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“France has been Perceived Abroad as Liberticide”: Will the New Government Moderate French Anti-Cult Efforts?

(Nov. 13, 2002) Scholars and religious liberty activist throughout the world hope that the new conservative French government will put some brackets to both domestic and international anti-cult efforts once promoted by the socialist government led by Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. Alain Vivien, a Socialist and the former president of the governmental Mission to Fight Cults (MILS), resigned after the election in June, and many see as a good omen the fact that he has not yet been replaced.

Criticism against Vivien has been officially expressed in Parliament by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. He criticized Vivien for having “created disturbing and unnecessary controversies”. Sarkozy also hinted that MILS’budget may be reduced. His comments were interpreted by the French media as referring to Vivien’s endorsement of the Chinese anti-cult law and China’s repression of Falun Gong, both heavily criticized by international human right bodies.

An “authorized spokesperson” for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told L’Express (a magazine well known as a staunch defender of MILS’ anti-cult attitude) that Vivien’s Chinese policy did embarrass French authorities, and that “Vivien took the liberty of going to China knowing that both the [then] Minister of Foreign Affairs [socialist Hubert Védrine] and the French Ambassador to China were against his trip”. Vivien retorts that all his foreign trips on behalf of MILS were preliminarily cleared through both Védrine and Prime Minister Jospin. The same unnamed “authorized spokesperson”, however, told L’Express that problems go beyond China. “With the [first French] parliamentary report of 1995 [in fact, published in 1996] and its list, with no legal value whatsoever, of 172 [sic] cults, the About-Picard law, and MILS’action, France has been perceived abroad as liberticide” ("Liberticide" is a rare word both in French and in English, whose meaning is stronger than "being against liberty"; actually, a "liberticide" is a killer of liberties just as a "homicide" is a killer of humans). Earlier this year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a delegate to the OSCE meeting in Warsaw to explain that “MILS generated misunderstandings and gave an image which does not correspond to the actual French reality”.

All this does not mean that “liberticide” attitudes will be stopped in a near future. The “image” given by Vivien, Picard and others may not “correspond to the actual French reality”, but it does correspond to the attitude of most French media. They keep applauding “liberticide” activities taken against “cults”. There is also a small but influential lobby in the French parliament determined to keep MILS as it is. A “gang of six” includes four conservative MPs (Alain Gest, back in Parliament and president of the commission which produced the infamous 1996 report which included the list of cults now disavowed by some French governmental spokespersons; Nicolas About, co-sponsor of the truly “liberticide” About-Picard law; former anti-Scientology judge Georges Fenech, a media darling for his “zero tolerance” program against criminality; and Eric Doligé); socialist Martine David; and Jean-Pierre Brard, from several years the most fanatical anti-cultist in Parliament and an independent MP “connected” (apparenté) to the French Communist Party parliamentary delegation. The “gang of six” is actively lobbying for keeping the MILS as it is, mobilizing a largely friendly media community and the anti-cult movements (the latter are also threatened by a reduction in the financial support by the government, which would compel them to dismantle the anti-cult bureaucracy created during MILS’ golden years).

Gest and the other members of the “gang of six” are lobbying heavily for keeping the international programme under which French anti-cult missionaries visited several countries in order to promote anti-cultism and the French model. “I am very concerned that the Ministry for Foreign Affairs may normalize our attitude on cults in order to please the U.S. They want to cut the international wings of MILS”, Gest told L’Express.

The future is, accordingly, uncertain. It seem that the S in the name of MILS will change from sects (cults) to dérives sectaires (cultic deviances), indicating that a group now regarded as a cult may moderate its “dérives” and be considered legitimate in the future. Who the new president of MILS will be is also not unimportant. The “gang of six” is lobbying for Catherine Picard, co-sponsor with About of the “liberticide” anti-cult law of 2001, despite the fact that she recently published with social scientist Anne Fournier a conspirationist anti-American book (Sectes, démocratie et mondialisation, Paris: PUF, 2002) so silly and paranoid that it makes her an international embarrassment just as bad as Vivien was. Fenech was said to want the position before the elections, but it is unlikely that Prime Minister Raffarin will appoint a MP. The appointment of a judge whose ideas are not so well-known through the medias will probably indicate that the new government is in fact slowly moving in a more moderate direction.

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