France Approves Anti-Cult Law on May 30, 2001

They did it. Despite domestic and international protest (including by both the Roman Catholic and Protestant highest authorities in France) the French House passed on May 30 the Anti-Cult Law in the text already approved by the Senate. A surprisingly quick discussion (in a day with a full agenda, including a debate on the new abortion law) led the French MPs to severely curtail the religious liberty of several thousand French citizens. The anti-cult professionals among the MPs performed their usual show, MP Brard attacking in particular the official Catholic and Protestant criticism of the law as "breaching the principle of separation of Church and State" and blaming French Catholic officers inter alia for their "relations with Mr Introvigne, a very active apologist of laissez faire for the cults". Anti-American attacks were less subtle than usual, and the U.S. administration was accused of having been infiltrated by both Scientology and "Moon". A naïve MP even suggested that, had this law existed, the suicides and homicides of the Solar Temple would have surely been prevented (see preliminary transcript of the House discussion here). We have examined the law (which still includes anti-brainwashing provisions, cosmetically disguised under another name and introduced by way of amendment of an already existing section) repeatedly. The question of the day is what can be done by international scholars of religious movements and religious liberty activists. Here are my suggestions, presented as a quick checklist.

Try to understand the law in the French context. Rather than simply signing petitions proposed by one or another religious movement, scholars should do their homework first, and try to understand the historical, cultural and legal French context. The studies of French scholars such as Danièle Hervieu-Léger, Emile Poulat, and Jean Baubérot may play a crucial role. We started this discussion at The 2001 Conference in London and this may be a starting point for future studies. Understanding the context may also offer the only possibility for a genuine dialogue with the more moderate element among those concerned with the alleged "danger of cults" in France.

Support Domestic and European Litigation. Perhaps by parting company with most French scholars, we should place our immediate hopes in French and European litigation. French judges have proved remarkably unwilling to enforce anti-cult laws and some provisions may place France in trouble before the European Court of Human Rights. Do not regard as distasteful the support by scholars to the litigations a number of religious movements will probably launch. Rather, do regard as distasteful the lack of support for them. Where almost everything else has failed, persistent litigation may succeed.

Torpedo the law’s enforcement by declaring it unenforceable. Where the law discusses "cultic groups" and brainwashing or mind control (by any other name), explain time and again that no such things exist. "Cults" and "mind control" are indefinable categories without precise scholarly or legal meaning. As such, any law dealing with these shadowy categories is clearly unenforceable. Quite a few French judges may be quietly responsive to these arguments, provided they are explained calmly and logically.

Do not feed the wolves. Obviously, those religious movements infringing common law (as opposite to the special anti-cult law) should be prosecuted. Do not defend them, mistaking religious liberty as an excuse for common crimes. On the other hand, even the less palatable movements accused of pseudo-crimes such as "brainwashing" or "being a cult" should be vigorously defended. No matter how much we dislike them, nobody can be guilty of an imaginary crime. We will have the temptation of distinguishing between "good cults" and "bad cults", throwing the latter to the wolves. This, however, would only feed the wolves: and who will be next?

Publish or perish: Make international scholarship well-known in France. Some of the best general-purpose sociological works on religion have been originally published in French. On the other hand, empirical data have not been collected systematically on religious movements, and there is no comprehensive encyclopaedia of the religious bodies active in France. There are no scholarly monographs published on most movements listed as "cults" (only apologetic literature by the movements themselves or anti-cult exposes). English-language academic literature on the brainwashing controversies and the cult wars has almost never been translated. Arguments well-known in English-language countries appear to be rather new in France. This is a "publish or perish" situation. Translating sound academic literature on religious movements into French and circulating it in France should be regarded as a top priority.

Tactfully support international pressure. Anti-cultists in France have ably played on anti-American sentiment by depicting "cults" as "the American Trojan horse in Europe" (the title, unfortunately, does not come from a tabloid but from a strange article in the otherwise respected le Monde diplomatique). On the other hand, international pressure has clearly succeeded in putting brakes to anti-cult campaigns in other countries. It will eventually succeed in France, too. Provided it is not presented as "American" only, and it is tactful and respectful of French national traditions. Quiet diplomacy may work much better than full-page anti-French ads in the Herald Tribune.

Ignore accusations of being a "cult apologist". When you take the above steps, you will be accused of being a "cult apologist". French secret services have been quite active in supporting rumour mills (and Web sites) aimed at discrediting international scholars and religious liberty activists as simple hired guns for the cults. In turn, rather than answering verse by verse innuendos about your sources of income or private lives, ignore altogether hired guns for the French secret services, even when they come with some sort of academic cloak. They are not only internationally discredited, they have proved to be remarkably ineffective.