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France: A Separate Crime of "Mental Manipulation" Disappears from the Draft Anti-Cult Law, but the Substance of the Law Remains Unaltered (Jan. 12, 2001)

by Xavier Ternisien ("Le Monde", January 12, 2001: English translation)

THE LAW PROPOSAL About-Picard "aimed at strengthening the prevention and the repression against cults and sects" deserves more than ever its name: the centrist senator (member of the group including Republicans and Independents) of the Yvelines, Mr Nicolas About, and the socialist MP of Eure, Ms Catherine Picard, should reach an agreement, during the next days, on a compromise text, which will be presented to the Senate on January 25. Both MPs hope to obtain, in June, the definitive vote of their draft bill by a corresponding vote of the National Assembly in second reading. The text, which is going to be presented in front of the Law commission of the Senate on January 17, is the result of long negotiations between members of both Assemblies, the government and the governmental Mission to fight cults ( MILS).

During a conference on sects and cults, organized at the National Assembly on Wednesday, January 10, Mr About announced to the participants that he was "on the verge of reaching an agreement with Ms Picard on a text which would both save the essential of the work of the National Assembly, and reassure those that are worried by the creation of an offense of mental manipulation". Ms Picard told "Le Monde" that she considers that the new text "respects the principles" of her draft bill adopted by the National Assembly, in first reading, on June 22, 2000 and that the modifications presented "do not disturb her".

The draft bill which will be presented to the senators on January 25 differs profoundly from its first reading, however. The text, introduced originally by Mr Nicolas About on December 16, 1999 and adopted unanimously by the Senate, aimed at modifying the law of January 10, 1936 allowing to dissolve "violent groups and private militias" by a Decree of the President of the Republic approved by the government. The About proposition included cults among the groups concerned by this old law, targeting those which have been found guilty more than one time of criminal offenses and which are regarded as detrimental to public order or dangerous for the integrity of the human personality (see "le Monde" January 22, 2000). Quickly, the government made clear its hostility to the use against cults of this old "anti-militias law", considered by the left wing as a "freedom killer ". MP Catherine Picard, president of the parliamentary group on cults, explained that the notion of groups "detrimental to public order" was too vague, and that the law of 1936 had been applied by the governmment and the President only very rarely.

The About draft law, when it was presented to the National Assembly on June 22 by Ms Picard, had been profoundly modified (Le Monde June 23). A procedure of judicial dissolution replaced the administrative dissolution proposed by Senator About, while the text planned to widen the penal liability of corporations and association, introduced into the penal code in 1994, by including crimes such as murders, tortures and barbaric acts, sexual attacks and rapes, lack of care and food for members, or illegal exercise of the medicine.


But the most controversial proposition was the introduction in the penal code of a new crime of mental manipulation. The representatives of the larger religions made their fear known that the creation of such a crime may generate "uncontrolled excesses". The president of the Protestant Federation, Mr Jean-Arnold de Clermont, stated repeatedly that this law was "dangerous".

Since June 22, Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou, had announced her intention to consult on this point the National Consultative Commission of Human Rights (CNCDH) and the League of human rights. The CNCDH returned its opinion on September 21: judging that the creation of an offense of mental manipulation was "not convenient", she pronounced for an extension of Section 313-4 of the penal code repressing "the deceitful abuse of a state of ignorance or a situation of weakness" (see "Le Monde" of September 23, 200).

It is this direction that the draft bill About-Picard is now headed. The proposals concerning the judicial dissolution and the penal responsibility of the corporations and associations should not be modified. But the term of "mental manipulation" disappears, and the text foresees the re-organization of Section 313-4. This Section would be moved and inserted into the part of the penal code concerning the crimes and the offenses against the persons. The article would take into account henceforth the notion of a "state of subjection", either psychological or physical, caused by "the exercise of serious and repeated pressures or techniques aimed at altering the capacity of judgment": a formulation which repeats word by word the formula used in the previous draft bill to define the offense of mental manipulation. A second paragraph added to the Section would make the punishment of the offense heavier, up to five years of detention and 5 million francs of fine when the crimes are committed "by a de facto or legal leader " of a "sect or cult".

Nicolas About and Catherine Picard wish that, "on a so important text" both Assemblies are unanimous, and that the vote exceeds the political cleavages, as it had been the case during the first two readings.

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