CESNUR - center for studies on new religions


organized by CESNUR, Center for Religious Studies and Research at Vilnius University, and New Religions Research and Information Center
Vilnius, Lithuania, April 9-12 2003  

From the MILS to the MIVILUDES
France's "Sect" Policy Since the Fall of the Socialist Government

by Règis Dericquebourg
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2003 Conference, Vilnius, Lithuania. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

On 21 April 2002, the French elected Jacques Chirac, representing the moderate right, as president for the second time. The surprise had been, as it is known to everyone, that the leader of the National Front had come in second position before the socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, who was Prime Minister at the time of the presidential election.

At the parliamentary elections that followed the presidential election, the French sent a majority of deputies of the moderate republican right to the National Assembly. This enabled Jacques Chirac to rule as he wants. He appointed Jean-Pierre Raffarin as Prime Minister, who formed his government.

The outgoing coalition, which comprised socialist, green, communist and communist-related deputies, was known for its opposition to sects and to sect-like groups. The attempts to eliminate any form of non-conformist religiosity, whether it was denied or not, were criticised by international human rights organisations, religious freedom defence associations, foreign academics and politicians. That is why the circles interested in the social acceptance of minority religious groups and some of these groups have waited for the first measures to be taken by the French government with regard to sects.

The global situation in France

In France, the management of the religious sphere is based on the principle of separation of State and Churches which is enshrined in the 1905 Law. This is the legal translation of the philosophical concept regulating the relations between State and society, which we call laïcité, a word that cannot be translated in other languages. It is the legal expression of the social process through which religion gradually loses its influence on the individual and society and which is called secularisation.

According to the 1905 Law, the Republic does not recognise or finance any religious group. It does not interfere in internal matters of religions. With regard to religions, the Republic is only concerned with public order. For the commentators of the law, like Professor Jacques Robert, this law does not allow the Republic to make a distinction between historical Churches and sects. On the contrary. It opens the way to religious pluralism as there cannot exist any official religion or at least religions privileged by the State. This pluralism had been inaugurated by the Napoleonian Concordat in 1802 as it introduced the system of recognised religions limited at that time to Catholicism, Protestantism and in 1808 to Judaism. Pluralism, for major denominations, had been established. The 1905 Law allowed to enlarge pluralism. Although minority religious groups can in principle practise their faith and develop freely, however, they do not necessarily receive the full recognition as what we call in French "association cultuelle", which is a special legal status granted by public authorities and allowing religious associations to receive donations and legacies, to have chaplains in prisons and in the army, to be exempted from some taxes, etc. Historical religions enjoy such a status. This full recognition is granted by the Office for Religious Affairs at the Ministry of Interior after its examining of the dossier and at the request of the religious movement. No sect enjoys full recognition. In fact, most of them have not applied for it.

In France, the resources raised to fight against sects are disproportionate with regard to the extent of religious non-conformism. In fact, the phenomenon of religious minorities is statistically unimportant. The major movements are: Jehovah's Witnesses (130,000 members + 70,000 sympathizers), Adventists, Evangelicals (God's Assemblies, Christian Open Door, Rom Evangelists), Mormons (31,000 members), Scientology, Soka Gakkai. Many groups number about 1000 faithful (Antoinists, Christian Science, IVI, Raelians, Aumism, Hare Krishna), The Family, (former Children of God) and Moonies have almost disappeared. Last but not least, there are also many small and short-lived New Age groups. The total number does not exceed 400,000. Among the historical religions, the major one is Catholicism, then Islam, Protestantism and Judaism.

Is there some progress in the policy regarding minority religious groups in France?

In France, the management of the religious sphere is under the authority of the Office for Religious Affairs at the Ministry of the Interior. It has a juridical role and it conducts the proceedings about the applications for recognition. It also acts as the religious police. Under the pressure of anti-sect associations, however, the deputies have looked into the sect phenomenon.

A first report drafted under the authority of Mr Alain Vivien was tabled in 1983. A second report entrusted to Jacques Guyard (socialist party) and entitled "Sects in France" was handed over to the government on 22 December 1995. It is useless to question again the methodology used for that enquiry. It was largely criticised and discredited by numerous foreign and French researchers.[1] The alarming conclusions, however, to which it led induced Mr Juppé, the Prime Minister of the moderate right which had come back to power, to create a Sect Observatory with Mr Guerrier de Dumast as president in 1996.

Back in power, the socialist government created in 1998, next to this agency, an organisation in charge of the fight against sects under the authority of the Prime Minister. It was called the Inter-ministerial Mission of Fights against Sects and its president was Alain Vivien, former leader of the anti-sect association "Centre contre les manipulations mentales" (Centre against mental manipulations) founded by a rationalist writer: Roger Ikor. The powers of this mission were not well defined. In principle, it was meant to coordinate the fight against sects, which means that the then Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin made official the fight against sects. This mission comprised 40 people. It was in constant contact with anti-sect groups of which it was the official channel. It played an advisory role at ministries in which it created a network of agents whose mission was to thwart the actions of sects. Anti-sect cells were set up in the administration of the national education, youth and sports, social affairs.

On 10 June 1999, deputy Jean-Pierre Brard released a report entitled "Sects and Money", the fruit of the work of an enquiry commission on the finances of minority religious groups.

The Inter-ministerial Mission of Fight against Sects backed the drafting of the About-Picard Law (12 June 2001) which received a very bad grade from legal experts and academics both in France and abroad. The general negative assessment can be summed up with this phrase of Patrice Rolland: "All in all, the law of 12 June 2001 is only a mediocre law which passively reflects the perplexity of the French public towards what is called sects. Through the lack of comprehension of its object and the meaning of these transformations of the religious space, it risks either to breach fundamental freedom or, because of the risks, to remain unheeded. This is probably the best thing we can wish.[2]" On 18 June 2003, after the fall of the socialist government, Alain Vivien resigned from the MILS which was then dissolved.

In face of the heritage of the management of the sect issue by the socialists, the moderate right government had the choice between several options: either to do nothing and to transfer the management of the minority religious groups to the Office for Religious Affairs at the Ministry of the Interior, or to come back to the sect observatory created by Mr Juppé, or to set up a new commission. The new Prime Minister opted for this last possibility. He had the choice either to put it under the authority of the Minister of the Interior in charge of religious affairs or to keep it under the responsibility of the Prime Minister. He chose this last solution. By a decree dated 28 November 2002, he instituted An Inter-ministerial Mission of Vigilance and Fight against sectarian deviances.

In its object, the MIVILUDES works as an observatory "of the movements with a sectarian character the schemes of which breach human rights and fundamental freedoms or threaten public order or are contrary to the laws and the regulations." It promotes prevention and repression of these schemes; it collects data on these movements and informs the public about the risks of sectarian deviances.

A president has been appointed: Mr Jean-Louis Langlais, senior officer of the Ministry of the Interior. The MIVILUDES is helped by a committee (President and secretary of a piloting executive committee which comprises members of various ministries) and an orientation committee composed of various personalities chosen on the ground of their expertise. The orientation council has three categories of members: deputies (8), associations (8), experts (14). The mission's mandate is three years.

The MIVILUDES has set its first programme of action. Some comments, however, can be made on it.

1) The MIVILUDES targets sectarian deviances and not sects. Mr Langlais states that the change of name is meant to reassure sects which were concerned about religious freedom. The intention needs to be stressed but the MIVILUDES will very soon face a serious problem: how to define the "sectarian deviances". Sociologists can define the sectarian characteristics which constitute the elements of the ideal type of sect; they can identify sectarian characteristics in Churches and ecclesial characteristics in sects but how will legal experts deal with this concept? French law ignores the concept of "sect." Can it know the concept of "sectarian deviance" and define it in juridical terms? As we can see, the problem is only delayed but it remains unsolved and the commission may only discuss about the "gender of the angels." On the other hand, if the religious reference disappears, some will ask the "sectarian deviances" of all the movements to be covered, including political parties. In an interview taken by Willy Fautré, president of Human Rights Without Frontiers International, Mr Langlais shows that he is aware of that problem and states that it rather targets groups that have a criminal behaviour or which put the victims in a state of subjugation. But how to prove such things in courts? Mr Langlais admits that it is difficult.

2) Is the composition of the MIVILUDES so different from the MILS? A number of people were already in the MILS and others are well-known for their reserves or simply their hostility towards sects. The persons in charge of the sect issue in the various ministries join the piloting committee. The parliamentarians appointed to the orientation council have won fame through public negative interventions against sects. For example: Jean-Pierre Brard, Alain Gest and Nicolas About, one of the authors of the About-Picard Law. The anti-sect associations are represented alongside parent-teacher associations which expressed their hostility towards minority groups. Among the experts, some people are close to the ADFI /Association for the Defence of Family and the Individual and the CCMM/ Centre against mental manipulations which are very hostile to sects. In its interview with Willy Fautré on 3 March 2003, Mr Langlais justifies their presence by saying that "there will be no sectarian attitude towards these movements". According to its composition, the MIVILUDES can be expected to be prejudiced towards sects but we should not make a case against it based on assumptions, not facts. The same people can take up the issue differently according to the mission that will be granted to them. The minority religious groups, however, can fear the return of old reflexes.

3) The declarations of intention. In the press, the President of the MIVILUDES has immediately announced that the new mission would protect the minors and its vigilance would not be inferior to the MILS (La Croix, 14.01.03), Vingt Minutes (same date), Libération (same date). In an interview with the magazine La Vie (N° 2996, 30 January 2003), the President of the MIVILUDES states that the change of name means that the objectives have changed: the issue is not the fight against the groups themselves but the deviances they might have. He announces two priorities: the protection of minors and help to victims. The commentator of La Vie interprets it as a new orientation: the issue is not any more to repress but to help. The president of the MIVILUDES is portrayed as a man who is not from the "anti-sect seraglio." On the other hand, Mr Langlais states that the MIVILUDES will go on raising the awareness of school principals, magistrates and that trainers will be trained in the National Education.

On 4 April 2003, we were informed about another stand by Le Figaro. At the first meeting of the orientation council of the MIVILUDES, Mr. Pierre Steinmetz, director of the Prime Minister's cabinet, was said to have stated "The Prime Minister has wished that the work begun for some years through the impetus given by several parliamentarians (...) be continued and, if possible, be developed." He added that the public authorities did not have to limit their action to the recording of the breaches of freedoms but had "to identify and denounce behaviours which, prior to the violation of a freedom, threaten the latter's exercise." For the journalist who echoes this statement, " the leaders of major religious denominations and sociologists of religions who consider the fight against sects as a breach of the right to believe may grind their teeth in anger." In November 2002, the Prime Minister would have however said that "it is not the state's vocation to fight against sects" and the Minister of the Interior is said to have declared that "the sect issue must not become an obsession." It can be deduced from these different stands that the phenomenon of religious non-conformists poses a delicate problem to the government.

4) The decree instituting the MIVILUDES was challenged in court by the Church of Scientology.

Reactions of some concerned people

We have tried to make a survey among people concerned by religious freedoms. The website of "Liberté Spirituelle" (Spiritual Freedom) has reproduced an article about the limits of the public relations actions which is rather pessimistic about the relationships between the religious groups and the media to open a debate. A correspondent who signs Cap France 1 answers that this text reflects the climate prevailing at the end of the years 2000-2001 but that the situation has changed " During all this year, the media has stopped stupidly reproducing the press files handed over to them by ADFI, CCMM and the MILS but now, they have begun to publish the arguments for and against almost systematically. A certain weariness towards anti-sect extremism can be noticed in the newspaper offices. Journalists do not believe in it any more, even if they are encouraged to blow up the issue. In private, some admit they solicit other viewpoints when the editor in chief has turned his back (true!)." As proof of such a development, he puts forward the fact that the MIVILUDES takes "a different orientation" (different from the MILS). The author of this message also adds that he has detailed testimonies about this change (unless I am mistaken, the signatory speaks on behalf of an association involved in the fight for religious freedom). A religious group has sent me letters and circular letters about itself which were delivered to him at his request by the administrations as evidence of transparency will.

On the other hand, we have taken a poll among 15 spokespeople of minority religious groups based in France about a possible change of policy by the moderate right government towards minority religious groups. In fact, it is rather a list of some stands made out according to a short questionnaire to which these people have kindly answered on the telephone or on the occasion of a meeting. This enquiry is being pursued so as to cover a more representative sample. For the moment, the results are only provisional.

In a first poll of fifteen minority religious groups based in France (Mormons, Raelians, Hare Krishnam Horus, Antakharana, Golden Rosicrucians, Mandarom, Evangelical Church of Besancon, Christian Science, IVI, Scientology): a clear majority of movements (11 out of 15) expected a change in the sect policy.

In the question "If so, why?," we had asked to choose two of the following reasons maximum:

1) because the right does not have an anti-sect ideology;

2) because the right is more tolerant than the left;

3) because the right does not have an anti-religious ideology;

4) because the right will deal with more important issues;

5) because the right will want to differentiate themselves from the left;

6) because the right is less linked to freemasonry lodges.

The choices are distributed all over the reasons but with a major almost equal distribution on the last three (5,4,4). Those who answered "no" justify their answers by the fact that the mindsets are impregnated by the anti-sect ideology and because the right will want to satisfy the public. We have then asked the spokespeople of these groups if they had noticed a change in the attitude of the "government" towards their own movement. No tendency prevails: 6 "yes", 6 "no" and 3 "I don't know". The affirmative answer is mainly motivated by better contacts with the administrations (our letters are answered, some decisions have been favourable). Some "I don't know" are accompanied by the comment "yes, in general". It is supposed that they are not in trouble or they have not made any move for their movement. A negative answer is justified by the behaviour of the tax services, which remains unchanged.

When the movements are asked questions about the new perception of sects in the media, we record 6 "yes" and 9 "no". Some note silence, a timid opening; another one says that "it is much ado about nothing".

13 groups versus two have heard of the MIVILUDES; 6 out of 13 know its structure but few know the first appointments (3 out of 12 and 1 does not answer).

With regard to the open question "What do you think of the MIVILUDES?", we have negative answers like

"they have wiped the slate clean and made a fresh start"

"I have doubts about the list of decision-makers"

"the orientation committee is a pack of the most extremist anti-sect activists in France"

"the anti-sect lobby has made a move, Raffarin has continued."

Only one person welcomes the appointment of a senior officer as the president of the MIVILUDES and finds in the new state agency a "shrinkage of the influence in comparison with the MILS". Another one just mentions its objective : "protect children but not attack groups."

With regard to the question whether the new majority will be more tolerant than the left towards sects, less or as tolerant, the opinions are more or less equally distributed between "more and as tolerant" (7-5-1 I don't know, 2 "others".) On the other hand,

- 4 choices are made for the proposal "the MIVILUDES will be a copy of the MILS";

- 7 choices for "the MIVILUDES will be more liberal than the MILS";

- 1 choice for "the MIVILUDES will be harder than the MILS";

- 11 choices for the proposal "it is maintained to satisfy a certain public.[3]"

2)    La composition de la MIVILUDES diffère-t-elle réellement de celle de la MILS ? Elle inclut des personnes déjà présentes dans cette dernière. S’y ajoutent des personnes connues pour leurs réserves ou tout simplement pour leur hostilité envers les sectes. Les personnalités qui étaient chargées de la question des sectes dans les divers ministères entrent dans le comité de pilotage. Les parlementaires nommés au comité d’orientation se sont illustrés par des interventions publiques négatives envers les sectes. On y retrouve notamment : Jean-Pierre Brard, Alain Gest et Nicolas About, qui est l’un des auteurs de la loi About-Picard. Les associations anti-sectes sont représentées aux côtés d’associations de parents d’élèves qui ont manifesté leur hostilité envers les groupes religieux minoritaires. On trouve parmi les personnalités qualifiées plusieurs personnes proches de l’Association pour la Défense de la Famille et de l’Individu (ADFI), qui s’opposent fortement aux sectes, ainsi que des proches du Centre contre les manipulations mentales. Dans son entretien avec Willy Fautré (le 3 mars 2003), M. Langlais justifie leur présence en affirmant « qu’il n’y aura pas d’attitude sectaire à l’égard de ces mouvements 

This last proposal was chosen both by those who think the MIVILUDES will be a copy of the MILS and by those who think the MIVILUDES will be more liberal. This is due to the ambiguity of the questions. It can be believed that the government has maintained a commission to satisfy the public, those who are negatively prejudiced against sects but it will try to be more open; others may think that it will be the status quo (same intransigence as the MILS to satisfy the anti-sect public.)[4]

Finally, I proposed six expectations of the government from minority religious groups:

- the abrogation of the About-Picard Law comes first (8) along with

- the guarantee of religious pluralism (8);

- the creation of a representative body for minority religious groups in France (5);

- the recognition of all minority religious movements as 'associations cultuelles' (4);

- a selection of dangerous sects and others (2);

- the creation of a commission to discuss about their problems with the government (3).[5] 


After the fall of the left majority, the minority religious groups expected a change in the attitude towards them from the moderate right, on the basis of an alleged neutrality. The creation of a new mission on sects or, at least, on sectarian deviances has surprised them and its composition has irritated them. They globally go on granting some credit of trust to the right, however, although some have already given up expecting something positive. They say the right has created the MIVILUDES to meet the wishes of a certain public and the new government will be more open. The abrogation of the About-Picard Law would certainly symbolise a change in their eyes. In private, the minority religious groups confess that they remain vigilant and always ready to continue the fight against the behaviours they view as threatening towards them. It seems both sides are vigilant.


Règis Dericquebourg

Group of sociology of religions

University Charles De Gaulle - Lille 3 (France)

[1] Cf Massimo Introvigne, ed. " Pour en finir avec les sectes," Paris, Dervy, 1996. Françoise Champion et Martine Cohen, ed : " Sectes et démocratie, " Paris, Seuil, 1999.

[2] Patrice Rolland : " La loi du 12 juin 2001 contre les mouvements sectaires portant atteinte aux droits de l'homme ; Anatomie d'un débat législatif. " Archives de Sciences sociales des religions, 2003, 121 Janvier-mars, pp 149-166.

[3] There are more choices than groups because there were two choices maximum.

[4] Idem.

[5] Idem.

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