CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

Why France? Historical and Ideological Roots of the French Anti-Cult Scare

by Massimo Introvigne
A paper presented at The 2001 Conference in London

This paper is not about the anti-cult crusade in France. Excellent studies of what is happening in France have been presented at other conferences, as well as at this one, and the story does not need to be repeated here. My purpose is rather to tentatively answer a frequently asked question: why, exactly, is France different from its European neighbours on the issue of cults (known in France as "les sectes")? In the forthcoming issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, you will read a lengthy discussion, by the undersigned and Jim Richardson, of how the brainwashing metaphor is being used in Europe in order to legitimize the discrimination of religious minorities. A good deal of the paper is devoted, not surprisingly, to France. The Journal will also publish reactions to our paper by Christopher Soper and Thomas Robbins. Both would have liked a more in-depth analysis of why, exactly, certain things are happening in France, and why they do not happen elsewhere in the West. While Robbins concurs with our suggestion that a secular Enlightenment tradition, going back to the French Revolution, is where the study of the causes should start, Soper is persuaded that we downplayed the influence of mainline churches, always wary of competitors.

At the moment the relevant issue of the Journal was going to press, something important happened. Senior French sociologist Danièle Hervieu-Léger published her book La Religion en miettes ou la question des sects (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 2001), in which she addresses specifically the question of why a governmental anti-cult crusade is being promoted in France, and not in other countries. Hervieu-Léger is not what, in certain quarters, would be called a "cult apologist". She has, in fact never participated in international academic protests against the anti-cult activities of the French government, and she confirms in the book that, in her opinion, some governmental cult-watching is acceptable. However, the draft of the new French anti-cult law has found in Hervieu-Léger a critic, and she now acknowledges that the question of cults has been "over-dramatized" in France (ibid., p. 61), and that political measures are taken based on faulty information based on the vested interests of private anti-cult organizations, on former members, and on the controversial notion of brainwashing (ibid., pp. 61-65). Although there is some interesting (and, within the French context, quite new) criticism of all this, Hervieu-Léger’s main aim is to explain why France, a notoriously contentious country, exhibits such a suspicious unanimity in politics and the media, when it comes to cults or sectes. Hers is a long book, not only in pages: it discusses other issues as well and, in order to do it justice, the book has to be considered within the framework of the author’s previous works. Since this is impossible here, I will confine my remarks to a discussion of three main answers to the question "Why in France?", which Hervieu-Léger presents in her latest book.

Firstly, Hervieu-Léger reminds us that France, since the Revolution and before it in the 18th century, has had a somewhat unique anti-religious tradition. Of course, anti-clericalism and secular humanism are international phenomena, but the French brand has its own specific peculiarities. Religious belief in general is regarded as "intrinsically incompatible with reason and individual autonomy" and "should be eradicated from human minds". This wish, or dream, explains what the French sociologist calls "an angry and radical (although, today, less often explicitly manifested) hostility to any kind of religious belief in general" (ibid., p. 22, with a quote from Pierre Bouretz). This tradition is not only about limiting the social influence of religion, but also about being really persuaded that extirpating religious belief is both desirable and possible. I would add to Hervieu-Léger’s remarks that French laïcité active (somewhat different from Anglo-American secular humanism, and transmitted to new generations through the French public school system, a bastion of laïcité) manifests itself in a number of different ways, obvious to the French but more difficult for other nations to understand. Firstly, it is regarded in France as politically correct to pay at least lip service to laïcité, even if one does not agree with it entirely. In a general election in France, almost all candidates competing for the top offices tend to reaffirm their commitment to laïcité, and it would be really exceptional to hear them voicing any kind of religious comment or appeals to God or Christianity. Without even mentioning the United States, in the run-up to the forthcoming Italian general election, both candidates have proclaimed themselves to be Catholic, and have visited bishops and cardinals during their electoral tours, notwithstanding the fact that one is divorced, while the other started his political career as a militant anti-clerical and only returned to Catholicism recently (after being considered for national political office). Secondly, if (as I believe) popular culture is a mirror of national prejudices, then the French and the British both love detective stories; a comparison, thus, between Sherlock Holmes, or the heroes of Edgar Wallace, and Arsène Lupin, the gentleman-thief created in France by Maurice Leblanc (1864-1941), might be quite instructive. All these characters quite often find themselves very close to death (if only to survive at the last minute, ready for yet another episode). Wallace’s characters quite often pray, and Holmes, whose author was a lapsed Catholic turned Spiritualist, took comfort in a higher good and a vague spirituality. Lupin (no doubt, quite strangely for readers in nations with no strong nationalist traditions) often waits for what he thinks is his imminent death with patriotic thoughts on la République and la France. And, if we want to include comics, then the national French hero, Asterix, is nothing less than a Gallic hero fiercely defending the autonomy of his French village against Julius Caesar and his Roman gods and lifestyle. The metaphor (France resisting Rome) is almost too obvious. Thirdly, such anti-religious feelings find, in France, a philosophical justification in the distinction made between "freedom of belief" and "freedom of religion". "Freedom of belief" is construed as the freedom to reach autonomous individual conclusions about religion (or atheism) devoid of any external constraints. Recently, brainwashing (or "mental manipulation") has offered a convenient metaphor for these external constraints, but the controversy was there long before. When, at the beginning of the 20th century, the very anti-clerical French government of Émile Combes (1835-1921) dissolved the majority of both male and female Catholic religious orders, compelling several monks and nuns either to go home or leave France altogether, it proclaimed that it was protecting their "freedom of conscience" against the institutional freedom of the religious orders and the Catholic Church. The same applies to "cults". At the Supplemental Meeting on Freedom of Religion held by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna on March 22, 1999, the secretary of the French governmental Mission to Fight Cults, Mr. Denis Barthélemy, answering criticism in the OSCE reports introducing the discussion on religious pluralism (one of which was presented by me), explained the French position in a particularly interesting way. He stated that "religious liberty" and "freedom of belief" are two different concepts, and that they may indeed conflict. "Religious liberty"(a "collective liberty" for churches and movements) may be limited for the sake of "freedom of belief", the "individual liberty" of thinking and believing without "constraints" external to the individual conscience. France will protect its people against any "constraints" to the formation of their individual "belief", Mr. Barthélemy concluded, adding that not only children but "adults" too are "in need of protection" in this respect. Protecting individuals against groups may look like a legitimate option within the framework of a general acceptance of personal freedom. However, Mr. Barthélemy’s speech implied that the individual citizen’s freedom to form his or her belief "freely" shall be protected if necessary against this citizen’s wish, precisely because — being subject to brainwashing or mind control — he or she merely thinks that he or she has accepted a belief "freely", when such is in fact not the case. The ostensibly liberal reference to "freedom of belief" in fact hides the quintessentially reactionary presupposition that the government knows better than its adult citizens "in need of protection" where their real freedom and best interests lie.

The second element of Hervieu-Léger’s model is one that most observers of the French cult scare may have overlooked. Laïcité , she says, not only became an essential part of the French national ethos and culture, it also became embodied in the French legal system. For a few years, some French Revolution leaders really believed that religion could simply be destroyed in France. Napoleon, however, knew only too well that this was impossible, not because he was less anti-religious than his predecessors, but because he was more realistic. He also wanted to conquer Europe, and realized that he could not achieve that by diverting resources to fighting pockets of Catholic resistance against religious persecution at home. Accordingly, he created a French model of a State-controlled church. Paradoxically, whilst Napoleon’s model was designed to protect the State from the influence of the Catholic Church, at the same time he conceived religion in general as being based on the Catholic model. The Catholic Church was granted a certain degree of liberty, and simultaneously placed under a system of State control. The ideal of Napoleon and his successors was to have a territorialized control based on the Catholic system of dioceses and parishes, with a préfet de police behind each bishop, and a local chief of the Gendarmerie behind each parish priest. In the long run the system worked, particularly after the Catholic Church, having resisted it for decades, found it convenient to comply, under the guise of the ralliement policy inaugurated by Pope Leo XIII (1810-1903). Hervieu-Léger notes that, particularly after the ralliement, the Catholic Church in fact agreed to perform "police work" in France on behalf of the State (ibid., p. 27). France was so predominantly Catholic that it was felt that, if any bizarre or potentially dangerous form of religion were to arise, then it would likely do so within the Catholic fold. In this case the "police" function afforded to bishops and parish priests would be to take repressive action in advance of the State. How the system worked has been confirmed by several scholarly studies surrounding the apparitions of the Virgin Mary and subsequent pilgrimages to Lourdes and La Salette, both events potentially disruptive of laïcité and the French model. Recent studies show that, in fact, only a minority of extreme anti-clericals gave any serious consideration to suppressing the shrines or the pilgrimages. Instead, the model was put to work precisely in order to control them, and the Catholic hierarchy often cooperated in repressing potentially anti-governmental interpretations of the Marian apparitions, or political oppositional activity at the shrines (see, on Lourdes, Ruth Norman, Lourdes: Body and Spirit in the Secular Age, New York and London: Viking 1999; on La Salette, François Angelier and Claude Langlois [eds.], La Salette: Apocalypse, pèlerinage et literature (1856-1996), Genoble: Jérôme Millon, 2000). These scholarly works are fascinating in that they show how peculiarly French the system was, and how it had extended into unexpected areas. When a new shrine was built at La Salette, for instance, the local bishop had to deal with regulations which allowed the construction of new churches, but dictated that a governmental bureaucracy, stretching from the local préfet to Paris, controlled not only when and where they were built, but also by which architect and in which architectural style (see Jean-Michel Leniaud, "La basilique de La Salette: l’achat du terrain, la construction, l’érection de la chapelle en basilique mineure", in Angelier and Langlois [eds.], op. cit., pp. 135-153). Controlling Catholicism meant controlling religion in France; Napoleon himself, however, also took care of the most significant minorities, trying to fit them into a structure modeled originally on the Roman Catholic Church, with its dioceses and parishes. This was comparatively easy with French Protestants. It was less easy, however, with Jews, but Napoleon ultimately succeeded in promoting the creation of that peculiar French institution, the Jewish Concistory, a sort of "Jewish Church" in fact, or "a Judaism reconstructed in order to fit an organizational model basically patterned after the Catholic Church" (D. Hervieu-Léger, Le Pèlerin et le converti. La religion en mouvement, Paris : Flammarion, 2000, p. 223) . Today, notes Hervieu-Léger, French ministers of Internal Affairs have tried to create a similar "Moslem Church" and "often start their speeches, quite significantly, by denying that they are ‘regarding themselves as Napoleon’" (D. Hervieu-Léger, La Religion en miettes ou la question des sectes, p. 25). In short, the French model may accommodate other religions, but only insofar as they fit into a model patterned after the Roman Catholic Church whilst offering, in turn, some sort of ralliement, i.e. a guarantee of their loyalty to the Republic and a promise not to explicitly fight laïcité.

The third part of Hervieu-Léger’s argument moves from a comparison between France and Italy. The French often regard Italy’s tolerance of religious minorities and "cults" or "sectes" as somewhat "surprising" (ibid., p. 34). After all, Italy went through (post-1870) a long season of institutionalized anti-clericalism patterned after its French counterpart, and also took similar measures to control religion. The difference, Hervieu-Léger suggests, is that in Italy active Roman Catholics still constitute a significant portion (in fact, more than a third) of the total population, whilst they constitute less than 10% of the population in France, and in general the Catholic Church and its culture still appear to be very strong. This is not the case in France, where Catholicism is becoming "culturally devoid of significance" (ibid., p. 35), thus generating anxious reactions from both Church and State. Although the French model was institutionally anti-Catholic, it also relied heavily on the deal it had made with the Catholic Church to keep religion under careful scrutiny and to quickly detect and suppress any anti-institutional religious fringes. The current crisis in the French Catholic Church means that it is no longer able to perform its "police" function, and the State is becoming increasingly concerned about its being able to effectively control a newly deregulated religious market; hence, its curious reaction against "cults". In a country like Italy, on the other hand, it is the Catholic Church’s strength that helps the State in feeling confident that the religious situation, in general, is under control, and that the novel minorities are no real threat.

Although many other factors could be presented, by following Hervieu-Léger we take what might be an important step towards explaining why an anti-cult governmental crusade is being promoted in France, rather than elsewhere in Western Europe. Hervieu-Léger seems to confirm the point of view expressed by Jim Richardson and myself, which sees laïcité, as more important than the established churches’ fear of competition, as crucial for the French scare. Hervieu-Léger notes that the French Catholic Church itself is divided on the question of sectes. Whilst the National Conference of French Catholic Bishops is mostly critical of the anti-cult laws and campaigns (fearing that, through the use of the brainwashing argument, they may easily extend to Catholic movements and institutions), there are individual priests, nuns, and bishops who cooperate quite cheerfully with the anti-cult enterprise. Their presence, however, does not make them the leaders of the anti-cult movement, and the Catholic hierarchy is more active in putting brakes on the national anti-cult crusades than in adding fuel to the fire. The impression is that ultimately what the Catholic Church does in France will, at any rate, not be crucially relevant in orienting the government’s choices.

If we and Hervieu-Léger are right in thinking that the French anti-cult scare is a direct consequence of the peculiar French public organization of religion (and of its current crisis), it should follow that it will not be easy to export it abroad. Officers of the official French anti-cult institutions have tried to act as international missionaries, but with mixed degrees of success. So far, only the Swiss Canton of Geneva seems prepared, to some extent, to follow suit. Belgium passed a French-like parliamentary report on cults or sects in 1997, but its Observatory of Harmful Sects is progressively adopting a much more moderate attitude than its French counterpart, as evidenced by its declared willingness to cooperate with international scholars. In the United States, even those anti-cultists who regard themselves as secular humanists are not sure whether they should support the French measures. After all, as Hervieu-Léger notes, the American separation was aimed at protecting religion (and, occasionally, irreligion) from the State, while in France separation is aimed at protecting the sState from religion (ibid., p. 31). Russia and China may claim to find a model in France for their repression of minority religions, but this is a purely rhetorical argument, since their motivations are obviously different.

Finally, we may ask ourselves whether this historical investigation helps us in predicting what will happen in the future, and how international human rights and religious liberty watchdogs may persuade France to back away from its present predicament. Although she is also willing to defend some of her government’s activities against international (particularly, American) criticism, this is a question Hervieu-Léger herself considers. Firstly, she is encouraged by the distinction recently established by the governmental Mission to Fight Cults among "absolute cults" (sectes absolues, typified by Scientology and a few others) and the dozens of other sectes listed as such in the parliamentary reports of 1996 and 1999. Perhaps, she implies, the government will gradually focus on the "absolute cults" only, and leave the others alone. Perhaps: but the point, here, is that the French government operates on the basis of faulty information. Hervieu-Léger acknowledges this problem, and comments that this is not only an opinion expressed by international "legal experts and sociologists", but by French judges themselves, who recently found the president of the 1999 Parliamentary Commission guilty of defamation for having called the Anthroposophical Society a secte on the basis of parliamentary reports in which, according to the French judges, "the research done does not appear to be serious" (see ibid., pp. 48-49). Lack of serious scholarly investigation of new religious movements is a real problem in France, where scholars have been systematically discouraged from entering this field of investigation. Why should a research work which "does not appear to be serious" be regarded as more reliable when it relates to "absolute cults"? In fact, Hervieu-Léger herself occasionally relies on faulty information about these groups. She writes, for instance, that Scientology is not entitled to tax exemption in Italy (ibid., p. 190). This, however, is a misinterpretation of the Bellei decision of the Italian Supreme Court (December 16, 1999-February 23, 2000), which regarded as non-religious the services offered by Narconon, a Scientology-related organization, to drug addicts. As such, these services are not tax-exempt, but the tax exemption and the religious nature of the auditing services offered by the Church of Scientology (a different legal entity with respect to Narconon) had been recognized by previous Supreme Court decisions, and not revoked by Bellei. In pointing out this factual mistake, I am not trying to be pedantic. What is interesting, here, is that the misinterpretation of Bellei is found in statements by the French governmental Mission to Fight Cults (in turn relying on Internet postings by French anti-cultists). That this kind of inaccurate information can find its way even into scholarly works of the highest class in France, confirms that the problem of obtaining reliable information about "cults" is, in that country, serious indeed.

Hervieu-Léger also predicts that globalization will have consequences for France too. She regards as naïve those French officers who are persuaded they can convert other countries to their anti-cult gospel. It is more probable, partly as a result of international litigation in forums such as the European Court of Human Rights, that France will have to adapt its idiosyncratic peculiarities about religion to a globalized scenario. Hervieu-Léger thinks, and also hopes, that France will not be compelled to surrender its peculiarities entirely, and (like many other French authors and political figures) is clearly not in favor of an internationalization of the American model. On the other hand, with the exception, perhaps, of "absolute cults", she hopes that society-rejecting, unpopular, and "strange" novel religions may be accommodated in a France ready to discard its model of State-controlled religion, which leans too heavily on the Roman Catholic model. Hervieu-Léger believes that no French government will accept an Americanized religious laissez faire in the foreseeable future, but it will have to discard the model of control based on Catholicism, if it wants to avoid accusations of being discriminative. Hervieu-Léger proposes that the State becomes not less, but (to a certain extent) more (or more truly) secular, inter alia, by creating a "High Council of Laïcité". How effective such measures would be. I do not know, but the comments are interesting insofar as they show that foreign criticism (particularly from the United States) generates an immediate nationalist (and anti-American) reaction in the French media and governmental agencies, but it may have a certain influence on French views in the long run.

There is, however, one factor not mentioned by Hervieu-Léger that may be equally crucial in the future fate of the cult wars in France. Both government and the media rely on pre-interpreted information and on narratives before making their comments, or political choices. In other countries, the anti-cult narrative on the new religious movements is in competition with an academic narrative (in the United Kingdom and in Italy, the information circulated by INFORM and CESNUR certainly plays a significant role), whilst in France, this competition of narratives is virtually non-existent. The overwhelming bulk of the information available on groups labeled as "cults" comes from anti-cult sources (occasionally, and to a much more limited extent, from Christian counter-cult literature). The situation is somewhat circular: French scholars, although very capable of general commentaries, are reluctant to engage in field work and produce monographic studies of controversial movements, in the face of the prevalence of the anti-cult narratives which would brand them as "cult apologists" (a label, it should be added, carrying much more danger for a scholar’s career and access to publishing houses in France than in the United Kingdom, Italy, or the United States). Conversely, until such time as competing scholarly narratives are produced, anti-cult narratives will maintain their virtual monopoly. Circular problems are notoriously impervious to any form of quick fix. However, the narratives market is, in turn, being increasingly globalized, and European and international networks, offering reliable and independent information on minority religions, will eventually create international resources, which it would be ever more difficult for the French media and authorities to ignore. It is in this perspective that institutions such as INFORM, CESNUR, or ISAR, and international scholars in general, may in time be able to contribute, at least indirectly, to the creation of a more flexible attitude in France.

Spanish Version

The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century

April 19-22, 2001

[Home Page] [Cos'è il CESNUR] [Biblioteca del CESNUR] [Testi e documenti] [Libri] [Convegni]

cesnur e-mail

[Home Page] [About CESNUR] [CESNUR Library] [Texts & Documents] [Book Reviews] [Conferences]