FAQ - The French Anti-Cult Law
What is the French anti-cult law?
The law has two key aspects.
It adapts a pre-existing
section of the French criminal code, Section 223-15, which was designed for
*goods*, and extends it to "the fraudulent abuse of ... a person in
a state of psychological or physical subjection resulting from serious
pressures exercised or repeated or from techniques likely to alter his
judgment, leading ... this person to an act or an abstention which are
seriously harmful to him".
In effect, it creates a new category of crime, referred in previous versions of this law as “mental manipulation”. The term itself has been removed, but the description amounts to the same thing.
The offence is punishable by a fine of up to $75,000 and five years imprisonment. Those found guilty of "brainwashing" also face a sort of civil death: they cannot exercise political, civil or family rights, work as professional or even sign checks for several years.
allows courts to close down associations after one final decision against
the group itself or its de facto leaders, finding them guilty of one among a
number of criminal offences. The criminal offences include personal
violence, illegal use of medicines or misleading publicity, but also
relatively minor offences such as breach of privacy or using the likeness of
a person without its consent. One final decision where a de facto leader of
the group is declared guilty of one such offence is enough for the draconian
remedy of banning the group.
Note that Section 223-15 which includes the disguised clause of "mental manipulation" above is among those Sections whose breach, when confirmed by a final decision against the group or its leaders, leads to the group’s ban.
Who is targeted by this law?
The law specifically refers to “cultic movements”. While no legal definition of what is exactly a “cultic movement” or even a “cult” exists, nor is any being provided, the target could be any group who is out of favor or unpopular. It is believed, however, that the primary target of the law would be groups included in the list of 172 religious groups identified as “cult” in the first report of the Parliamentary Committee to Investigate Cults in 1996. The list includes such groups as the Church of Scientology or the Unification Church, but also Hasidic Jews, Baptists, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Quakers, and others.
When was the law passed?
The law approved by the French Assembly, the French Senate, and finally passed by the French House on Mayt 30, 2001.
Where can I find the original anti-cult law in English?
CESNUR has made a translation in English and is to be found here. Annotations by Massimo Introvigne highlight the key aspects.
Is the law a threat to religious freedom?
It definitely is. The argument of MPs is that the law does not targets beliefs of any kind, but only groups who use coercion, emotional pressure and mind-management techniques to indoctrinate individuals and enslave them to their cause. However, “coercion” here does not designate physical coercion (already covered by the normal law) but “mental coercion”, and the terminology used to make "mental coercion" a crime is vague at best and can be used to describe everything from marketing techniques to catechism classes.
As there is no definition of "cult" either, it means that at some point in the future any group or association that is out of favor or unpopular could be designated cult-like and the target of the anti-cult law, which would leave judges with a dangerous latitude to interpret what constitutes "serious prejudice" as basis of banning the movement. Leaving such terms as "cult," "dependence" and "pressure" undefined, the law could criminalize, for example, evangelism by deeming it an "exercise in serious and repeated pressure on a person in order to create or exploit a state of dependence".
Thus, Despite the justification of the French anti-cult professionals among MPs, the law strikes at the core of the freedom of conscience and association guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the French "Déclaration des Droits de l'homme et du citoyen", the French Constitution, the principle of separation of Church and States, the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and the Helsinki Final Act of 1975.
Is the anti-cult law supported by mainstream religions in France?
No. Since the About-Picard private bill against "groups of a cultic character" was adopted in first reading by the National Assembly, on June 22, 2000, the representatives of the great religions expressed, repeatedly, their anxieties about the dangers that this text would have for freedom of religion.
Shortly before its passage to the French House, the two main leaders of the Catholic and Protestants Churches of France, Cardinal Louis-Marie Cardinal Billé, President of the French Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Pastor Jean Arnold de Clermont, President of the Protestant Federation of France, protested the law in a letter sent to the French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin.
On June 2000, Pope John Paul II also said when accepting the credential of a new French ambassador to the Vatican that discrimination against "one or other form of religious practice ... will necessarily create a climate of tension, intolerance, opposition and suspicion, not conducive to social peace."
Who else is opposing the anti-cult law?
Apart for the targeted groups, religious scholars, and representatives of mainstream religions, the anti-cult law has also been opposed by religious and civil rights activists such as the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, the European Center for Law and Justice, the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, the Aid to Church in Need, etc.
The US assistant secretary of state for human rights has spoken of Washington's concern about the law’s "dangerously ambiguous" language, and 50 members of the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly called for the suspension of the law until the completion of a report on religious rights in France.
The French anti-cult law will probably be the focus of investigation by the Helsinki Commission in its meeting on July 2001, as Christopher Smith, the U.S. co-chairman of the Commission, was quoted as saying that "there is no question the anti-cult law flies in the face of the commitments agreed to in the Helsinki Final Act”, and that the law was “clearly in violation of an individual's fundamental human right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief".
Are there historical precedents?
The only historical precedent was article 603 of the Italian Penal Code. This provision, enacted under Mussolini, addressed what was called the “crime of plagio”. It consisted in the offence of "subjecting another person to one's own power in a manner which reduces him to a total state of subjection". It carried a maximum penalty of fifteen years imprisonment.
On 28 November 1969, a lecturer in philosophy, Signor Also Brabanti, challenged in the Rome Appeal Court a sentence of nine years' imprisonment for 'totally enslaving' two young students (The Times, 29 November 1969). His conviction was upheld but the court reduced his sentence to five years; though at the time this was being written a further appeal was pending.
The law was declared unconstitutional in 1981 and stricken from the Criminal code by the Constitutional Court as being "imprecise, lacking coherence and liable to arbitrary application".
In the 1980’s, anti-cultists also came very close to pass “deprogramming laws”, which would allow parents, relatives, and deprogrammers to use Law Enforcement Agencies forces to forcibly seize and “deprogram” cult members. The law was nearly passed in the States of New York, Kansas, and New Jersey.
Where can I find online press articles about the French anti-cult law?
Where can I find documents and web pages related to the anti-cult law?