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No sects please, we’re French

Latest update : 2008-03-13

In France, controversy has long surrounded the existence of religious sects. But are all movements as dangerous as the country’s sect watchdog claims?

In Feb. 2008, French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s chief of staff Emmanuelle Mignon declared in an interview that religious sects were “not a problem” in France. This statement by the presidential advisor sparked a major controversy in the country.

Days after Mignon’s controversial declaration, the French government rallied around Prime Minister François Fillon to stress that “sectarian activities are inadmissible and unacceptable” in France, and should be “fought against”. To put a lid on what remains a highly a sensitive issue in France, Sarkozy declared that he had never displayed “the slightest leniency” toward sects.


Following his declaration, the French press reminded readers of Scientologist Tom Cruise’s meeting with then-Finance Minister Sarkozy in 2004. Their allusion was carefully chosen, as Scientology has been dominating French discussions of sects in recent months.


So far, the government has been prompt to condemn the existence of sects. This approach is exemplified by official watchdog body charged with monitoring cults. Known by its French acronym, MIVILUDES, the Interministerial Mission for Monitoring and Combatting Cultic Deviances is charged with providing information on sects to the French government.


But Raphael Liogier, professor at the Institute of Political Studies in Aix-en-Provence, criticises the MIVILUDES’ “administrative culture,” which he argues “is based on a deliberate ignorance of the reality of sects.” Far from allowing it to combat dangerous sects, suggests Liogier, this approach “actually protects them through the confusion it engenders.”


How does one define a sect?


Much of the problem boils down to a question of definition. How do we define a sect? Many French academics denounce the dogmatism of the MIVILUDES because it does not take into account new trends in religious beliefs and practices in contemporary society. They suggest it often fails to gather information from researchers on these new social movements.


For its part, the MIVILUDES says it is the State’s responsibility to go after any movement or group likely to infringe on fundamental human rights. There is no official recognition of sects in France. According to MIVILUDES Chief Jean-Michel Roulet, “ever since the 1905 law separating Church and State, the latter considers individual belief a private matter. However, this freedom of belief has two restrictions: guaranteeing one’s right not to believe and protecting public order.”


MIVILUDES’ job is therefore to monitor possible sectarian drifts likely to occur in any group of people, including a guru’s psychological hold on individual members, family estrangement and rising financial exactions. In the words of its president, the French governmental body seeks to trace the process of “personality destruction” that leads to the emergence of “submissive robots.”


Liogier however is critical of the chasm between “the MIVILUDES’ secular hardliners - who defend a strict separation between religion and State - and the field researchers who are far more knowledgeable of new religious movements.”


The problem, according to Lioger, has much to do with semantics, as the French word “secte” is closely associated with fanaticism, thereby evoking suspicion and fear. “The word ‘sect’ is very ambiguous and is closer to the English word ‘cult’,” explains Liogier. “Yet, in reality, this concerns only a minority of movements,” he adds.


The issue of religious sects in France comes with centuries of historical baggage in a society where Catholicism still embodies the archetype of religion. In this respect, France is still influenced by a certain scepticism, inherited from the French Revolution, toward any belief that drifts away from core Republican values.     


Changing beliefs in the age of globalisation


Sociologists say it is normal for beliefs to evolve, particularly at a time when globalisation leads to shifts in values and a loss of bearings. Liogier calls this a “structural condition of modernity.” Just as each individual is entitled to his or her convictions, he explains, people make up their own beliefs. “And in this respect,” he concludes, “we are witnessing a multiplication of confessions.”


As for the risks posed by new religious movements, many experts say this is an altogether different issue. According to a recent study by Inform, an organisation launched by members of the London School of Economics, for instance, British citizens benefit both from the right to express their beliefs, in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights and from knowledge of practices and associated risks of otherwise obscure religious groups.

Date created : 2008-03-13