"Patriotism is the Last Refuge of a Scoundrel": The 2000 Report of the French Mission to Fight Cults

by Massimo Introvigne

See full text of the report (in French)

The French governmental Mission to Fight Cults released on February 7, 2000 its report of activity. According to the French press, it went back and forth with the Prime Minister’s office, as the Mission experiences internal dissension and widespread criticism of its president, Alain Vivien. The report confirms the Mission’s crisis. The "results" obtained are modest indeed. Mostly, the Mission has carried out a propaganda activity in co-operation with different branches of the French administration and with private anti-cult movements. On the political side, little has been achieved. "Whilst the [second parliamentary] report [on cults] of 1999 suggested a new statute against the crime of mind control, we should unfortunately conclude that there has been no political reaction whatsoever to this proposal". The proposal by Senator About (a member of the Mission’s consultative council) of a law allowing the government to disband a number of organizations, aimed directly at the "cults" ("sectes" being, as usual, the preferred four-letter word in French) has been passed unanimously by the Senate, but has received a number of objections by the government (and, we are told, within the Mission itself). The Mission proposes to disband two organizations: the Order of the Solar Temple and the Church of Scientology. As for the former, the Mission recognizes that it may not exist as a corporate body in France but suggests that a "de facto association" can be disbanded. Apart from the legal problems involved, it is unclear what a dissolution of the non-incorporated Order of the Solar Temple would achieve. Japan itself decided not to disband Aum Shinri-kyo but to put it under surveillance. "Disbanding" the Solar Temple, as the 1997 incident in Québec proves, would not dissuade the (former) members, still persuaded that a ritual suicide will lead them to a better state of existence, from committing suicide. The Solar Templars who committed suicide in Québec in 1997 did not need a legally incorporated structure to perform their tragic deed. In fact, the "dissolution" of the Solar Temple is simply proposed as a desperate symbolic attempt to rescue the general idea that "cults" may be disbanded by simple governmental fiat. Nobody, the Mission thinks, will defend the Solar Temple. And, once the principle is established in respect of the Solar Temple, it will be applied to the Church of Scientology and other organizations. As for Scientology, the report curiously mentions most of the same quotes from L. Ron Hubbard and incidents described in the 1998 Swiss Report on Scientology in order to draw an opposite conclusion. The Mission is also quite confused about the Solar Temple. It claims that certain "scholars" (between brackets), who have argued that public action taken against the Order may have been a cause of the tragedy, "ignore chronology". In fact, no scholar argued that public hostility was the sole cause of the suicides and homicides. Rather, both Jean-François Mayer and the undersigned have argued that perception of a public hostility by the Solar Temple (something different from hostility in itself) may have played a role, together with other causes, in the tragedy. This perception was magnified by the arrest of Canadian members of the Temple, by an international police investigation, and by the refusal by French authorities to renew the passport of the leader’s wife, all events obviously having taken place before the first suicides-homicides in 1994. The Mission, thus, not the scholars is the party guilty of "ignoring chronology".

Chronology is not the only thing the Mission ignores. It proposes a definition of "cult" ("secte") introduced as accepted almost unanimously by "psychiatrists, academics, authors of parliamentary reports and even religious activists". A "cult", according to this definition, is "an association with a totalitarian structure that may or may not claim to pursue religious aims whose deeds threaten human rights and the social balance (équilibre social)". This is, perhaps, a good definition of the Mission itself. On the other hand, only a handful of anti-cult "academics" would accept it as a definition of "cult", while among "parliamentary reports" the German report (1998) argued explicitly that no definition of "cult" is possible. The operative word here is "totalitarian", and a "totalitarian" association is one where the leader "cannot be removed through a democratic process", is not elected by the majority of members, and has the ultimate power of defining a doctrine that "cannot be contested". Once again, French anti-cultists cannot come out with criteria which may distinguish between a genuine religion and an evil "cult". In the Roman Catholic Church the Pope "cannot be removed through a democratic process", is not elected by the majority of the Catholics, and has the ultimate power of defining doctrine that cannot be contested without, ultimately, leaving the Church. This is also true for countless other religious organizations.

The additional criteria introduced are not more helpful. There is a lengthy discussion (and an entire separate chapter) about the "infiltration" of economy and businesses as a trademark of the "cults". This is, however, a mere tautology: it is because the "cults" have been preliminarily defined as "evil that the participation of their members in business activities is an "infiltration". The same economic activities carried out by members of non "cultic" religions or of the French Freemasonry (whose recent scandals are making the covers of mainline French magazines in these very weeks, and which is well represented in the Mission) are not regarded as "infiltration".

The key test of the first French parliamentary report on cults, of 1996, of "mental destabilization" (in fact, brainwashing) is now regarded as "interesting but having, in the present status of science, a subjective character making it difficult to be used in a legal scenario". (This may be the reason why the proposal of the 1999 report to create a new crime of mind control has not been taken seriously by politicians.) An additional test is now proposed in the shape of "equality between men and women": "it would be a serious breach of human rights to admit that groups calling themselves religious may profess a non-equality in this field". Again, this test is useless in order to distinguish between religions and cults since the two largest religions in France, Roman Catholicism and Islam, are often accused precisely of "professing a non-equality", often in stronger terms than "cults".

A large section of the report is devoted to the international problems of France. It is an incredible text, where rough anti-Americanism and nationalism are offered as poor substitutes for logical argument. The report offends the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. legislation on freedom of religion, and the U.S. congressional investigations of religious liberty in France as part of a vast pro-cult conspiracy, involving also the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe). The Mission is apparently proud of its participation at the OSCE meeting in Vienna in March 1999, where the hysterical reaction of its secretary, Mr Denis Barthélemy, exposed the Mission to severe international criticism. The report continues to blame the criticism of France at that meeting to "the participation of cults", while in fact the strongest criticism did not come from religious movements but from the general reporters appointed by OSCE to introduce the discussion (one of them being the undersigned). The report also protests the CSCE hearing in Washington of June 8, 1999, dismissing the witnesses as cultists or cult apologists, and objecting that no French representative was invited to offer an answer, apparently ignoring that the French situation had been the object of a previous CSCE briefing held in Washington on July 30, 1998 (where the undersigned was a witness). At that briefing, the ambassadors of the relevant countries had been invited, but nobody from the French Embassy had deemed wise to show up.

The Mission’s only argument, apart from its rude anti-Americanism, is that America appears to be at least divided on the issue, since the same Mr Barthélemy has been invited at the yearly conferences of the American Family Foundation both in 1999 and in 2000. Obviously, the American Family Foundation is hardly a counterpart to the U.S. Congress or the Department of State. But the Foundation, who has recently tried to distance itself from the most extreme forms of anti-cultism, should seriously consider whether its dangerous liaisons with Mr Barthélemy would not place it precisely in the most extreme, lunatic fringe of cult-watching. That the Mission is indeed part of this fringe is confirmed both by its continuing assault on scholars (including the rather moderate editors of the collective book Sectes et Démocratie, perhaps evidence that moderation is no defense against the Mission’s hysteria), and by its praise and sponsorship of the anti-cult propaganda in French public schools through textbooks, regarded as "fool" in the U.S. even by self-respecting cult critics. The report praises a textbook including the most absurd atrocity tales about cults (English translation available in this Web site). Commenting on the section on brainwashing in that manual, Dr Benjamin Zablocki, a leading academic exponent of brainwashing theories in the U.S., wrote that it "proves that there can be fools on all sides of an issue. I totally disavow the simplistic theory presented in the paragraph" (quoted with permission). It is probably time for the American cult awareness community to decide whether it wants to support French foolishness, primitive anti-Americanism, and intolerance, or seek elsewhere in Europe partners for a responsible, if difficult, dialogue.

Ultimately, the report defies ridicule by claiming that almost all countries look to France as "one of the homelands of human rights", that France should withdraw from dialogue on this issue with the United States, and should stand firm and proud of its record on religious liberty. Unfortunately, as recent European trends seem to confirm, such forms of nationalism are not merely ridicule, and may cause serious manifestations of hate and intolerance. Nationalism, it should be remembered, is no substitute for the truth. There are instances when, as Samuel Johnson said in 1775, "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel".

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Revised last: 8-02-2000