFA report—which was no less
critical of France—the satirical weekly paper Charlie Hebdo published
an article entitled "American elections: the cults have already
won." Reporting on President Bush’s trip to Europe last June, Le
Monde snorted, "Europeans’ hostility to the death penalty is too
deep to be put on the same level as the arguments some American politicians
and congregations raise against French and German anti-cult policies."
The mildest criticism probably came from the Catholic daily La Croix,
which acknowledged the deep cultural and historical differences at the core
of this Franco-American disagreement even as it strongly disagreed with the
United States’ inclination to impose its own conception of religious
freedom on other countries. Such cultural relativism did not, however, sit
well with those officially engaged in justifying the legal
initiatives directed against "sects." They were anxious to prove
that their views were not only viable in France, but also exportable to
The first strike came from Alain Vivien, head of the government’s
Interministerial Mission to Fight Sects, in his own first annual report,
issued on Feb. 7, 2000. Calling the United States a "sanctuary"
for sects, Vivien argued that Washington’s concerns were essentially the
result of the sects’ intense lobbying and disinformation. He described the
actions of the America-based Church of Scientology—which in France is
generally considered a moneymaking scam—as "clandestine operations
launched against France from a foreign nation."
In its next report, issued in December 2000, the Interministerial Mission
went further, insisting that France’s Declaration of Human Rights
("voted on two years prior to the adoption of the First Amendment in
the American Constitution") is clearly superior to the First Amendment
since it truly "protects human rights which are threatened by modern
forms of obscurantism."
Fueled in part by longstanding anti-American sentiment, this aggressive
stance led some French media to identify "sects" with the United
States and its "ultraliberal" policies. One could even discover,
in Le Monde’s September 9, 2000 opinion section, that America’s
new "spiritual products are to religion what McDonald’s is to real
The most bizarre expression of this latest incarnation of
anti-Americanism was a one-hour "investigative" documentary,
"Sects and Big-Time Espionage," broadcast on the France 3
television channel last May. Directed by journalist Bruno Fouchereau, author
of an article in Le Monde Diplomatique entitled "Sects: Trojan
horse of the United States in Europe," the documentary suggested that
some "new religious movements" could actually be used as
front-groups for international espionage!
In the documentary, one Roger Reybaud, mayor of the tiny village of
Saint-Julien-du-Verdon and a retired lieutenant colonel in the French army,
reported that he had seen cable plugs and antennas in statues belonging to a
local religious movement known as Mandarom. Could these be disguised
transmission devices of some foreign country, spying on the acoustic
detection laboratory for submarine warfare down below the mountain by Lake
Reybaud had actually made his first appearance in the national media in a
story on Mandarom that appeared in Le Monde in 1994. A fierce
opponent of the movement, the mayor was not taken very seriously then, and
his theory was handled tongue-in-cheek. Now he had become a worthy
"witness" to the Attack of the Sects.
What has radicalized French public opinion on sects in the last few
years? One can point to the mass murder-suicides by the Order of the Solar
Temple in Switzerland, Canada, and France (in 1994, 1995, and 1997
respectively), the 1995 sarin gas attack by Aum Shinrikyo in the Tokyo
subway, and a handful of other scandals and court cases involving religious
But these events do not explain why France should have reacted more
strongly than other European countries. Germany, hailed by the French as a
fellow scourge of sects, has restricted its concern solely to Scientology.
To understand this French exceptionalism it is necessary to understand
France’s historically tempestuous relationship with organized religion,
its distinctive idea—and ideal—of "laïcity," and its distrust
of group identities independent of the state.
In contrast to the pluralistic experience of the United States, whose
liberal conception of religious freedom is rooted in the U.S. Constitution’s
hands-off approach to religion, the French struggle for democracy positioned
itself against the unwanted intrusion of the powerful Catholic Church into
Far removed from what Alexis de Tocqueville described as America’s
harmonious combination of "the spirit of religion and the spirit of
freedom," French anticlericalism led to the utopian idea that the State
could substitute itself for the Church, complete with a republican civil
religion possessed of its own clergy, rites, and a universal and unifying
"truth" based on Reason.
As a result, although separation of Church and State became effective in
both the United States and France, France developed the concept of "laïcity"—an
entirely secular and rational worldview bolstered by the State
as a national ideological alternative to religion (read: Roman Catholicism).
Even today, while most French people hold more moderate views—some even
talk about a "laïcization of laïcity"—the anticlerical
tradition remains powerful. France’s refusal last year to sign the
preamble of the European Rights Charter until a reference to Europe’s
religious heritage was taken out is but one example of this. Indeed, there
are still many hard-line proponents of an uncompromising "laïcity"
who look at all forms of religion with mistrust and even contempt. Alain
Vivien’s use of an archaic word like "obscurantism" to describe
unconventional groups and movements bears traces of 19th-century
rationalist images of religion as a force for enslaving the mind and
hindering free thought.
In addition, France remains uneasy about collective identities—ethnic
and linguistic as well as religious—that seem independent of the State. To
be sure, asserting such an identity in private doesn’t raise concerns. But
when such assertions take place in the public space, they are usually
perceived as incompatible with the ideal of an indivisible nation, an
interference with the citizen’s direct allegiance to the State.
Not only does this help explain France’s difficulty adapting to
multiculturalism, but it points to the powerful resonance, in French
anti-cult rhetoric, of words like "manipulation" (of individuals’
thoughts) and "infiltration" (of the State’s institutions, which
threatens "public order"). All in all, members of
"sects," like Muslim women wearing scarfs in school, call into
question too many fundamentals of French culture: the limited role religion
is supposed to occupy in public space; individual rationality as the path par
excellence to collective "truth"; and the importance of
conformity for national unity and identity.
Within this context, the French media have acted as cultural watchdogs.
Weekly and monthly "infotainment" media such as the People magazine-like
Quo have, not surprisingly, offered the most pejorative
characterizations, the strongest imagery, and the most alarmist overtones.
The "victims" of sects are "ruined,"
"trapped," "enslaved," "broken,"
"destroyed," and need to be freed from the "sects’
The legitimate press, although much more rigorous in reporting facts, has
also taken sides, focusing exclusively on controversy and devoting ever
increasing space to the "sect problem." In this respect, a
quantitative analysis of articles on sects published in Le Monde over
the past 10 years is instructive.
In 1990, the newspaper published only 11 articles on sects, most dealing
with a trial involving Scientology leaders. Five years later, following Waco
and the first Solar Temple murder-suicides, the number of articles had
jumped to more than 75, including 39 on the sarin gas attack by Aum
Shinrikyo, 13 on the second Solar Temple "transit," and seven on
France’s parliamentary Enquiry Commission.
In 2000, there were 126 articles, but now the focus of attention was
domestic. Only 10 concerned the deaths in Uganda of nearly 1,000 members of the
Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, certainly
the year’s most significant "sect story." Sixteen dealt with the
struggle between the Falun Gong and the government of China. By contrast
there were 28 articles on Scientology in France, and 21 on anti-sect legal
actions by the government.
A kind of "sect fever" had taken hold, intensified to no small
degree by sensationalist coverage of stories like the October 1998
disappearance of a large number of court files in a lawsuit involving
Scientology. Rumors abounded in the press. Was the disappearance, wondered Le
Monde, connected to a burglary at Alain Vivien’s residence? Had the
French judicial system been "infiltrated" by this "dangerous
sect"? asked the daily L’Express. Or perhaps the magistrate on
the case, Marie-Paule Moracchini, had a relationship with Scientology?
Two years later, after the government itself was found responsible for
the documents’ loss, the Minister of Justice himself reprimanded
Moracchini, leading her to lash out at the media for, as she put it,
"staging her unproven guilt." In all, Libération, La
Croix, and Le Monde devoted more than 50 articles to the story.
Through this period, the media accorded far too much credibility to the
government’s 1996 list of 172 "dangerous" groups. Indeed, the
list was effectively enlarged by government reports and investigative
articles criticizing other so-called ‘sects’—including some groups
that had been active in France for many years without causing any
controversy. The best example was the Anthroposophical Society and Steiner
Schools, which some newspapers, responding to a government report,
uncritically connected to Scientology.
Fortunately, this led both Le Monde and Libération to
question whether the "legitimate war on sects" was going too far.
Both newspapers called a surprise inspection of 14 Steiner schools in
December 1999 a "cult hunters’ gaffe," and greeted a second
assault on the movement by Vivien with skepticism.
The more cautious media stance has been evident in the coverage of the
new anti-sect law. It was a source of some embarrassment that the new law
received its most enthusiastic reception from a Chinese government eager (as
the Washington Post reported in July) to find allies for its own
campaign against the Falun Gong. Without opposing the law directly, the
press reported the worries and concerns of mainstream religious leaders and
When the presidents of the French Catholic Bishops Conference and the
French Protestant Federation sent a letter to Prime Minister Lionel Jospin
on May 15 charging that the law posed a substantial long-term threat to
fundamental human rights, it was well covered in Le Monde, Libération,
and La Croix. On June 7, in a public debate organized by Le Monde
and the Protestant weekly magazine Réforme, sociologists Jean-Paul
Willaime and Danièle Hervieu-Léger questioned whether the privatization of
religion in France had gone too far, resulting in the exclusion of all
religious symbolism from public space—and both Le Monde and La
Croix reported it.
There is no question that, regardless of how the law is actually applied,
the future has become more problematic for non-mainstream movements in
France. But at the same time a serious and painful effort now seems to be
under way to reconsider the country’s unbending commitment to laïcity.
Writing in Le Monde a year ago, Henri Tincq, one of France’s
leading journalists and past president of the Paris-based Religious
Information Journalists Association, asked, "How can we ensure that all
religious communities—numerous and diverse, old and new—get their share
in the French public space? How can they be allowed to participate more
regularly in social debates without violating the rules of laïcity?"
In the 21st century, these are questions that France, with a
population increasingly diverse and a culture increasingly subject to global
religious influences, cannot afford to ignore.