CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

CESNUR 2006 International Conference
July 13-16, 2006
San Diego State University, San Diego, California
Religion, Globalization, and Conflict: International Perspectives

France's About-Picard Law and Neo-Phare: The First Application of "Abus de Faiblesse"
(Short Version)

by Susan J. PALMER (Religious Studies, Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec)

A paper presented at the CESNUR 2006 International Conference. Please do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author


This paper is a study of a celebrated trial in France with valeur juridique, since it tested the new law designed to suppress sectes (“cults”) by prosecuting charismatic leaders who abuse followers through the power of manipulation mentale or brainwashing techniques. In 2004 Arnaud Mussy, the prophet/ founder of Neo-Phâre, a small NRM based in Nantes, was found guilty of the delit (misdemeanour) of abus de faiblesse and sentenced to 3 years in prison and a fine of 155,000 euros. On the basis of research conducted in France and interviews with the Mussy brothers, this study explores the internal factors in Neo-Phare that may have influenced the decision of a member to commit suicide.  The historical and cultural forces behind this controversial new law are analysed, notably France’s reaction to the 1994-97 OTS mass suicides and the current trial of OTS mentor. Tabachnik, and the lobbying for more social control over sects and their dérives in the national Assembly.   Finally, the influence of France’s powerful anti-cult organization, UNADFI, and the role of the expert witness, psychologist Jean-Marie Abgrall in the trial of Arnaud Mussy will be discussed. This study is part of a broader research project funded by the Social Sciences in the Humanities Research Council of Canada on the public management of minority religions in France.

On June 12, 2001, a new law, known as the About-Picard law [i] was passed in the National Assembly.It had been initially proposed by the right-wing Senator Nicholas About, then taken up in the National Assembly by socialist deputy Catherine Picard. The law was designed to suppress those groups labelled as sectes, by facilitating the prosecution of secte leaders. To this end, it created a new category of delit (misdemeanour) called the abus de faiblesse (“abuse of weakness”). This delit was meant to describe the many ways that vulnerable followers might be hurt by charismatic leaders - through fraud, physical abuse, sexual exploitation, incitement to mass suicide, and withholding medical treatment or practising medicine without a license. All these forms of social deviance were made possible through the powerful, ineluctable force of manipulation mentale (brainwashing) - at least that is the assumption built into the new law. Any secte leaders found guilty of “l’abus frauduleux de l’etat d’ignorance ou de faiblesse would be liable to 5 years in prison and a fine of up to 750,000 euros in damages (“La loi About-Picard reinforce l’arsenal legislatif contre les sects” (Laic.info 2004-10-16).

In 1998 an earlier, more draconian version of this law been proposed. It defined sectes as “militias”. This would place them within the jurisdiction of a 1936 law that gave the President the power to disband movements that threatened state security (Hervieu-Leger 2004:57). Then Catherine Picard rewrote it so that it no longer targeted les sectes directly by defining them as criminal gangs. She avoided the knotty problem of defining a secte by focusing rather on the  “sectarian danger” that arose from cult leaders’ uncanny control over their followers’ minds through manipulation mentale. Thus the concept of brainwashing techniques was introduced into the loi commune.

This evoked a chorus of protests. The problem of finding objective criteria for mental manipulation was pointed out by the Minister of Justice, and various lawyers. Church leaders saw it as endangering freedom of religion. In 2002 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe passed a resolution (1309) critical of the law and invited the French government to reconsider it. Human rights advocates dubbed the law un delit d’opinion.

 So, in its final stage, a new version of the bill was tabled that circumvented the problem of creating a law against brainwashing. An existing article (313-4) in the criminal laws that already dealt with “the abuses of ignorance and weakness” was rewritten to include the brainwashing concept, known in France as manipulation mentale, and in Articles Ten and Eleven of the new law it was predicated on “a state of psychological or physical subjection resulting from heavy or repeated pressure on a vulnerable person”. The brainwashing concept, already criticized for its vagueness, was now latent - but still importantly present - encapsulated within that ambiguous phrase, abus de faiblesse. (Altglas 2000) 

This new law seemed a perfect compromise - a way of controlling cults without infringing on religious liberty. Picard explains (2002) that all French jurisprudence protects freedom of conscience and association - but these freedoms should only apply to group that do not attack human rights or disturb the public order or violate individual liberties. Since les sectes perpetrate these very kinds of attacks and disturbances, she argues, they qualify as “illicit” associations, not valid “religions”. She calls upon “les pouvoirs public” to « empecher toute nuisance a la société ou aux individus » (Picard 2002, 275).

The French sociologist Hervieu-Leger wrote, “the law of May 2001, because it fails to define what a secte is from a legal point of view, has little chance of being an effective legal tool”. She argues the law served a mere “emblematic function,” attesting to “the determination of the state to protect its citizens from dangerous sects” (Hervieu-Leger 2004:58).

But the About-Picard law soon proved to be more than just an emblem. In October 2004 Arnaud Mussy, a real-life prophet of Neo-Phare, a tiny secte apocalyptique in Nantes was tried before the Tribunal Correctionel de Nantes for “abus de faiblesse”. He was found guilty and received a suspended sentence of three years in prison, and a fine of 115,000 Euros.

This was a resounding victory for France’s wars on cults. “Une premiere en France - trois ans avec sursis pour  le leader d’une secte,” crowed Le Bien Public (26 Novembre 2004).

France’s leading anti-cultists expressed their satisfaction. Jean-Marie Brard, the minister from the Assemblie Nationale on the pilot committee that forged the law, offered his auto-congratulation:

 This is excellent news! The law is en effet, the result of a long process of meticulous parliamentary research and hard work. Now we have an example of a gourou who exploits the faiblesse of ignorant, gullible people and subjects them to physical and psychological abuse! He is convicted - the first condemnation of its kind in France! (communiqué de presse au Jean-Pierre Brard, Assemblie Nationale, 26 November 2004).

Maitre Jean-Michel Pesenti, the lawyer for the civil parties and of ADFI (Association de defense des familles et individus) represented the parents of the Neo-Phare member whose faiblesse had been abused. He exclaimed, “Rien ne sera pas jamais comme avant…si Arnaud Mussy est culpable, c’est une victoire!” (« Un Christ condamne pour sujection psychologique » Liberation 25 Novembre 2004 by Christian Gauvry).

Dominique Hubert, the directrice of UNADFI’s local chapter in Nantes announced, “with this law, at last the rights of victims will be recognized?” (Jean Yves Picaros, Presse Ocean, 26 November 2004).

The president of MIVILUDES, Jean-Michel Roulet, proclaimed in his 2005 Rapport au premier minister: “the adoption in 2001 of the law called About-Picard has constituted a remarkable advance in jurisprudence in the battle against the misdemeanour of fraudulent abuse and of state of ignorance”.

 Thus, Arnaud Mussy’s condemnation possessed valeur pedagogique; it was intended to be a warning to all “cult leaders” to stop brainwashing, and to discourage the youth of la Republique from joining destructive sectes. As Mussy’s own lawyer admitted, “This is not a conviction that is anodine (neutral). It contains a very strong warning! Here we have the first jurisprudence!”

These are the events which led up to the trial of Arnaud Mussy.

On the 14th July, 2002, a member of Neo-Phare, a 29-year-old gym instructor named Jeremie, committed suicide by throwing himself in front of a car in the village of Maine-et-Loire. By September a media storm had erupted. Many news reports claimed that, within two days, two other members of Neo-Phare had also attempted suicide - by climbing the walls of the Chateau Clermont and falling. Arnaud Mussy was arrested two months after the tragedy, on October 16, 2002 and charged under the provisions of the loi About-Picard, June 12, 2001 (articles 223-15-2 et 223-15-3) that makes manipulation mentale a delit (article 313.4). He was held for questioning for 48 hours and ordered at the hearing to not have any further contact with Neo-Phare members. This was clearly an attempt to disband a secte.

The trial was held two years later, on October 14 to15, 2004, when Arnaud Mussy was pronounced  guilty of  “avoir abus de l’état d’ignorance et de faiblesse de plusieurs personnes en état de suggestion physique et psychologique…pour les conduire a des actes ou des omissions qui leur etaient gravement préjudiciables”. His appeal was held on June 6, 2005 at the cour d’appel at Rennes. There, Arnaud Mussy’s condemnation for l’abus de faiblesse was upheld.   


The purpose of this study is to investigate the events and concepts that led up to this important moment in the history of French jurisprudence. The About-Picard law does not appear to attack sectes directly. Nor does it define sectarian practices as illegal per se, but it is designed to apply only to sectes. The abus de faiblesse charge is something of an anomaly, as it rests upon an odd combination of legal and psychological concepts and is based on the assumption that the harm to victims is the product of the singularly potent type of brainwashing mastered by self-styled prophets and gourous..

Since the 1970s many scholars outside France (Dick Anthony 1988; Thomas Robbins1979; James T. Richardson 1993; Massimo Introvigne 2001; Eileen Barker 1984; and David G. Bromley 1998) have argued that brainwashing is a theory that is unfalsifiable, hence impossible to prove or disprove. Some have even categorized it as a “pseudoscience”, lacking in scientific merit. But even if the theory of brainwashing were deemed respectable and abus de faiblesse were a straightforward type of social deviance that was quite possible to prove, a study of the case strongly suggests that its application to situation in Neo-Phare was flawed.

On the basis of my interviews data and media descriptions of the trial, it would appear that the standard tools and methods of social scientific research were not applied in researching the group and preparing this case. Throughout the trial, the portrait of the group consistently presented was the stereotypical, over-simplified, one-size-fits-all model of a secte that prevails throughout anti-cult literature. The prosecution’s conceptual approach to understanding of a secte relied heavily on psychological reductionistic models. The state of mind of the suicide victim and the complex phenomenon of religious conversion was explained in facile pop-psychological clichés.

This paper, therefore, considers alternative explanations for the strange events that led up to the death of a member, the condemnation of the leader and the disbanding of Neo-Phare. We begin by asking five questions:

a. Was Jeremie’s death a religiously-motivated suicide?

b.       Is there any evidence that Arnaud Mussy encouraged Jeremie to commit suicide?

c.    Why did two other members climb up the outside wall of the Chateau Clermont? Were these, in fact, suicide attempts?

d.    What were the external and internal factors, if any,  that led up to or may have brought about this tragedy?

e.    What are the social, historical and legal factors that produced the About-Picard law?

To address these questions, I interviewed Arnaud Mussy. Through interviews with him and his twin brother, Olivier, I tried to piece together Neo-Phare’s short (1 1⁄2 year) history. Through referring to interview data and news reports, I tried to find the factors which may have contributed to the Jeremie’s fateful decision, as well as to the trajectory of Mussy’s legal process. Finally, in order to understand the social context of the new law, I have studied the history of the French anti-cult movement since the 1994 OTS mass suicide.

          This study is a work in progress, because some important documentation is currently unavailable. My interpretation of events, to date, rests heavily on data gleaned from a series of interviews with the Mussy twin brothers, who might be characterized as a “charismatic duo” playing I found both brothers were very precise about dates, because these were significant within their numerological work. While I realize that the testimonies of so-called “secte” leaders might be considered unreliable, I felt it was important to hear Arnaud Mussy’s side of the story and to work with the information that was available, since no research had yet been done on this fascinating case. I also relied on media reports of Neo-Phare’s controversial activities, as filtered through ADFI Nantes, the local chapter of France’s powerful anti-cult organization, UNADFI, and from journalists’ reports of the trial. I tried to apply for a copy of the court transcripts and the police reports through a lawyer who is part of a human rights network, but was told that transcripts can only be given to the attorneys in the case or their clients, because of privacy laws. I phoned the two former members of Neo-Phare who were said to have exhibited suicidal tendencies, but they declined my request for an interview, as did the defence lawyer. I requested an interview with Catherine Picard, co-author of the law, who is currently the head of UNADFI, France’s most powerful anti-cult organization. She did not respond to my messages.

The History of Neo-Phare

Arnaud Mussy was born in 1968 in Boulogne -Billancourt. At 22 he discovered the esoteric philosophy of Paco Rabanne. He spent some time in Argentina in his late twenties where he read the books of Auguste “Andre” Bougenec and then returned to France. After meeting Bougenec in 1997, Arnaud became an enthusiastic numerologist and joined Phare-Ouest. He reports that when he joined, most of the others had been members for at least five years.

Phare-Ouest was founded in 1989 in the city of Nantes by Bougenec (1914-97) who was a  Breton mystic. He wrote six books, the most famous being Les Couples et l’Alchimie (1990). Bougenec had been trained in a Masonic order and claimed to be the reincarnation of Jesus. His aim was “l’etude des rapports philosophiques des traditions avec la linguistique et la semantique”. Bougenec deconstructed the French vernacular to “reveal the Plan of God” and developed the Kabbalah Française, a mystical linguistic and numerological code. He died in 1997, leaving behind Phare-Ouest, a group with forty-odd members.

After his death, Arnaud Mussy took over the leadership and spearheaded a schism. He explains, “I found the people in le Phare very inactive, very rigid like the Pharisees. [“We would call them Phare-isees” his brother Olivier joked]. So I said, “Let’s do something!” So, twenty people followed me out of the Phare, and we made Neo-Phare in January 1, 2001.”

The 20 members of Neo-Phare were all between the ages of 30 to 40, and were mostly in couples with a few children. The twin brothers brought their wives and their stepmother, Veronique (their late father’s second wife) into the group. The Mussy brothers did not need to work since their father had left an inheritance of real estate and they were able to live comfortably off the rental incomes.

Neo-Phare moved into two small hamlet 20 kms from Nantes. The core group lived together, eight in Cellier and three at Olivier’s home in Aigreseille. They practiced cooperative rather than communal living. As Olivier explained, “We were happy to live together. We worked half time, shared expenses, but we all kept our individual bank accounts.” There were no efforts to recruit new members.

Neo-Phare quickly developed into an intensely apocalyptic milieu after 9/11, when  Arnaud announced the end of the world. He claimed that Bougenec had predicted the destruction of the Twin Towers, but he had identified the date as “11/06”, which inverted became 9/11. conceptualized the apocalypse in positive terms as a mysterious and pleasant rather transformation, the birth of a new, more spiritual humanity, rather than as a violent destruction of the physical world. But he kept giving specific dates. The first was December 29, 2001.

At the beginning, Mussy’s role was as a teacher and interpreter of Bougenec’s philosophy. He held a conference in Paris in November 2001 and two at Vezelay on the 15th and 16th of December 2001. It was at Vezelay that the group experienced two events that established Arnaud Mussy’s new messianic role.2 These events bring to mind Weber’s idea of “charismatic display”, for they supported Arnaud’s claim to be the return of Jesus, and of Bougenec (who was also Jesus).

After the day’s conference in Vezelay, the members of Neo-Phare gathered in the crypt below the Romesque Abbaye, beside the tomb of Mary Magdelene. There they held a séance to communicate with the spirit of the Divine Mother. Suddenly Arnaud’s body contorted into the shape of Jesus upon the cross. “I stood on tiptoes, my arms stretched out, my head hanging. I shouted out “It is finished!” A female member then shouted out “Beaucoup! Beaucoup! Beaucoup!” - and fell to the floor.

The second event occurred after the group returned to Aigreseille. On February 6 and 7, 2002, a young member, “Aimee” reported feeling that someone had moved into her gorge, then entered into a trance and began channelling an entity who identified itself as “André” [Bougenec]. Andre spoke: “Arnaud it is time to reveal your Akashic memoire”. She shouted out the word, “Apôtres! Apôtres! Apôtres!” thrice. This two-day séance was videotaped, and the messages were transcribed by Olivier. The Mussy brothers commented that they were surprised by this development, for “channelling is not part of our tradition”, but they believed it was indeed Bougenec who was being channelled. The spirit communications just so happened to support Arnaud’s charismatic claims: “Jesus is returned to earth. It is Arnaud!”

Shortly after this episode, on March 5, the channeler and her boyfriend left the group.

After the suicide, Aimée denounced Arnuad Mussy to journalists: “It is true, he is a seducer, he knows how to overwhelm you” (24 Mars 02 “Delires mystique, entres en trance reception des messages“). She also wrote a deposition for the court in which she referred to Mussy as a “manipulateur” and insisted she never channeled the messages, but that Arnaud channeled them himself, “directly, from the sky”. Arnaud suggested that the court should refer to the videotapes that had been seized by the police when he was arrested, and view the Aimée’s videotaped séances, to verify who the channeler was, but his suggestion was not taken up by the court.

After these episodes, the group’s apocalyptic expectations were strong. When the end of the world did not materialize on December 29th, it was rescheduled for February 25, 2002.

Neo-Phare held many meetings at traditional sacred sites, Romanesque abbeys and historic chateaux, as power spots.[ii] For Arnaud Mussy, the tomb of Francois II in the Cathedral of Nantes provides the key to the apocalypse. This tomb was discussed in one of Bougenec’s books, which explores the esoteric mysticism of Salvador Dali. My first interview with the Mussy brothers took place beside the tomb of Francois II, where Arnaud pointed to the six seated patriarchs carved into the base, “there were not twelve but sixteen Apostles who followed Jesus - and they were not single men, but in couples!  And Francois II, he represents Jesus Christ who is lying beside Mary - no longer his mother but, at the end of time, his êpouse… Every man must find his âme-soeur before the Plan of God can be revealed.”

In Bougenec’s theology, God is androgynous. He preached a sex-complementarity view of salvation, claiming that the couples in Phare-Ouest were the couples of the Heavenly Jerusalem who would usher in the Millennium. Bougenec held ceremonies formalizing the “soulmate” relationship between married members. Mussy took this concept one step further by separating many of the couples in Neo-Phare and re-assigning them new partners, according to their “energies”, in order to prepare for the advent of the Heavenly Jerusalem. (Mussy insisted he was not breaking up marriages, simply reuniting souls who had been separated for aeons in the Fallen World). Mussy explained, “Our couples in Neo-Phare were the16 couples in the Heavenly Jerusalem. The 17th couple was me and Marie, my soul sister (my wife left me).These couples represented all the couples in the world!”

Olivier reported, “there were changes 3 or 4 times. Not every couple changed”. He described how he had been assigned the wife of Jeremie, “Nadine”:

One day Arnaud unveiled the couples of the Heavenly Jerusalem. He told me my soul sister was Nadine. My wife had just left me and I was alone and sad. When Arnaud said `N. is your soul sister,’ I trusted him.  Nadine was content. Jeremy said he was happy for her. He said he realized he was not a good husband to her. When I told Jeremy that Nadine was pregnant [by me], he said he was happy.

When February passed and the end of the world did not come about, Mussy deferred it to September 2, 2002, and later to October 24, 2002 (the date of Andre Bougenec’s death).

The first serious conflict with the authorities came about at the beginning of March 2002. All members were ordered to appear to the local gendarmerie for interviews. Relatives of members had expressed concern about the apocalyptic expectations of the group, and the refusal of some to celebrate Christmas with their families, due to their apocalyptic expectations (“Le gourou du Neo-Phare s’éxprime sur sa communauté spirituelle?” (AFP 5 September 2002, by Christophe Schmidt). Recalling the OTS mass suicides, a parent contacted the local chapter of ADFI in Nantes. ADFI in turn contacted local journalists and articles came out mocking the délire of their endtime scenario and ridiculing Mussy’s claim to be “the reincarnation of Jesus”. The police launched an investigation into the members’ children, but it was found they did not attend the meetings and attended public school regularly, so the gendarmes were satisfied. But the effect of this external pressure on the group was debilitating. Many of the original 20 members left the group after the police investigation, leaving behind only eight members. (‘(“L’evolution d’une secte apocalyptique intrigue la police de Nantes” AFP 1 August, 2002, Christophe Schmidt.) This group of eight moved to Cellier to live in the house of Frederic and later in the house of the couple who would climb Chateau Clermont, whom I will refer to as “Claude” and Sylvie”.

On the 14 July, 2002, Jeremie threw himself in front of a car, “his arms crossed on his

breast” (according to journalistic sources). Mussy reports, “I was nowhere nearby when he killed himself, and had not seen him for four days”. On the 15 July, Claude climbed up the Chateau Clermont tower and, according to one news report, he threw himself out of a window, but was not harmed by the fall. The very next day, his wife Sylvie climbed up the highest tower of Chateau Clermont “naked with a rose in her teeth”. She was spotted by a woman inside the chateau who screamed, causing S. to fall, (contrary to the news reports) was not injured. She was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward and examined by a psychiatrist. Both the Mussy brothers deny that these were suicide attempts, but rather efforts at what Max Weber would term “charismatic display”.

The Trial of Arnaud Mussy

The following account of the trial is based solely on interviews with the Mussy brothers and on journalist’s reports of the statements made by key actors in the courtroom.

In October 2004 Arnaud Mussy was tried before the Tribunal Correctionel de Nantes for abus de faiblesse. The anti-cult movement showed up in full force. The prosecution’s lawyer, Me Jean-Michel Pesenti, was a leading anti-cultist who worked for UNADFI and represented Jeremie’s family. The directrice of ADFI Nantes gave evidence. The prosecution’s expert witness was a psychologist, Jean-Marie Abgrall, who is France’s leading expert on brainwashing in sectes, and the author of several anti-cult books. Arnaud Mussy’s lawyer, Me Fabrice Petit, was appointed by the court, but he did not receive much cooperation from his client. As Mussy notes,

I did not prepare for my trial, I only saw my lawyer once in two months. I felt it was important not to prepare for the trial, it did not interest me. It was important to work on my book. That is what interested me. The About-Picard law is stupid, but I cannot waste my time fighting it. It was clear the National Assembly had a new law and they wanted to try it out on some little group to make an example - not a big powerful secte like Scientology who have lots of money to defend itself. I have no money. I knew I could not win.

Mussy told the journalists who flocked around the courthouse, ”I initially decided not to take a lawyer because I saw myself as tested by the heavens.” (“Le profil du gourou de l,a secte Neo-Phare à Nantes passé au çibles.” AFP 14 Oct. 2004 Nantes). Instead, he made use of his court appearance as a pulpit from which he broadcast his millenarian message. Predictably, the media ridiculed his prophecies and claim to be “Jesus”, but Mussy seemed to welcome the attention and claimed he was not embarrassed by failed prophecy (“On se relèvera, riche de cet expérience!”)

Four victims were named in the trial: Jeremie, his wife “Nadine”, and the couple who climbed the Chateau Clermont. The About Picard law includes a provision that allows for private associations to initiate criminal actions as civil plaintiffs against sects on behalf of victims, even without his or her knowledge or consent (see Wright 2002; and Introvigne 2001).[iii]. It is interesting to note that the last two of the victims named in the case denied they were victims of Arnaud Mussy.

Mussy reports that the trial opened with the juge d’instruction saying “j’accuse!” (“He points the finger directly at me and tells to me, `you are this, you are that. You are culpable!’”) The substitute du procureur, Francois Touron echoed him: “You are responsible for the death of Jeremie in a moral sense. You have provoked the demise of Jeremie!” Me Pesenti said that Mussy was responsible for Jeremie’s suicide through applying “repeated pressure of the kind that alters the judgement” on the victim, and by using “techniques of thought reform”. He claimed that Mussy never “manifested a shadow of repentance or any regret.” (Mussy commented “there is never an idea - no one ever thinks…perhaps I am innocent?”)

The experimental nature of this trial was often referred to in court. The substitute du procureur noted “if this law did not exist, one could not bother Arnaud Mussy.”  Me Pesenti mentioned during his plea that the new law was “perfectible” and posed “difficulties in interpretation.” Me Petit, the defense lawyer, objected to his client being used as a cobaye (guinea pig or experimental subject) for this new law that had not yet been tested. (“3 ans de prison dont 6 mois fermé, requis le gourou du Néo-Phare.” AFP 6 June  2005). He cautioned the court: “One is asking you to be psychiatric magistrates. Neither you nor I have the competence to judge manipulation mentale.”

Me Petit challenged the notion of abus de faibless by pointing out that the members of Neo-Phare were hardly feeble weaklings: “They were, for the most part, responsible adults with intellectual capacities in some cases “superior” - and they were quite capable of free choice. Among them were a doctor emergency of CHU de Nantes, two teachers, and a conseillere principale d’education.”  (“Procés du gourou de la secte Neo-PhareAFP, Nantes 15 October 2004). He also raised the important point that Arnaud Mussy did not actually convert any of the members in Neo-Phare. They were already followers of Andre Bougenec in Phare-Ouest before they participated in the schism of Neo-Phare.

When Mussy took the stand, he argued that Neo-Phare was too small, too poor and too discreet to be a secte. “Il n’y a ni argent, ni proselytisme, ni trouble a l’ordre public”.

Mme Dominique Hubert of ADFI Nantes, however, refuted this point:

Neo Phare represents the new face of the secte: the secte of the future - the small secte that doesn’t look like a secte. It is true there is no money, no apparent manipulation - but that makes it all the more dangerous because it does not appear to be a secte! Young people will join without realizing they are joining a secte!”[iv].

A key point in the prosecution’s case was to show that Arnaud Mussy fit the profile of the cult leader or “gourou”. The “evidence” for this amounted to little more than ad hominem attacks and name-calling. Mme Hubert, the directriçe of ADFI Nantes said of Mussy, “He bluffs all the world. He is a manipulateur with an ego surdimensionnế!” (le Pannier, 05.09.02).  The psychologist Dr. Abgrall branded Mussy as a “manipulateur, surrounded by apôtres who practiced “the destruction of thought and of language” (“Le profil du gourou de l,a secte Neo-Phare à Nantes passé au çibles.” AFP 14 Oct. 2004 Nantes).

Mussy protested in court that he had no part in Jeremie’s death; that it “had nothing to do with our project. Things were going well until this disaster. It was just an accident parcours.” (Le gourou de la secte Néo-Phare comparaît jeudi et vendredi á Nantes” (AFP, 10 October 2004 by Julien Dumont). He denied planning a suicide with “pensées froides calculés” - and had the impression he received a positive response from the court. He noted, “when I speak and tell them my side of the story, even the prosecutor says, `He seems to be very straightforward, sincere’.

`Aha!” says the directrice from ADFI.  “That proves he is a manipulateur. All gourous have this ability to seem sincere. That is how they manipulate!’

Mussy protested:

But I do not know how to brainwash! I am no gourou. In the group it is more like I have the role of the animateur. Why? Because no one else will do anything. I arrange for us to meet, I organize colloques, I write books on the internet. I have energie. But there is no hièrarchie in our group.  I have no money, the people in Neo Phare, they are not my followers, they are my friends! (Interview with Arnaud Mussy, February 20, 2006)

He objected to being psychoanalysed by complete strangers:

The head of ADFI Nantes, she had never met me, I had never seen her before in my life, but she stands up in court and tells them who I am, what is in my mind, as if she knows me better than I know myself. And the psychologist [Jean-Marie Abgrall] - he comes in wearing a nice suit and carrying a briefcase, and he is introduced as the “grand expert” on les sectes, so everything he says, le juge bows towards him and say, “it must be correct because he is the expert!” It is as if he is the gourou of the juge! The psychologist tells the court exactly how I reacted inside my mind to the death of Jeremy!  How could he know?  He said `Arnaud Mussy is like this and like this’. He used Scientology as an example to compare to Neo-Phare. Le juge said, `Oh well, if you say so. You are the specialiste.’I felt like I was back during the Inquisition. The Tribunal was the head “inquisitor”, and the Catholic Church was replaced by la République.

Me Petit pleaded, “But there is nothing concrete here. There is nothing but his expertise” [referring to Abgrall].

Neo-Phare had a custom of recording all their classes on videotape, but when the police arrested Arnaud Mussy, they seized all the group’s archives, including the collection of videocassettes. During Mussy’s trial, more than one hour and thirty minutes of taped meetings of Neo-Phare were shown in front of the court. In these videos there were many takes of Jeremie’s face, which Abgrall described as “looking scared” and “disoriented”. Mussy explained the context as follows:

In Neo-Phare we came in with a notebook and a pencil and sat around a table. The meetings were a class, like in university. Abgrall focused on a scene where Jeremie asks me a question, looks puzzled and expresses some confusion over a point I raised. If this were a video of a class in a university, this would be considered an entirely normal moment, but because Abgrall wants to use it to prove his psychological theory, he says it shows that Jeremie was fragile and disoriented and psychological abused by me.” 

An AFP report says quotes Abgrall saying that Jeremie was duped in a cynical opportunistic fashion by Mussy who had “assumed the mask” of pseudo-conviction religieuse. Abgrall diagnosed Mussy as “un grand manilupateur pour qui le suicide de Jeremy etait necessaire, car dans le fonctionnement de Neo-Phare, il fallait un mauvais disciple ». (“Le profil du gourou de l,a secte Neo-Phare à Nantes passé au çibles.” AFP 14 Oct. 2004 Nantes)

In a post-trial interview, Me Pesenti admitted the victory had been a close shave: “Le tribunal avait une texte sur quelle le tribunal n’avait aucun réperé. Aussi un risque que le Tribunal correctionel se declare incompetent pour le terme de `sujection psychologique’ - un terme qui est au coeur de cette nouvelle loi.” Thus he puts his finger on the critical issues: how to prove that leadership in a secte qualifies as manipulation mentale?; how to prove the victim was under the influence of brainwashing and did not act of his own volition, uninfluenced by other factors?; and who has the expertise to decide all this?   


The Role of the Expert, Jean-Marie Abgrall

It is clear that the prosecution’s case rested heavily on the expert testimony of the psychiatrist, Dr. Abgrall who once explained his view of sectes on television as follows: “Notwithstanding what they claim, sects are not religious movements but rather criminal movements organized by gurus who use brainwashing techniques to manipulate their victims.”

Jean-Marie Abgrall was born in Toulons in 1950. He studied to become a doctor with l’Ordre des medicines, then a psychiatrist, and also trained in police forensic work. He joined ISKCON in his youth, had some association with les Enfants de Dieu (according to journalistic sources) and then became a long-term member of one of the major masonic lodges in France.  He is a leading authority on the secte problem in France, and an expert witness in cases involving NRMs, such as Scientology, the Raëlians, and Mandarom.

Abgrall was on the board of the government’s anticult ministry, MILS, founded after the 1996 Guyard report that produced a list of 173 sectes. He left in May 2004, claiming he was demissioné.

He assisted in the investigation of the OTS mass suicides at Vercours in December 1995, and it was during his role as an expert witness in the trial of orchestral conductor, Michel Tabachnik (a former OTS mentor) that Abgrall suffered a serious setback to his professional career. The family of the victims in the Solar Temple had launched a class action suit against the authorities for what they considered a sloppy investigation that relied uncritically on brainwashing theory and ignored some of the anomalies in the evidence found at Vercours that seemed to implicate the secret police in the murders. They appealed the case when the results of the police investigation came out, in 2003, in 2004, in 2005 and in 2006. Abgrall had published a book in which the dossier d’instruction was revealed to the public in 1999 (La secte de l’apocalypse), and in March 2002 (Les mechaniques des sectes) before the case had been decided. Moreover, Abgrall had formulated an interpretation of the suicides that turned out to be premature and erroneous. Therefore, the lawyer of one of the civil parties, Me Alain Leclerc, had Abgrall disqualified as expert witness in the trial.[v]

Me Leclerc also demanded an investigation into Abgrall’s financial affairs. This was blocked twice by the magistrate. But the juge d’instruction, Baudoin Thouvenot finally stated that in 2001-02 Abgrall received $45,699.49 Euros from the secte, Landmark Education, while he was at the same time a member and expert associated with MILS. Landmark Education, founded under the name “est” by Werner Erhardt in the early 1970s, incorporates techniques from the Human Potential Movement, and is not, as journalist Martin Mireille wrote, “a branch of Scientology”. In 1996 Landmark’s board of lawyers were not happy about finding their group on the Guyard Rapport’s list of 173 sectes, so they hired Dr. Abgrall to “audit” their movement and write a report correcting their sectarian status. Abgrall wrote in his report that “none of the six main elements relative to sects apply to Landmark”.[vi]

After the scandal erupted, Abgrall’s interview appeared in Le Parisien (“the embarrassing report of the anti-cult expert,” 28 May, 2004). Le Nice Matin (29 May 2004) also interviewed Abgrall and quoted him saying that juge d’instruction’s action was a strategy to block the trial of the OTS. He denied there was a conflict of interest when he wrote the report for Landmark, since “I was dismissed from MILS”. Besides, ”I wrote an unfavourable report and paid my taxes”

Then a third blow to Abgrall’s professional integrity came from an unexpected quarter - from one of the Aumistes of Mandarom, perhaps the most stigmatised and ridiculed NRM in the French mass media. Abgrall’s skill in conducting long distant psychoanalysis on strangers was challenged by the administrative leader of Mandarom, Dr. Christine Amory. In his book Les mechaniques des sectes, Abgrall renders a psychological profile of the Aumiste’s spiritual leader, undeterred by the fact that his request for an audience with him had been turned down twice. Dr. Amory wrote a letter to l’Ordre des Médeçins asking if this method of psychoanalysis actually was consistent with code of professional ethics. L’Ordre stood by Abgrall, but they rewrote their code with more precise guidelines on this issue  (interview with Dr. Christine Amory in Paris March 1, 2006).

So, when Abgrall appeared in the Neo-Phare trial, in October 2004, it was six months after he had been dismissed from MILS; a series of humiliating articles had come out in the media assaulting his professional integrity; his theory of manipulation mentale leading to suicide had been discredited in the OTS trial in favour of an alternative theory concerning a secret police/ francmaçon conspiracy; he had been disqualified as an expert witness in a famous, ground-breaking trial; and he had been embarrassed before l’Ordre des médicines. One might speculate that here, in the trial of Arnaud Mussy, he saw the opportunity to redeem himself; to apply his theory of brainwashing-leading-to-suicide once again. It appears strange that Mussy’s lawyer did not try to disqualify him as an expert witness in view of these events 

The OTS and France’s Anti-cult Movement

To properly understand l’affaire Neo-Phare. it is necessary to understand the impact of the 1994-97 OTS mass suicides on French authorities and the public.

In 1994 the OTS collective suicides/homicides sent shock waves across France. The National Assembly responded by launching a commission to study the problem of sectes, which produced the Guyard Report in 1996. This Report produced a list of 173 sectes presumed to be dangerous. This caused an outcry, because the sources of information on the groups were secret, and there were no reasons given to the individual groups for including them on this stigmatizing list.

The government-sponsored ACM was then pressured to produce a clear definition or standard set of characteristics of a secte, by which unconventional or overly enthusiastic religions could be measured.   But they resisted this pressure. As Catherine Picard notes, “We succeeded in convincing the Europeans MPs to not to give a definition to the word “secte”. If you give a definition, the person you accuse manages to be out of the definition”.[vii]

On the heels of the Guyard Commission’s 1996 Report, a government watchdog operation was created, the Inter-ministerial observatory on sectes. This was replaced in 1998 by the Mission interministrielle de lutte contre les sectes (MILS). This was disbanded and replaced in 2002 by MIVILUDES (Mission interministrielle de vigilance et de lutte contre les dérives sectaire). In an interesting shift, the lutte no longer targeted sectes but “dérives sectaires[viii]. This meant instead of focusing on the secte per se as a proto-criminal entity, the idea was to catch the secte perpetrating a harmful or illegal act and apply legal sanctions that would facilitate the disbanding of the group itself and the incarceration of the cult leaders.

The Guyard Commission had based its analysis of the dangers posed by sectes on judicial decisions taken in the past. But there were not enough of these to satisfy the anti-cult movement. This problem (which certainly violates the “innocent ‘til presumed guilty” ethic) was explained to the UN’s Special Rapporteur as a rationale for the About-Picard law:

Judicial convictions were not enough to demonstrate the dangers represented by these groups because the victim is not always conscious of the harm caused to him or her and only a few members readily complain. It is also difficult to obtain evidence and existing criminal law does not cover all the acts that raise concern.[ix]

Thus, the About-Picard law appeared to offer a brilliant solution to the dilemma faced by France’s ACM in its lutte against sectes

Given this historical context, it is possible to see how the memory of the OTS tragedy had an impact on Mussy’s trial, and how the trial of Tabachnik - that ran concurrently - reverberated throughout the legal prôcess of Mussy.

The judge presiding over the trial of Tabachnik notes: “The Vercours suicide is a persuasion of an indoctrination sufficiently strong to sap the will and bring death in those same conditions of those who have already killed themselves.” Referring to the March 22, 1997 mass suicide of five persons in St Casimir, Quebec, he notes “this confirms the particularly pernicious and deadly character of that indoctrination in the testimonies of three surviving children” (Actualités sur les sectes (www.preventsectes.com/rev0101.htm) [x]

He expresses the French authorities’ sense of frustration when confronted by a secret society that perpetrated a mysterious chain of trans-Atlantic mass suicides. These were unpredictable geographically speaking (occurring in Quebec, Switzerland and France) and continued on for three years after the leaders were dead. Children, unsuspecting members, ex-members, spouses and even ex-spouses were brutally executed, but the perpetrators could not be punished because they were all dead, leaving behind only a suicide text written in a lofty, sanctimonious tone, justifying their “Transit” within their radical Gnostic ideology. The OTS’ mass suicides seem to possess a flavor of the uncanny, or the supernatural. One is tempted to wonder, “Is the power of brainwashing so strong, so ineluctable, that it is actually possible to program a group of people to commit ritual mass suicide three years after the death of their charismatic leader?”

The conviction of former OTS leader and mentor Michel Tabachnik would have brought about a satisfying denouement to the unsolved mystery of the OTS. Jean-Francois Mayer (1999), who is the leading scholar in OTS history and was involved in the 1994 Swiss investigation of the OTS murder-suicides at Salvan and Cheiry, explained how the failure of the Tabachnik process was very frustrating to the French authorities:

 [Tabachnik’s] was meant to be an exemplary court case, with valeur pedagogique. How is it possible to have so many people dead and no one left alive to blame? In Tabachnik’s trial at Grenoble they were trying to argue that what he wrote might influence other people to commit suicide. But there was nothing there in the literature to incriminate him. Abgrall was the great luminary of sectes and manipulation mentale - but there happened to be a judge who was not willing to accept far-fetched theories. The relatives of the victims have since appealed and want Tabachnik to be rejudged, so he now he is left in limbo. Thus, the OTS was an extremely frustrating case with no closure, no one to blame.”[xi]

Given this context, one might argue that the Neo-Phare case, which dealt with a suicide in an apocalyptic secte, was eagerly welcomed by the public and the French authorities as an opportunity to punish cult leaders (perceived as brainwashing suicide mongers) and to somehow compensate for the failure of the OTS trial.

This analysis is supported by frequent links between the OTS and Neo-Phare made in the media. Mussy complained his group was called “a branch of the OTS” and “journalists said I was like Luc Jouret and Joseph Di Mambro.”  Le Figaro branded Neo-Phare as “the new OTS” and “the most dangerous secte in France.” (Le Figaro, 01.09/02, “percer a jour les nebuleuses infections de Neo Phare”). Abgrall also said that Neo-Phare was “just like the OTS” -  for both groups videotaped their meetings, and practiced wife-swopping.

Mussy told an amusing story of how he got a call from TV1, a leading television channel that they wanted exclusive rights to his story. “So they came here, to this apartment with their cameras and sound man, and the host looked around, surprised, `Where are your candles, your capes, your crosses? I see no symbols! Where is your salle de céremonie?’ I explained we did not believe in all that - des trucs réligeuses. But they wanted us to look like the Solar Temple, so they offered to lend us some capes and candles. I refused, so the producer said, `Forget it!’ And the crew packed up their equipment and left.”[xii]

The Manipulation Mentale Paradigm

That manipulation mentale is a concept enshrined in the 2001 law is made clear by its co-author in her book, Sectes, démocratie et mondialization (2002)[xiii]. Picard claims “manipulation mentale is one of the most evident and the most underhanded means of negating the liberty of others. To make that act a delit penal (punishable misdemeanour) is a means given to the victims and the magistrates to better protect liberty.” She insists this new law does not violate religious liberty, but rather protects the freedom of “real religions” by weeding out the fake ones: “Because one cannot in good faith speak of liberty of opinion when spirituality or alternative beliefs are used as a screen to put a person in a state of subjection opening the way to all sort of éscroqueries.”

Manipulation mentale has been categorized by the American psychologist Dick Anthony (1999) as: a “third generation version” of the brainwashing theory. The first research into the brainwashing phenomenon was conducted by American psychologists Edgar Schein (1961) and Robert Jay Lifton (1961) who studied the effects of Communist thought reform techniques of American soldiers while they were incarcerated in Korean POW camps. Both these researchers conclude that while these techniques are effective in persuading subjects to temporarily alter their ideological stance, that the threats and punishment received while they were locked up and powerless to leave were an essential part of the “mental coercion” process. In other words, the subjects must be coerced first and then persuaded. Anthony (1999) points out that, while Abgrall claims to base his theory of manipulation mentale on this legitimate foundational research, in fact he ignores the important conclusions of Schein (1961) and Lifton (1961).

As we see in the case of Neo-Phare, there was no physical coercion of members. Even after the group entered its millenarian, semi-communal phase, members were still free to leave - as the high defection rate proves (see Barker,1984). Jeremie was not even living with Arnaud Mussy in the weeks before he committed suicide and was not subjected to physical punishment or threats. Thus, according to the findings of Lifton and Schein on thought reform (1961), it is unlikely that Jeremie was in a brainwashed state when he committed suicide.

Dick Anthony claims that Abgrall’s brainwashing model, while based on the original models of Lifton and Schein, is “cosmetically altered” so as to “look good in court”.  Abgrall’s revisions merely “endow the theory with a veneer of scientific rigor and academic respectability”.

Abgrall’s manipulation mentale theory fails to satisfy Sir Karl Poppers’ falsifiability criterion (1963), because the scientific the propositions are so vague that they cannot be tested and proved or disproved.  In order to demarcate science from pseudo-science, Popper says, one must look at whether the propositions are precisely formulated so as to be tested, conformed or disconfirmed by empirical observation. A study of Abgrall’s writings on brainwashing shows they are full of circular arguments, buzz words, and emotionally-charged, value-laden language. His rhetorical devices are informed by a strong prejudice against irrational, religious worldviews that threaten the plausibility structure of secular humanism. Thus Abgrall’s theoretical work fits Popper’s characteristics of a “pseudo-science”.

Anthony (2002) points out that the “third-generation cultic brainwashing formulations” rely heavily on the notion of hypnosis. Abgrall insists that cults use hypnosis to induce primitive states of consciousness, variously referred to as hypnosis, trance, or disassociation as a necessary phase in their brainwashing technique. The fact that in Neo-Phare there is a remarkable absence of the usual rituals found in NRMs - such as meditation, chanting, breathing exercises that induce altered or “disoriented” states of consciousness - did not seem to deter Abgrall from applying his brainwashing theory to Neo-Phare.

Psychologist Ralph Hood (1995) has shown that religious commitment and experience it is often linked to, and even the product of, altered states of consciousness. To assume that religious conversion is involuntary because it involves irrational states is a value judgment, rather than a scientific finding. No psychologist or sociologist of religion has yet established empirical criteria by which religious experience and conversions could be distinguished from each other with respect to whether they were voluntary or involuntary. But Abgrall simply defines all non-rational states of consciousness involved in religious conversion as undesirable without providing falsifiable empirical criteria for evaluating that assumption. According to Anthony (2002:232-3) his theories qualify as “anti-religious propaganda”.

Five Objections to Mussy’s Conviction

Given the consensus within the academic community that the brainwashing theory is based on an

unsound methodology and qualifies as a “pseudo-science”, the notion of convicting a man on a charge based on the concept of brainwashing appears ludicrous. Moreover, in Arnaud Mussy’s case there was no evidence to support the charge. My critique of the trial is as follows:

First, there is no compelling evidence that Jeremie was “brainwashed”. He had already been a member of Phare-Ouest since 1998, so that one could argue he was subjected to three years of “abus de faiblesse” in that secte before he joined Neo-Phare. Mussy did not convert Jeremie to esoteric spirituality, for Jeremie had already espoused Bougenec’s mystical/apocalyptic/heretical philosophy. Arnaud Mussy does not appear to have been a particularly effective brainwasher; he was rather a young, inexperienced prophet just trying out his wings.

Neo-Phare shows an extraordinarily high defection rate - 14 out of 20 members defected with 1 1⁄2 years. This alone suggests that Mussy’s powers of “manipulation” were not very effective (see Barker 1984).

Second, one finds the assumption in the statements of Abgrall, Me Pesenti, the RG agent, ADFI officials, and in the media reports that the apocalyptic nature of the group per se invoked fear and mental instability in the members - and that this was a factor that drove Jéremie to suicide. Marie-Claire Moirel, who was the agent in charge of sects at the RG de Nantes claimed there was a “panic” in the group as the day approached :“Les suicides de cet eté etaient pas programmés Mais ils sont allées si loin dans leur délire qu’ils pourraient ne pas reussir a remettre les pied sur terre.” ({« L’evolution d’une secte apocalyptique intrigue le police de Nantes, » AFP 1 August by Christophe Schmidt)

But studies of apocalyptic movements do not support the hypothesis that prophecy will destabilize communities and cause mental illness (see Robbins and Palmer 1997). There was no effort on the part of the prosecuting lawyer or the expert witness to actually research or explore the innovations in Neo-Phare’s peculiar brand of apocalypticism by reading the writings of 

Bougenec or Mussy. A study of Mussy’s prophetic thought indicates he did not envisage a violent cataclysmic end, rather a subtle transformation. Moreover, he always approached the final date with a built-in escape hatch. For example, when I interviewed Mussy in February he told me that the end would happen by March 30th “but it is like a pregnant woman’s due date - it might happen before, or later.”

Third, Abgrall claimed in the trial that Jeremie was picked on and made a scapegoat in the group, by being given the role of “Judas”. While this would sounds “negative” in conventional Christianity, a closer examination of Neo-Phare’s heretical theology shows that it was not necessarily a stigmatizing role, for Judas is a positive figure, as Jesus’ closest, most-beloved disciple. Besides Neo-Phare’s roles were only temporary, for members were constantly trying on or being awarded previous reincarnations, like masks. For example, when I first met the Mussy brothers, I was surprised to hear Arnaud say “my brother killed me - a long time ago, when he was Cain and I was Abel.” (I looked questioningly at Olivier, who grinned and nodded proudly). Olivier was also the Pope, St Peter, and he even informed me that it was not so strange being with Jeremie’s wife, because, “you must understand - Jeremie and I were the same person”. (Arnaud explained that Olivier was a more mature and evolved version of Jeremie). This raises the third factor - the collective nature of these roles. For example, Arnaud Mussy asserts that Jesus was a more highly evolved version of Abraham. The Virgin and Mary Magdalene were “the same person”. Thus, in order to analyse the social and psychological function of Neo-Phare’s role-playing exercises, one would have to be an insider well-versed in their grammar. The fact that Abgrall picked just one fact to support his brainwashing theory without making an effort to explore its specific cultural meaning within Neo-Phare is typical of his methodology.  

Fourth, if we compare the Neo-Phare suicide to those in the OTS, Heaven’s Gate and Jonestown, it does not fit the “cult mass suicide” model. Jeremie threw himself in front of a car, leaving behind no written justification for the act. This was not a collective suicide, and there is no evidence that Mussy or the group planned it or expected it. There were no texts from Neo-Phare or Phare-Ouest mentioned at the trial that advocate suicide, even cryptically. Moreover we lack the ritual presence and ideological guidance of the charismatic leader who presides over and participates in the religious suicide, as did Luc Jouret, Di Mambro, Herff Applewhite and Jim Jones. Arnaud Mussy was not in the same town when the suicide happened and claims he had not seen Jeremie for four days.

Many of the news reports on the case imply a mass suicide by reporting attempted suicides on the part of two other members in the days following Jeremy’s death. This strengthens the notion of brainwashing occurring in a destructive secte, and makes Neo-Phare conform more closely to the OTS. But neither Claude nor Sylvie ever laid any charges against Mussy, nor did they appear at the trial. Indeed, they wrote a deposition that was read out to the court by Me Petit. It was favourable towards Arnaud Mussy. The couple rejected the notion that Mussy is a manipulateur and referred to him as “sincere”. They claimed their involvement in Neo-Phare was entirely voluntary and they were never pressured in any way by Arnaud Mussy to act against their own wills, and certainly not to commit suicide.

According to Arnaud Mussy, the judge dismissed their statement by saying that Claude and Sylvie were “fragile“ and “psychologically impressionable” and that was the only reason they did not accuse Mussy. Abgrall explained their unwillingness to oppose Mussy as “the Stockholm syndrome”. Thus, there is no evidence that any other members were contemplating suicide, or that Arnaud Mussy was concocting, inciting, or plotting suicides - of either the mass or individual variety.  The notion of a collective suicide was “dreamed up and shared by the journalists, the politicians, the judge and the psychiatrist” claimed Mussy; “they kept referring to Neo-Phare as “the new OTS”, or “a branch of the OTS”.

It is interesting to note that the UN’s Special Rapporteur, in her 1995 Report on Freedom of Religion or Belief writes, “on November 25 2004, on the basis of investigations revealing risks of collective suicide, inter alia, the Tribunal correctional de Nantes convicted the first person under the About-Picard law…for having abused the state of ignorance of four members of the group”[xiv].

But there never was an investigation into the risk of mass suicide. All we find are journalistic rumours (see “Chronique d’un suicide collectif annonce,” Le Figaro, 31 august 2002, by Christophe Cornevin). The only police investigation of Neo-Phare involved the role of children in the group. It would be interesting to know who gave the Special Rapporteur this unreliable version of events, and what their motive was in doing so.

aises my fifth criticism: the inadequate pre-trial research. The lawyers and judge made no more than a cursory effort to study the history, beliefs, practices, social organization, sexual mores and authority patterns of this NRM, or to place it within the history of alternative religions in France. Odd scraps of data that fit the anti-cult movement’s standard portrait of a “une secte dangereuse” were cited in court, whereas data that conflicted with or complicated the stereotypes was ignored. The most serious omission was that there was no mention in the court of a significant development in the history of Neo-Phare that had occurred during Jeremie’s last week.

Jeremie’s Last Week

While I am not claiming to solve the mystery of Jeremie’s suicide, I am suggesting that there was a crisis in the leadership of Neo=Phare that should have been discussed in court. While a person’s decision to take their own life can never be understood in rational terms by outsiders, it was, nevertheless, the appointed task of the court to investigate the circumstances surrounding Jeremie’s death.  

A couple who had been members of Phare-Ouest for seven years before the Mussy brothers  joined, staged an attempted coup to depose Arnaud Mussy and take over the leadership. This occurred during the week that preceded Jeremy’s death, from July 8-13 at Cellier. Olivier described the event as follows:

We were all there, une dizaines of us at Cellier. Arnaud left us on the 8th to go back to Nantes and it was then, on the 9th that [Claude] began to show his true face. That evening when we talked at the table, while we ate supper, he began to fait le patron.  He told us it had been unveiled to him that he was Le Pere, and that we had to go through him pour faire le passage. He said “you must not eat so much,” and “you must obey me and do what I want to prepare your passage to the Heavenly Jerusalem.” He mentioned a few things that had gone wrong in the house, with our group - and he blamed Arnaud.

It was a period of 8 days in the same house, all together. On the 11th July [Sylvie] shows her visage also. She told us she was La Mere - that we must obey her or we would be punished. And it was our mistake, at that time that the group - they had the air to believe him. Nadine, my soul sister, even myself - we all believed him. I should have refused, I should have seen then that he was bad, a manipulateur.

Olivier described Jeremie’s reaction:

 Jeremie was afraid of him. Jeremie told me that when he looked at [Claude and Sylvie] he saw tenebres - that they were very dangerous. I started to be afraid of the two also when he told me that. I felt Jeremie was asking for help, but I was unable to help him. I felt at the time that [they] were too powerful. I could see a lot of darkness in their attitude. (Interview with Olivier, 24 February, Wed. at 2:00.pm by telephone)

Olivier described a long talk involving himself, the couple and Jeremie on the 13th. The couple were telling Jeremy that they were the two faces of God, the male and the female, and that Jeremie was Lucifer, the Rebel Angel. He said that Jeremie seemed frightened and later confided in Olivier that he saw a lot of darkness (tenebres) in the couple.

Having established their charismatic claims within the group, the couple then travelled to Nantes to deal with Arnaud on the 11th July. They came to his house in Nantes and told him “I am the Father and the Mother.” Arnaud was astonished. He said, “Where is the love in your speech? Andre always told us, when we read and met him, that we were supposed to act with love!”[xv]

After a long argument, on the 12th of July the couple returned to Cellier with Arnaud and staged an attempt to officially depose him in front of the whole group. Oliver Mussy reports:

They repeated the same message in front of Arnaud, but then [Claude] added “I am Andre”.[Bougenec]. Then Arnaud said, “Stop! Enough!” We realized then that we had made a mistake to believe in them, that there was no love in their relationship - that we had been manipulated. [Sylvie] said to Arnaud, “I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!” I hate you!” Arnaud said “Don’t say that! You will regret it!” After the 12th, the darkness of Stephane and Sylvie hie rose up. There was a struggle. Arnaud only spent a few hours a day there and would go back in the evening. [The couple] acted like they were the leaders. It was very difficult to react. We realized we had made a mistake. But [they] did not want to change. We were still afraid. [They] carried on trying to manipulate us. They told us not to eat so much! They kept blaming Arnaud for everything. Arnaud came to Cellier on the 13th of July, and when he was leaving he said goodbye, Stephane said calmly, “I am going to kill myself!” He was calm, but we noticed his crazy behaviour. He seemed brutal, as if he could explode any minute. Sylvie was reacting differently. She sat on a chair and didn’t say anything. She was very passive, but once in a while she would act violently. She knew that my soul sister was pregnant, but she walked around her and shouted at her and kicked her in the stomach.


Arnaud described the same events in his interview, but from a different perspective

He explained that he left Cellier on the 8th because Claude had suggested he go home for a

few days. He said he had a feeling Arnaud was about to meet his âme-soeur if he went to

Nantes. Arnaud obeyed, but when the couple came to visit him in Nantes, on the 11th of July, he was astonished by their charismatic claims. Arnaud interpreted this attempted coup in such a

way as to reinforce his own charismatic claims: “Ils recule le mal de la revolution Angelique, symbolique de la revolt dans l’histoire humaine.”

When Arnaud returned to Cellier around 1 p.m. on July 13th, he found that Jeremie had just left. The next day, on the 14th of July, Jeremie called him three times from his cell phone; in the morning, at lunch and in the evening. The first time he said, “I am calling from a hotel in Nantes.” The second time he called to warn Arnaud about the attempted coup. Arnaud invited him over but he said, “No, there is nothing to do, the mal is too powerful.”

Mussy’s account of the second, most significant phone call is as follows:

I talked with Jeremy the day he killed himself.  He warned me that “le mal de [Claude et Sylvie] est grave” .He said “I am Jesus.” He said, “If I am God, I can declenche les evenements! I am the face of God, so I must die so that God will manifest…. He said he was Jesus and must die. But I did not take his threat seriously. I know I am Jesus, and I write about it and talk about it, but I never try to kill myself. The difference with Jeremy is he said “I am Jesus - and boum! He kills himself immediately!”

The third time Jeremie called briefly to say he was hitch-hiking, on his way to Angers [his home] and would call back later. He said he was calling from the car that had given him a lift. Later that evening the members of Neo-Phare found out he was dead.[xvi]

Olivier described the group’s reaction to the news of Jeremy’s death: “We were stunned, none of us expected it. We did not know how to react. Our first concern was to comfort Nadine, since she was his wife. She was very quiet, she was in shock, she wept - and then the next day she left and went back to live with her parents.” Claude and Sylvie were very quiet, but the next day, the 15th, Claude climbed the wall of an 18th century Chateau Clermont, on the outskirts of Cellier. On the 16th, Sylvie climbed the same wall (naked with a rose in her mouth, according to media reports). They had told the Mussy brothers earlier, “We are the two faces of God, so we can do extraordinary things!” Sylvie was spotted by a woman inside the chateau, who screamed. She slipped and fell, but was not hurt. There was a clinic inside the Chateau, where she was taken for a psychiatric examination. The police questioned the couple, but a copy of their report is not available.[xvii]

The instability in Neo-Phare’s leadership might have had an impact on Jeremie’s state of mind during his last week. One might argue that he was reacting to the destabilization of his social world. He had experienced the loss of his wife, and the “persecution” of a police investigation and negative media coverage. He was evidently alarmed by the chaos within Neo-Phare. Perhaps he was disheartened by Arnaud’s rather weak reaction to the couple’s bold challenge.

Since this was a test case, it is surprising that the events of this last week in Neo-Phare’s history were ignored in the court process. As Hervieu-Leger (2004:57) notes, “the About-Picard law …makes it necessary to document the situation of weakness that make [sectarian practices] dangerous and illegal.” This documentation was incomplete in Arnaud Mussy’s trial.

Indeed, it is rare to find adequate documentation on any of the NRMs in France. It is such a controversial field that scholars and graduate students prudently avoid new religious studies as a counter-productive career move. In the absence of such documentation, lawyers, journalists and anti-cultists have free reign to create unrealistic and stigmatizing portraits of unconventional religions and their prophets.

Hervieu -Leger (2004:57) notes that “the law of 2001 makes it necessary to carefully document the `situation of weakness’ that makes these practices dangerous and illegal.” This would presumably require a detailed examination of the dynamic relationship between the leader and followers, a longitudinal study of the group, and an examination of the nature and degree of the alleged “victim’s” commitment to the group. 

Does Abus de Faiblesse Abuse the Freedom of Religion?

In her book, Sectes, Demoncratie et Mondialization, Catherine Picard affirms the need to uphold the principles of liberty of conscience and opinion, enshrined in the 1789 Déclaration des droits de l’homme, and in the law of 1905. But then she insists that les sectes are not authentic religions, so freedom of conscience does not apply. The religious beliefs of secte members were never freely chosen, she argues, but imposed on them through the “fraudulent abuse of their ignorance and weakness”. Picard sees them as “mise en état de sujection” and ripe for all sorts of “éscroqueries”.. She denies that the law she co-authored violates human rights and freedoms. Rather, it protects individuals from totalitarian cults that deprive members of liberty and human rights.

“Sanctionner les actes gràves, non des croyances!” is Picard’s motto (2002:278)6. She insists that this 2001 law abides by the highest the standards of religious freedom enshrined in the 1905 law and the Declaration of the Rights of Man because it censors crimes but not croyances. But this is quite simply not true. The crimes which issue from the dérive sectaire are not ordinary crimes, they have a special caché. The About-Picard law does not ignore religious beliefs, for it is designed to target groups distinguished primarily by their unconventional, alternative worldviews. The gourous in the future who will stand in court on the abus de faiblesse charge will not be treated as ordinary errant citizens but rather as reincarnations of Luc Jouret or Joseph Di Mambro - sinister adepts of the occult techniques of brainwashing thwarted in their mass suicide plans.

Picard’s argument (2002) contains many fallacies, unsupported claims and sweeping generalizations, but I will focus on just three of her more problematic assumptions:

First, Picard states that all sectes are not authentic religions because they assault individual freedom and well-being. And yet she offers no clear set of criteria for distinguishing a secte from an authentic religion. Have not many respectable religions in the past assaulted individual freedom, tortured dissidents and killed heretics in ways we consider deplorable today? Did not Christianity and Buddhism originate as sects or schisms or dérives sectaries from Judaism and Hinduism? Were not the early Christians a secte before Emperor Constantine’s conversion?

Second, Picard seems to imply that brains are washed only within the confines of sectes, since the law of 2001 is designed to apply specifically to secte leaders, as opposed to autocratic soccer coaches, charismatic choir directors or persistent vacuum cleaner salesmen. But what is a secte? It characteristics are not spelled out. The rather vague assumption seems to be a secte is where brainwashing happens - with dire consequences. If a person in a secte is harmed, it is because he or she is in a secte. But if nobody in the secte seems to be harmed or is willing to complain, is it still a secte? Yes, because they are held in a state of subjection or suffering from “Stockholm syndrome”.

Third, Picard assures us that all sectes are intrinsically dangerous; that crimes and misdemeanours will inevitably result if we allow them to pursue their own course. But does she show statistics to prove this? If one were to compare the harmful events that occur within sectes to those occurring during soccer games or in rock concerts, would one necessarily find that secte members incurred more physical injuries than soccer players - or indulged in more illicit sex and illegal drugs than rock musicians? And what if secte leaders do manage to keep a low profile, and secte followers somehow succeed in behaving like model citizens - what then? Well, the French ACM has already devised several strategies for overcoming this problem:

1. Avoid standard research methods (control groups, social science methods in research, or primary sources).

2. Rely on the Renseignement generale or hostile ex-members for data. Invite ex-members to file complaints about their group, and reward them for it.

3. In cases which go to court, cite only the initial allegations, not the judgement or results of the trial.[xviii]

4. Dismiss and discredit the testimonies, opinions and descriptions of all primary and secondary constructions of reality that do not agree with the “anti-cult” stance - such as current members, non-hostile ex-members or social scientists and researchers. Their opinions are unreliable because these parties are biased, bribed, blackmailed, or under the influence of brainwashing or the Stockholm syndrome.

Some sectes are bound to succeed through their evangelistic efforts and the education of their second generation, and they may become heavily populated and start to span two, three, even four generations. As in secular society, there will be the odd instance of fraud, financial or sexual exploitation, suicide, child abuse, medical neglect, withholding taxes, etc. If these forms of social deviance are perpetrated by secular humanists or Catholics they will be seen as “bad things happen to good people”. But when they occur within the boundaries of a secte, they are derives sectaries, emanating straight out of the dark heart of the secte, evidence of the gourou’s mastery of the ineluctable techniques of manipulation mentale. Since we lack statistics to prove that NRMs are intrinsically more (or less) crime-prone than other human organizations, France’s government-sponsored ACM, in order to maintain its plausibility structure, needs to collect, and even create, more crimes and delits of the derives sectaire variety - hence the About Picard law. And, in a manner not dissimilar to the apocalyptic secte, when confronted with cognitive dissonance and prophetic disconfirmation, the officials and bureaucrats of MIVILUDES and UNADFI will seek to drum up flagging commitment and bolster their irrational premises by launching into fervent missionary activity (Festinger et al 1952).

The Future of  “Abus de Faiblesse”

In November 2000 The Chinese government invited representatives from MILS, CCMM and FECRIS to an international symposium on “destructive cults” (Dasi, 2001:74). Alain Vivien of MILS presented the About-Picard law to the Chinese government in Beijing, who were intending to impose it on Hong Kong, as a way of dealing with Falun Gong and other “evil cults”.[xix]

In Belgium a group was formed under the deputy Andre Frederic to consider the recommendations of the commission d’enquète sur les sectes in 1996-7 to create a law that would permit the prosecution of secte leaders for abus de faiblesse. The proposal was put before the Minister of Justice, Laurette Onkelinx, to expand the section of the penal code concerning abus de faiblesse to include the following phrase:

Whomsoever has abused the state of ignorance or a situation involving a minor or person who is vulnerable by reason of age, of illness, infirmity, or physical or psychological deficiency, in a precarious state, or pregnant, to lead that person to commit an act or abstain from action that affects their physical or mental integrity or their inheritance, will be punished.

The recommended penalties for those convicted of abus de faiblesse are 3 months to 3 years in prison with damages to be paid of 250-20,000 euros. In cases where the victim dies the tribunal has the power to publish the judgement in the mass media, at the expense of the condemned cult leader, the purpose being to warn the public.        

The Polish press agency (PAP, June 29, 2006) reported that a political party known as the League of Polish Families (LPR) are proposing to introduce “anti-brainwashing litigation” in Poland. An Member of Parliament for the LPR, Andrjei Manka said in an interview with PAP that “there is a problem of psycho manipulation in Poland, and the police are powerless to react.”. The LPR is proposing to change 20 articles in the Penal Code and are basing their draft law on France’s Abouit-Picard.law, and is expected to be put before the Senate in July 2006.

In January 2005 MIVILUDES published a guide for public servants instructing them how to spot “dangerous sects”. (International Freedom Report 2005, released by the department of democracy, human rights and labour). In May 2005 the Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin issued a circular indicating that the Guyard Report’s lists should no longer be used to identify sectes, but that authorities should focus their energies on those “small, fluid” groups that are less easily identifiable, and which use the Internet for recruitment. Catherine Picard was quoted recently saying, ”what we need is more convictions!”

The Future of Arnaud Mussy

Today Mussy lives alone on the fifth floor of an old apartment building in Nantes, and spends his days working on his 800-page manuscript, an elaborate synthesis of gnostic philosophy, the application of St John’s Revelation to current events, number crunching, and heretical hermeneutics of Christian symbols in art as keys to the imminent apocalypse.  He complained in our interview, “I am called a master of manipulation, an abuser of feeble victims - and yet, my friends…I have so little influence over my friends they abandon me the minute I am in trouble! When I went to court, they did not want to be involved with lawyers. My image, it is -  écrasé! For three years I have nothing to do with the outside world. I stay home and write my book. If another dear friend commits suicide, I go to prison! Now my brother is my only friend.” 

But the prophet of Nantes is still prophesying:

It is over. Now there is about to be a grand bouleversement du monde, a complete déroulement of the shell of the planet! The journalists like to make me sound violent.

But I never talked about death! I am talking about a birth! All the humanity of theworld, together, they compose a placenta. There will be a birth and humanity will come face to face with God - just as a child who is born sees the face of its parents. Between the of February and the 1st of May it will be, not the end of the world, but the end of a world - one world. But time is elastic… like the due date of the baby. 

On preparing this paper to present at the CESNUR meeting, I asked M. Mussy if he would be willing to look it over for factual errors. He responded, “Yes, but you had better send it to me before May 24th!”




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[i] In English it is called the “Picard-About” law.


[ii] Many NRMs in France make use of historic sacred sites and pilgrimage shrines like Lourdes for their rituals and festivals. I.V.I., les Pelerins d’Ares, the OTS, the Army of Mary are just a few examples.

[iii] Introvigne (2001) notes that this creates “a legal fiction where the alleged victim is represented by ADFI or CCMM (le Centre contre manipulation mentale:). Wright (2002) points out that the damages collected from successful litigation benefit the associations, not the “so-called victim”.

[iv] Interview with Olivier Mussy, February 14, 2006 in Nantes.

[v] I am indebted to Mme. Loth-Schmidt who, in her work assisting Me Leclerc in the Tabachnik case, researched the career Dr. Jean-Marie Abgrall and drew my attention to these events.

[vi] Abgrall states in his report that Landmark is a harmless organization and does not conform to his definition of a secte  - but then he concludes more cautiously by referring to “warning signs” in the group. There is some ambiguity about whether Abgrall was dismissed from MILS because his audit of Landmark posed a conflict of interest, or whether it was for other reasons (see http//:www.preventsectes.com/rer0405.html28a).   


[vii] Nevertheless Mme Picard did offer a rough definition of a secte when commenting on the opposition to the Latter-day saints’ plans to build a temple in Villepreux, France.: “The Mormons are not recognized as a secte, but act like a movement derive sectaire. It is a community that lives en vase clos where the place of women is reduced to nothing. The religious education of children is so important they have no time to devote themselves to anything else. It is a very limited way of life.” (Les Mormons s’offrent le tiers de Villepreux” Le Parisien 5 mars 2006, par Veronique Beaugrand).

[viii] “Derives is a difficult word to translate. It means “danger’, “deviance “ and has the connotation of going off the rails. There is an interesting parallel here to the trend in the American anti-cult movement, where we see in the late 1990s a shift among former deprogrammers and brainwashing theorists who used to oppose “cults” to enlarge their scope  by opposing “cultic thinking”.

[ix] This passage is quoted from the United Nations Commission on Human Rights Report, submitted by Asma Jahangir, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Addendum 2, “Mission to France,” 18-29 September 2005. The previous UN Special Rapporteur explained that the idea of the About-Picard law was “to protect citizens from the depredations of sects, not by targeting the sects themselves, but by punishing the crimes and misdemeanours which emanate from the derives sectaries.

[xi] Interview with Jean-François Mayer in Fribourg, February 22, 2006.

[xii] Interview with Arnaud Mussy in Nantes, 14 February 2006.

[xv] Interview with Olivier Mussy, 14 February 2006 in Nantes.

[xvi] Interview with Arnaud and Olivier Mussy by phone, February 20, 2006.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] An example of this is the “incitement to suicide” charges laid against Heide Fittkau-Garthe, the leader of the Isis Holistic Center who met for a meditation retreat in Tenerife. It was mistaken for a branch of the Solar Temple, but it was a schism from the Brahmakumaris.  The fact that Dr. Fittkau-Garthe was acquitted for lack of evidence was hardly mentioned in the newspapers that had broadcast her “guilt”. (see “  Near-Death Experience” Time Magazine January 19, 1998 Vol. 151. No. 3 by Rod Usher

[xix] A description of the meeting in Beijing where Alian Vivien and other officials from MILS was present was given to me by David Ownby, a professor in Chinese History at CETASE, Université de Montreal., who attended the symposium.