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The 2002 CESNUR International Conference

Minority Religions, Social Change, and Freedom of Conscience

Salt Lake City and Provo (Utah), June 20-23, 2002

No Good Sects in France: Social and Political Implications of the Picard Law

by Stuart A. Wright (Lamar University, USA)
A paper presented at CESNUR 2002, Salt Lake City and Provo. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author

In the past several years, I have been following the political and legislative efforts of European countries to heighten social control of new or unconventional religious movements. These efforts spread throughout a number of Western and Eastern European nations following the mass suicides/homicides of fifty three members of a New Age religious movement called the Order of the Solar Temple in Switzerland and Canada in October 1994. Most died in fires set deliberately by sect leaders in a ritual described as a "transit" to another heavenly realm. Sixteen more members committed suicide on the winter solstice of 1995 in a wooded area near the Swiss border, and five others died in a ritual suicide outside Quebec around the spring equinox of 1997. These tragic events moved European governments to examine more closely the activities of fringe religious movements and explore ways to prevent future calamities. However, some of these endeavors have produced excessive infringements on religious belief and practice, and none more egregious than in France, where the campaign to root out so-called dangerous sects has approached a witch hunt. I am going to focus my remarks on the French case, not only because it is the most extreme, but because the new anti-sect campaign has taken place in a nation with a long tradition of respect for liberty and individual rights. As such, these new developments have raised a great deal of concern among international human rights organizations, scholars, religious leaders, and even government officials within France.

Background of Anti-Sect Campaign

Following the second wave of suicides by Solar Temple members in 1995, the French security division of the police (Renseignements generaux or R.G.) created a list of suspect religious organizations, without reference to any sociological definition or legal standard. The list was seized upon by the French National Assembly which adopted a resolution to create a commission of inquiry "assigned to study the cult phenomenon." At the end of its work, which was carried out in strict secrecy, the commission, chaired by representative Alain Gest, published a report entitled "Sects in France." The commission defined a set of "danger criteria" that enabled it to classify religious organizations posing a threat (Hervieu-Leger, 2001:249). It identified "172 groups and the Jehovah's Witnesses," and took credit for compiling the list, which was actually developed by the R.G. Lobbying by militant activists representing two anticult organizations, the Association for the Defense of the Family and the Individual (ADFI) and the Center Against Mental Manipulation (CCMM or Center contre les manipulations mentales) led the government to put into place a significant arsenal of repressive measures against the blacklisted groups (Garay, 1999:7)

Between1996 and 1998, training and awareness programs for the police, magistrates and public school educators were conducted "so as to reinforce the control of the government agencies and the State against the sects" (Garay, 1999:8). In November 1997, the Minister of the Interior circulated a memorandum to the chiefs of police alerting them to "the war against reprehensible actions of sectarian movements" (Garay, 1999:8) and made direct appeals to ADFI and CCMM for assistance. Responding to intense pressure by members of the Study Group on Sects within the National Assembly and the anticult organizations ADFI and CCMM, the Interministerial Mission to Combat Sects (MILS) was established by decree, signed by the President of the Republic and the Prime Minister. One of the primary objectives of the MILS, contained in Article 1, section 2, was "To incite public services...to take any appropriate measures to anticipate and counter the actions of sects that undermine human dignity or that pose a threat to public order." Furthermore, in section 3, the Interministerial Mission was given a mandate "To share in informing and training civil servants on the methods to combat sects" and "To inform the public about the dangers of the sect phenomenon" (section 4). Article 6 of the decree effectively abolished the former Observatory on Sects, because it was judged to be "too soft" on new religions, particularly by hardline anticult leaders (Garay, 1999:10)and replaced it with the Interministerial Mission. The newly appointed chair of the Interministerial Mission, Alain Vivien, praised the MILS as a "new weapon" in the war against sects. The MILS was given operational power to coordinate activities among government agencies, thereby sanctioning the administrative and judicial repression of sectarian movements (Garay, 1999:10).

The anti-sect campaign also generated new policies and practices, most notably the "fiscal weapon" of refusing to grant tax exemptions to sects such as is provided religious associations in the General Tax Code. In 1995, the Council of State determined that one of the national associations of Jehovah's Witnesses did not at the time have an exclusively religious nature. The tax office used this administrative decision to refuse tax exemption status to the Jehovah's Witnesses after 1996, covering religious contributions made by over 200,000 followers, totaling 297 million francs (or about $47 million). Despite numerous decisions rendered by the European courts ruling that the activities of Jehovah's Witnesses are purely religious and pose no threat to the social order, the French policy of taxing contributions has been maintained. During the debate on the creation of the MILS in 1998, one member of parliament, Mr. Pontier, declared that "sects exploit all the subtleties of the religious association system, set up by the law of December 9, 1905" (Garay, 1999:16).

New French Law

On February 8, 2000, the MILS submitted a report to Prime Minister Lionel Jospin making legislative recommendations. Based on these recommendations, the French National Assembly, on May 30, passed the highly controversial new law, "Prevention and Repression of Sect Movements, also called the Picard law (named after the sponsor of the bill, Catherine Picard). The new legislation clearly violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. At its very core, the French law violates Articles 18 and 19 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which guarantee the "right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion" and the "right to manifest (one's) religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance." This includes the "right to freedom of opinion and expression" and the "right to...seek, receive and impart information and ideas" without undue interference by the state.

By way of explanation, the new law consists of eleven articles and an Explanatory Memorandum. The Memorandum is exceptional in that it makes clear it is intended to be used as legal means to "paralyze sects" by providing public authorities and affected individuals with "preventative and punitive" powers against such groups.

Article One provides for the dissolution of an organization if its activities 1)"have the goal or effect to create or to exploit the state of mental or physical dependence of people who are participating in its activities," and 2) infringe on "human rights and fundamental liberties," 3) in circumstances where the organization or its leaders (including de facto leaders) have been convicted on more than one occasion for certain offenses. The list of offenses is quite broad and does not require that the convictions involve acts committed on behalf of the organization. These include, but are not limited to, the following :

Article One also facilitates an expedited dissolution by requiring proceedings at a designated time and date in the court of first instance, imposing a fifteen-day limit for entering an appeal, and establishing procedures for an expedited appeal. Dissolution is imposed for a five year period. After a second instance, the sect may be legally banned.

Articles Two through Five create corporate criminal liability for organizations which meet conditions of dissolution contained in Article One (in instances where only individual liability previously existed). In effect, it provides a separate means, other than dissolution, for a court to prohibit sect activities.

Article Six prohibits any person from participating in the reconstitution of a dissolved organization. It imposes criminal penalties of up to three years imprisonment and a fine of 300,000 francs for the first offense, and up to five years imprisonment and a fine of 500,000 francs for a second offense.

Article Seven addresses the renewed dissolution (or banning) of a previously dissolved entity.

Article Eight prohibits sects from opening missions or recruiting new converts near schools, as well as hospitals or retirement homes. It imposes criminal penalties of two years imprisonment and a fine of 200,000 francs. An organization deemed to be a "sectarian group," then, may be denied building permits or licenses by the cities in violation of Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Article Nine prohibits "promotion of propaganda intended for young people" by an organization covered by Article One.

Articles Ten and Eleven create a new crime of "mental manipulation" which is punishable by a fine of 500,000 francs and five years imprisonment. The crime of mental manipulation is predicated on "a state of psychological or physical subjection resulting from heavy or repeated pressure on a vulnerable person, or use of techniques likely to alter his judgement, (or) to induce in him behavior prejudicial to his interests." The law defines as "vulnerable," minorities, the elderly, anyone suffering from a long-term or debilitating illness, or persons considered after medical examination to be "in a state of physical or psychological subjection." The basis for such a medical determination is not made clear in the new law. This is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the About-Picard law, and indicates the degree to which the legislative body failed to consider carefully the implications for civil liberties and human rights.

Tragically, this new legislation opens the door to possible abuses of psychiatry or clinical psychology which can become captive to political purposes, such as was found in the former Soviet Union where symptomology and diagnoses were devised as social weapons to suppress deviance (Bloch and Reddaway, 1977). Soviet psychiatrists, in the service of the State, treated dissidents by committing them to asylums or psychiatric colonies, justifying involuntary internment on the basis of such convenient diagnoses as "manic reformism," "psychopathic negativism," "counterrevolutionary delusions," and "schizophrenia." Rejecting the moral and political principals of Communism was evaluated as a characteristic symptom of schizophrenia because dissidents revealed "a poor adaptation to the social environment" (Bloch and Reddaway, 1977:253). Article 142 of the former Soviet Criminal Code decreed the following acts as punishable by incarceration for one year in a labor camp: 1) distribution of materials calling for the nonobservance of legislation on religious cults, 2) arousing religious superstition among the population, 3) organization of religious meetings which disrupt the social order, and 4) teaching religion to minors (Bloch and Reddaway, 1944:159). These criminalized acts have a resounding similarity to some of the provisions of the new French law.

Another provision in the law allows for private associations to initiate criminal actions as civil plaintiffs against sects on behalf of affected persons, even if the "victims" have no complaint. The law specifically refers to "anticult associations recognized as publicly useful by the government and having been active for at least five years." This provision appears to be created for two associations, CCMM and ADFI, to give official imprimatur to their battle against sects. According to Massimo Introvigne (2001), this creates "a legal fiction where the alleged victim is represented by ADFI or CCMM and cannot question the representation and the legal decisions made in his or her own name." Moreover, damages collected from successful litigation benefit the associations, and not the so-called victim.

Social and Political Implications of Picard Law

The controversial new legislation appears to have the widespread support in France. According to a recent French poll, 73 percent of respondents believe cults are a danger to democracy and 86 percent would "ban" organizations such as Scientology ("Cult crackdown called extreme," The Guardian, June 12, 2001). After the Interministerial report was issued, French scholar Daniele Hervieu-Leger observed that "the entire French press commented on the report" and that "the commentaries applauded the idea ...of soon banning groups considered dangerous" (2001:249). She went on to say, "Whatever their political bent, left or right, the newspapers hailed the determination of the (Interministerial) Mission, created in 1998, to help the government effectively combat threats to individual liberties and public safety posed by the sects in France. In fact, this concern considerably predates the creation of the mission and has garnered broad public support" (p.249). The roots of such widespread acrimony toward unconventional religions is in need of explanation. There appear to be a number of factors contributing to this public response, converging to produce a particularly intense societal reaction. I want to examine each of these briefly.

French Exceptionalism
The evolution of the Picard law may be impossible to understand without taking into account the cultural and historical context of Church-State relations and French secularism (la laicite a la francaise). Hervieu-Leger (2001:252) points out that throughout its history, the French have been torn between the democratic objective of guaranteeing religious freedom and the 19th century
rationalist ideal of emancipating minds "from the influence of beliefs deemed to be in stark contradiction to reason and autonomy." Historically, the French struggle for democracy must be seen as one which was confronted with the unwanted intrusion of the powerful Catholic Church into secular affairs. French anticlericalism led to the utopian ideal that the State could replace the Church as a civil religion with its own hierarchy, symbols and rites, and forging unity based on reason (LeBlanc, 2001). Harboring a deep suspicion toward the irrational aspects of religion, the French reached a compromise in 1905 that led to the legal separation of church and state. Under this compromise, religious belief was protected but subordinated to the "management of religion within the limits of the Republic." The principal aim was to privatize suspect religious beliefs and conscience, removing sectarian manifestations from the public sphere, while making collective expressions subject to approval by the state. According to Hervieu-Leger, the laicite perspective, in effect, created an "implicit regime of recognized religions" (p.252).

The French believe that religion in its primitive and uncontrolled form threatens social unity and cohesion, and leads to psychological dependence and "intellectual obscurantism," a term explicitly used by Alain Vivien recently to call up these resonant sentiments from the past. Minority religions have no claim to legitimacy unless they can adapt to the values of the Republic. The recent proliferation of new religions poses a crisis for French society. New movements demanding the benefits of religious protection and freedom do not conform to the implicit system of taken-for-granted commitments to the laicite model. Thus, a deep-rooted distrust that religious alienation poses a threat to independent thought and reason has resurfaced.

Transnational Anti-cult Movement

A second factor is the mobilization of a transnational network of anti-cult movement activists. Just as globalization has expanded economic opportunities and relations across national borders, this new world order has also given rise to new international political, social and religious movements. Not surprisingly, these movements have spawned countermovements. ACM activists in North America, such as Steven Kent and Steve Hassan, have worked closely with members of AFDI and CCMM in France, providing ideological frameworks, defining strategies, identifying resources, serving as consultants or experts in court cases and cultivating contacts in the media and in government. These efforts are analogous to missionary activities (or "counter-missionary" activities) designed to repel the growth of NRMs throughout Europe. A number of studies have documented the transcontinental ties present in episodes of domestic moral panic involving NRMs in places as distant as Europe, Australia and South America. And in all of these cases, North American ACM activists have played a crucial role.

Within the European Union, the most salient example of the ACM network is the European Federation of Centers of Research and Information on Sectarianism (FECRIS). It is composed of a network of anti-sect groups that have adopted an extremist and highly controversial approach towards the much-debated issue of religious, esoteric and spiritual groups. FECRIS has issued demands for "the creation of a European legal arena with regard to sectarian issues," and asserted the importance of "resisting pressure to place cultic behavior on the safe ground of religion and belief." FECRIS has assailed world and European organizations critical of discrimination aimed at minority religions, such as the European Commission, the Euopean Parliament, the Council of Europe and the OSCE, as being "infiltrated by cults." In November of 2000, the Chinese government invited representatives from CCMM and FECRIS to an international symposium on "destructive cults," with the intent of giving legitimation to the Chinese campaign against the Falun Gong. CCMM later reported that they were warmly received. And CCMM members also noted that France was being lauded as model to be emulated because of "the degree and coherence of the measures taken to respond to the sectarian threat" (Dasi, 2001:74).

Tragically, transnational crusades have engendered similar patterns wherever they have established organizational operations--harassment by media, police investigations and surveillance, child abuse allegations, pre-dawn government raids, and repressive new laws aimed at new religions. By framing the issue of growing religious pluralism as a "cult threat," or a "threat to the public order," the ACM missionaries have effectively appealed to populist sentiments and fears--nativism, xenophobia and especially important to the French case, nationalism. In fact, in this last instance, the appeal to nationalism has been a distinct feature of French anticultism and it has been a very successful tactic. This brings me to the third factor.


Since many of these religious groups have U.S. roots, it appears that the anti-sect campaign has been driven, in part, by anti-American sentiment in France. Or perhaps just umbrage over what is perceived as American hubris and imperialism. Since 1998, the U.S. State Department has been submitting to Congress annual reports on the conditions of religious freedom around the world, in compliance with the International Religious Freedom Act (1998). The reports have condemned French lawmakers and activists who have campaigned against unconventional religions, attempting to legitimize legal sanctions restricting their activities. The 1999 U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom report, for example, criticized French authorities for "contributing to an atmosphere of intolerance and bias against minority religions." French authorities shot back that the U.S., which is the only advanced industrial nation to have the death penalty, was in no position to criticize other nations for human rights violations. More specifically, some French journalists, in concert with anticult organizations, have "promoted the notion that sects are a dangerous American import" (Goodenough, 2001). One respected newspaper, Le Monde, called the phenomenon of new sects, an "American Trojan Horse" in Europe. The business-oriented newspaper, Le Figaro, depicted the U.S. as "paradise for cults that protects religious practice with excess." Efforts by U.S. State Department officials to dissuade the French government from their anti-sect campaign have been rebuffed. According to one news report, the new law is tied to "an outlook among some French lawmakers and European officials who resent intrusion by American religious groups" (Witham, 2001). This view has been fomented by French anti-cultists. Alain Vivien, in his first MILS annual report, referred to the United States as "sanctuary" for dangerous sects. He argued that the State Department’s concerns were a product of intense lobbying by cult operatives. And he depicted the actions of the Church of Scientology as "clandestine operations launched against France from a foreign nation" (LeBlanc, 2001). Perhaps the most peculiar expression of anti-Americanism was a television documentary produced by journalist Bruno Fouchereau which suggested that some new religious movements were "front groups" for international espionage. In the documentary, broadcast on France 3 television in May 2000, the mayor of a small village, Saint-Julien-du-Verdon, himself a retired military officer, reported that he had seen "cable plugs and antennas in statues belonging to a local religious movement know as Mandoram. 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 Castillon?" (LeBlanc, 2001)


The social and political implications are far-reaching. In hearings before the House International Affairs Subcommittee on Operations and Human Rights in July 2000, subcommittee members heard testimony about the potential abuse of human rights posed by the new French law. Subcommittee chairwoman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla), observed that "China’s Communist leaders (were) studying the French precedent for possible use against the Falun Gong movement" (Davidson, 2001). Assistant Secretary of State Lorne Cramer said the State Department was "very concerned that the French model of anti-cult legislation will be adopted and misused by countries that possess neither the French rule of law nor France’s history of protecting human rights" (Davidson, 2001). Some European nations with respectable records of human rights protections have already considered adopting new social controls over sects. Belgium, for example, has a blacklist of 189 religious sects that may become targets of repression (Haynes, 2001). In June of this 2001, the Interministerial Mission hosted a conference in Paris on the "illegal activities of organizations of sect-like character in Europe" ("Meeting Against Illegal Activities of Sects in Europe Held in Paris," COMTEX, June 18, 2001). Representatives from 22 European governments, mainly from public institutions charged with monitoring the activities of sects, attended the meeting, according to a spokesperson from MILS. Thus, concerns about other countries adopting similar legislation may be well founded.

However, this has to be balanced against reactions from the international community, which have been growing. Opposition to the law has been expressed by French Catholic and Protestant Churches, the Jewish and Islamic communities, fifty representatives of the Council of Europe, international human rights organizations, scholars, and leading French jurists. In August of 2000, three international religious organizations—World Evangelical Fellowship, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and Advocates International—told a United Nations panel in Geneva that the proposed French law regulating sects was a "threat to religious liberty" ("Religious Groups Critize French Sect Proposal," Religion News Service, August 10, 2001). In its 2001 report on worldwide religious freedom, "Aid to the Church in Need," one international Catholic charity placed France on its list of countries with discriminatory laws. Representative Christopher Smith (R-NJ), who is also co-chair of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHFHR), has sharply criticized the French legislation calling the law a "harbinger of a wave of intolerance" ("Congressman Blasts French Sect Law," Associated Press, July 10, 2001). A report issued last year by the IHFHR (2000:13) on religious intolerance, called the proposed French law "discriminatory," noting that "abuses should be dealt with under the Criminal Code and other legislation and not through adopting a separate law targeted at religious minority groups." As a result of a petition by 40 religious and human rights organizations, the Council of Europe has appointed a rapporteur who is investigating the law and cases of religious discrimination in France. The U.S. State Department’s 2001 Report on Religious Freedom placed France on list of worst violators. The Church of Scientology, one of the chief targets of the anti-sect campaign, has filed a legal action to the European Court of Human Rights to have it declared in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. As recently as last September, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe responding to a recommendation (1412) by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, entitled "Illegal Activities of Sects," wrote:

Governments are under an obligation, in their dealings with such groups,

to remain in conformity not only with Article 9 but with all the provisions

of the European Convention on Human Rights and other relevant instruments

protecting the dignity inherent to all human beings and their equal and

inalienable rights. This entails, inter alia, a duty to respect the principles of

religious freedom and non-discrimination.

The Committee went on to say that states should use existing procedures of criminal and civil law to address problems posed by sects, and it affirmed religious pluralism as an inherent feature of democratic societies.

As this conflict plays out in the next few years, human rights organizations, religious leaders, government officials, scholars of religion, minority religions and anti-cult interest groups will be vying for "ownership" of the so-called sect problem and seeking to influence social policy. The role of scholars conducting empirical research will be critical in framing and shaping public perception of the issues, an increasingly pluralistic domain in the new world order as the venues of information and persuasion expand. Herein is the battlefield where the contest of ideas will take place and the politics of communication will likely shape the outcome.



Bloch, Sidney and Peter Reddaway. 1977. Psychiatric Terror: How Soviet Psychiatry is Used to Suppress Dissent. New York: Basic Books.

Dasi, Merudvi. 2001. "Religious Freedom and NRMs in Europe." ISKCON Communications Journal 8 (2):65-77.

Davidson, Lee. 2001. "Europe abetting anti-religion drive?" Deseret News, July 13.

Garay, Alain. 1999. "French Policy Against Sects." Unpublished paper (on file with author).

Goodenough, Patrick. 2001. "French Anti-Sect Law: Christian Lawyers Prepare for Action." CNS News, June 4.

Haynes, Charles. 2001. "France’s anti-cult law undermines religious-liberty rights." Freedom Forum, July 22.

Hervieu-Leger, Daniele. 2001. "Frances Obsession with the Sectarian Threat." Nova Religio 4 (2):249-57.

International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights. 2001. Religious Intolerance in Selected OSCE Countries in 2000. The Hague, 26 June.

Introvigne, Massimo. 2001. "Seven Things You Can Do Immediately About the French Law: A Manifesto." Online at https://www.cesnur.org/2001/fr_may30_mi.htm.

LeBlanc, Benjamin-Hugo. 2001. "No Bad Sects in France." Religion in the News 4 (3):1-7, found on internet, http://www.trincoll.edu/depts/csrpl/RINVol3No3/RINVol4No3/French%20sects.htm

Witham, Larry. 2001. "French sect lists’ criticized in House hearing." Washington Times, July 12.

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