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The 2002 CESNUR International Conference

Minority Religions, Social Change, and Freedom of Conscience

Salt Lake City and Provo (Utah), June 20-23, 2002

France’s Anti-Sect War: Voices From the Trenches (NRMs’ Strategical Responses to Persecution)

by Susan Palmer (Dawson College, Montreal)
A paper presented at CESNUR 2002, Salt Lake City and Provo. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author

On the basis of field research in fourteen new religious movements (NRMs) between 2001-2002, interviews with members, and responses to a questionnaire survey, six distinct strategies of social control meant to undermine the organizational viability of NRMs have emerged from an analysis of the data. This six-pronged pattern of persecution is the result of a cooperative effort between various secular authorities and interest groups (government ministries, the media, anticult bureaucracies) to eradicate unpopular therapeutic and philosophical groups from French society. Some of the unique experiences of – and responses to – external pressure by these quite disparate groups who share the stigmatizing label of secte are described.


France’s anti-"sectes" campaign, with its accompanying threats to religious freedom, has received the attention of world news reports and international religious freedom committees [1]. The controversial aspects of the 1996 Guyard Report’s published list [2] of 172 sects (all presumed dangerous) and the legal implications of the 2001 About/Picard Law have been debated by lawyers, sociologists, and practitioners of these stigmatized religions [3]. Very little information has been communicated to North American audiences on the impact of France’s anticult forces on the groups labeled as sects.

In July 2001 I visited some of France’s controversial spiritual and therapeutic communities. My research trip was funded by the Canadian federal government as part of a project to study "Quebec’s Apocalyptic Movements in Political Perspective." [4] In March 2002 I returned to Paris to attend the biennial Aumism conference, and to interview members of other minority religions.

I focused on fourteen groups that appear on the Guyard Report’s infamous list: Aumism (better known by the name of their holy city, Mandarom), the International Raëlian Movement, Twelve Tribes, Church of Scientology, Unification Movement, Mankind Enlightenment Love (MEL), Sukyo Mahikari, Raja Yoga, Horus, Lectorium Rosicrucianum, Sahaja Yoga, Shri Chinmoy Association, the Family, and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).

My research methods had to be tailored to the circumstances of the groups. I couldn’t visit the Unification Center because it had been bombed. The Raëlians tend to rent, not own property, so I met them in cafés. At Mandarom, I participated in rituals and yoga classes.

I interviewed members and leaders, and visited communes, temples, and meditation centers. I distributed a questionnaire in person and through the Internet. My research was open-ended, my purpose being to study France’s efforts to stamp out putative religious deviance, to collect examples of discrimination to examine for consistent patterns of persecution regarding sects, and to study the effects on the groups. My research questions were the following. What is the nature of the social control methods exerted by the French government in its fight against sects? What sensitive areas or controversial issues are involved? Do all new religious movements (NRMs) experience the same kinds of external pressure? How do different NRMs react to or cope with the secte label and the intolerance it invokes?

I started out with the seemingly self-evident hypothesis that new religions on "the list" would be experiencing increased persecution since 1995 when the list was made public. I found this was true in only half the cases. Some NRMs (Aumism, Sahaja Yoga, Scientology, the Family, the Unification Movement, the Raëlian Movement and ISKCON) had been embroiled in highly publicized controversies, scandals or lawsuits predating 1995. In each case, France’s powerful anticult organization, the Association of Defense of Families and the Individual (ADFI) had exacerbated and publicized – if not actually concocted – the conflict.

Other groups had begun to receive negative attention from secular authorities and the media after 1995: Sukyo Mahikari, MEL, Raja Yoga, Twelve Tribes, Lectorium Rosicrucianum, Association de Shri Chinmoy, and Horus. I discovered that France’s anticult movement had effectively targeted NRMs by the early 1980s, but in the wake of the Solar Temple tragedy, the anticult agenda had worked its way up into high government circles and found strong media support. ADFI was superseded by government-sponsored agencies: the Center against Mental Manipulation (Centre contre les manipulations mentales, CCMM), and the Mission interministérielle de lutte contre les sectes (MILS) with its declared intention to fight sectes.

I found six strategic approaches to undermining the organizational viability of NRMs in France. As I moved from group to group, I heard vivid examples of this six-pronged pattern of persecution calculated to eradicate the most unpopular religious minorities. These strategies of social control had been experienced by all fourteen groups.

1. Deviance Labeling. The media exhibit little accountability for statements concerning sects and appear to function in this matter as organs of propaganda for the state. The main outlets for stories are national daily newspapers, popular magazines, television journalism and talk shows.

A Raëlian freelance journalist informed me in 1997 that ADFI sends out between 400-500 faxes daily to France’s leading newspapers and magazines, broadcasting any discrediting information it can find on sects. French media reports show little evidence of first-hand (or even second-hand) research; membership figures are grossly inflated, and false allegations by anticultists in the past are reported as if they were convictions for real crimes. Even when charges have been dismissed for lack of evidence, the media continue to cite old charges and ignore the verdict, as in the case of the Family members who were found innocent of child abuse after highly publicized raids. A television documentary on Horus, a New Age farming commune, aired a scene of children playing in a field shot from behind a barbed wire fence and accompanied by spooky music to evoke the image of a concentration camp. Almost every NRM is perceived as "apocalyptique" and planning mass suicide.

It is customary for the French media to refer to leaders of NRMs as "pedophiles." Raëlians have been consistently characterized in this way despite lack of evidence. Raël, prophet-founder of the International Raëlian Movement, was subjected to a humiliating ambush on television in 1992. Invited to appear on a popular live talk show, Ciel mon mardi, Raël found that host Christophe Dechavannes had arranged for a surprise guest to confront him. Ex-Raëlian Jean Parraga suddenly appeared and accused Raël of stealing his two little daughters, brainwashing his wife, and presiding over ritual child sacrifices. Impeccably dressed, Parraga came across as a concerned father defending the sanctity of the family against the depraved cult leader. Viewers were not told of his criminal career and recent conviction for attempting to smuggle a stolen Mercedes stuffed with hashish across the Algerian border. Raël received death threats and was forced to leave France. His accuser went on to found an anticult organization to fight the Raëlian Movement, and raised needed funds by operating a prostitution ring across the French-Spanish border during the Olympics. Parraga ultimately was arrested and received a five-year prison sentence.

In the wake of the 1994 Solar Temple tragedy, anticult stories about the dangers of sects proliferated in magazines and newspapers, and more than half these articles were illustrated with photographs of Mandarom. The TFI and France 2 television networks cooperated with ADFI in portraying Mandarom as a concentration camp. A reporter for TFI, Bernard Nicolas played a key role in assisting a former member to recover memories of alleged repeated rapes by founder Gilbert Bourdin ("Hamsah Manarah") when she was fourteen. Charges were withdrawn when the alleged victim could not recall any distinguishing body marks on Bourdin, who triumphantly disrobed to reveal legs and torso covered with brilliant esoteric tattoos.

When Bourdin died unexpectedly in 1998, his body was refused for burial in two towns fearing a cult shrine would be established. After traveling with the body for two days in the hot sun to bury their beloved master in Mandarom, Aumists found the mountain road blocked. A television crew was filming a demonstration led by the grandfather of an Aumist’s seven year-old claiming his granddaughter was held prisoner, although she resided with her mother in the north of France. This man complained that he rarely saw his granddaughter and feared the massacres of Waco or the Solar Temple would happen again.

2. Financial Pressure. ISKCON was the first NRM in France to be investigated. In the 1980s there was a thriving ISKCON community in the Château d’Ermenonville, once the home of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It was generally believed among devotees that ISKCON had been infiltrated by a spy from the Renseignements Généraux [5], and that weak leadership rendered ISKCON vulnerable to anticult intervention. The Governing Body Commission (GBC) leader of France and all Europe, Shri Bhagavandas, was a renunciate monk in his thirties with enormous charisma. In 1986 he suddenly eloped with a female follower causing a scandal. An investigation revealed he had mismanaged the finances. In France charitable organizations are required to pay 5 percent on the sale of books. The ISKCON president explained: "The leaders either didn’t know, or didn’t consider this. Some of the leaders in the castle had BMWs, they were rich, paid no taxes, but the government never approached us to produce our fiscal record. Instead, one morning they attacked!" [6]

In 1987 six ISKCON centers were besieged at dawn. ISKCON later was found guilty of tax evasion up to 170 million francs (the real figure was around 85 million). Court cases followed, and ISKCON France went bankrupt, its properties were seized and put up for auction. A group of associate members bought ISKCON’s estate, Château Roux, which currently houses 40 devotees. The Paris Center has shrunk to 40 full-time devotees with a large congregation of associate members, mainly Hindu immigrant families.

The Shri Chinmoy restaurants in Paris and Montpellier weathered negative news articles that nevertheless failed to discourage their loyal clients. The manager’s response was to display photos of Shri Chinmoy shaking hands with Mother Theresa, Muhammad Ali, Pope John Paul II, and Nelson Mandela. The day their vegetable store opened in Montpellier, ADFI put up warning posters all over the street. The manager tore them down, but he soon found that the negative publicity actually attracted customers, who lined up to buy fruit and vegetables.

MEL received many visits from government agents between 1997 and 1999. All their documents were seized, but no fiscal irregularities were discovered. Their secretary was arrested and held for questioning regarding Master Dang’s financial operations. She explained that 50 percent of the members’ fees went to Master Dang. She had to fill out a dossier on the "richesses de la secte" although MEL owned no property and charged inexpensive fees. Established in 1990, by 1995 MEL had 21 annexes offering courses on the chakras (energy centers in the subtle body). As a result of anticult pressure, MEL was forced to move to a low-rent office, and its membership has shrunk from around 400 to 30-50 people [7].

Scientologists’ enterprises also have been undermined by anti-sect propaganda. A company that sold software, PANDA, had contracts with government offices and with the Auchon department store chain. A media story claimed that PANDA had Scientologists involved in running the company and expressed fear that Scientology was extracting data from the government through a secret program hidden in an anti-virus program. In the ensuing scandal, PANDA’s government contracts were cancelled and the business collapsed.

3. Public Humiliation of Leaders. Core group members of Horus, MEL, the Raëlian Movement, Mandarom, Scientology, and Dianova have been arrested, held for questioning, and jailed with no charges filed (in French law there is no habeas corpus). Reverend Sun Myung Moon and his wife were arrested at De Gaulle airport, held for questioning and manhandled. Mme Castano, founder of Horus, served an eight-month prison sentence for operating an illegal school and for illegally practicing medicine (she protests there never was a school, only individual parents’ home-schooling, and that she herself has never practiced medicine). The Basque grandmother’s 1997 procession to jail, escorted by police cars and a motorcycle cavalcade, was broadcast on national television. She later said: "The newspapers all said I was the most dangerous woman in France." [8]

4. Ostracism from Public Space. All fourteen groups described similar events leading to their exclusion from the larger society. ADFI, alert for advertisements of any NRM upcoming events, will warn the hotel or local mayor that an event is sponsored by a secte. If the hotel management ignores the warning, it may receive a telephone call claiming a bomb has been planted and the hotel has to be evacuated, ruining the conference. A hotel manager near Carcassonne seemed more frightened by ADFI than the sects. He assured me that ADFI was quite capable of blowing up his hotel if he allowed sects on the premises.

The Raëlian Guides I interviewed in Paris estimated that over the past three years 70 percent of their contracts for rented spaces were annulled at the last minute. In 2000 they were turned away by order of the mayor, who feared "a risk of threats to public order due to potential violent confrontations with people opposing the conference." When Raëlians showed up for their monthly meeting, a police barrier barred them from entering the premises. A television crew was waiting with a representative from ADFI, hoping to film the "violence." Raëlian bishop Marcel Terrusse pulled out a yellow star and pinned it to his chest for the benefit of the television crew [9].

A second-generation Raëlian described her first taste of religious discrimination in Paris at the annual celebration of the Declaration of the Rights of Man to which all of France is supposedly invited. She went with a group of fourteen Raëlian youths who painted a yellow star on their arms and wrote "secte raëlienne." When they arrived at the Palais des Congrès where the festivities were held, they were blocked by 30 truncheon-wielding police officers who punched the youths and forced them to stand in a cordoned-off area all afternoon. The local restaurants had been told not to serve Raëlians nor allow them to use the bathrooms. She commented: "It reminded me of how restaurants used to have signs saying, ‘Interdit aux Juifs et aux chiens’ (‘Entrance forbidden to Jews and dogs’)." [10]

5. Prosecution for the Illegal Practice of Medicine. The most serious conflicts between the government and NRMs have to do with illegal practice of medicine or denying medical care to a sick person. When children are involved, serious penalties are imposed and the public outcry against sects is raised to fever pitch. Many businesses offering alternative therapies have gone bankrupt. Prosecuted groups insist their healing methods are "complementary" as opposed to "alternative" to orthodox medicine. A mother in Invitation to Life, for example, lost custody of her sick child because her congregation practiced laying on of hands even though the child was receiving orthodox medical treatment. An 80-year-old woman with an incurable disease chose not to die in a hospital, but in her own bed in the seventeenth-century farmhouse at Horus, surrounded by trees and old friends. This, among other factors, led to charges against Castano for "practicing medicine without a license." [11]

Dr. Juliette Boillon, Horus’ resident doctor, was imprisoned for a year after she took a commune-dwelling child with respiratory problems to the local hospital. He was diagnosed with Lyme disease and cured, but Boillon was accused of not vaccinating the child. She claims she produced a vaccination certificate for the court, but was then accused of forgery. The media claimed a child at Horus had died of tetanus, and meanwhile the examining doctor’s report of Lyme disease had vanished. Bouillon was arrested on charges of non-assistance of a person in danger. [12]

The founder/master of MEL, Luong Minh Dang, was arrested in 1998 in Brussels where he offered a course on Universal Energy. He spent two months in jail due to a complaint that one of Master Dang’s students had transferred energy over the phone to the chakras of a child dying of an incurable disease. The MEL leader in Belgium was also arrested and charged with fraud and illegal practice of medicine [13].

Sukyo Mahikari, founded in France in 1973, ritually transmits the Light of the Creator through the hand. Before the Guyard Report, the group numbered around 5,000 active members. After its name appeared on the list, for the first time the group received stigmatizing reports in the media. Ten members lost their jobs, two lost custody of their children, and a few lost visiting rights. [14]

6. Exposure of Professionals in the Workplace. One unique feature of France’s "cult wars" is the wave of discrimination against individuals affiliated with one of the 172 sects on the infamous list. Hundreds of French citizens have been fired, laid off, demoted, and refused promotions, and entrepreneurs have lost their businesses. Even some ex-members face financial ruin. [15] A typical pattern of discrimination has emerged: ADFI sends out letters or faxes to companies or employers warning them that they are unwittingly harboring a sect member. Fearful for the company’s reputation, the employer often banishes the unmasked cultist.

Many Aumists instantly lost their jobs after the 1990 coronation ceremony at Mandarom appeared on national television, and they were spotted by clients and employers in their colorful robes and mirrored headbands.

Brigitte Boisselier, director of Clonaid who holds two Ph.D.s, described in 1998 how she was fired as director of research for a chemical company after she identified herself as Raëlian and was promoting Raël’s vision on human cloning. She also lost custody of her son. I spoke to many members who experienced setbacks in their careers and who knew of other cases of workplace discrimination. The saddest stories were of parents who could no longer have any communication with their children.


The anti-sect war in France has occasionally flared into violent attacks against individuals and property. The Unification Church in Paris no longer exists; it was bombed in 1974 and again in 1995. The New Acropolis in Paris, the Church of Scientology in Angers, and the Pèlerins d’Ares have been recent targets of bombs or bomb threats. Horus has been the target of vandals and arsonists – a car exploded, a garage was burned to the ground, animals were stolen, and gunshots were fired into the farm at night [16]. The statue of the Cosmo-planetary Messiah at Mandarom was detonated by armed gendarmes who blew up the likeness of the Aumists’ master on 6 September 2001 before the legal issues were properly resolved in court. In 1992, CEIRUS founder Jean Miguères was shot and killed by his father-in-law, who learned about his "suspect" activities through ADFI. [17] In 2000 Dr. Yves Jullien committed suicide after his professional life was ruined due to ADFI’s use of "secte" regarding his association with Sai Baba [18].

In view of the unhealthy situation I have described, it seems desirable that sociologists, graduate students and journalists outside French-speaking Europe should focus more attention on the French cult wars. There are some well-researched, informative books written by French freedom activists, [19] lawyers and NRM members, but these works are inaccessible to the English speaking public, and tend to be dismissed by French anticultists as unreliable due to the authors’ religious affiliations or reputations as cult apologists. I propose that further research on the "French cult wars" is important and politically relevant to the global struggle for religious freedom, and would like to encourage my fellow NRM scholars to direct their research efforts toward those persecuted minorities stigmatized as sectes.

This paper will be forthcoming in Nova Religio



  1. See "Libertés Religieuses: La Chine et la France épinglées," Le Monde, 30 June 2001, 5. This report rates France sixth among countries where religious freedom is curtailed through repressive laws and social pressure.
    The author would like to thank the Social Science in the Humanities for supporting this research, and Michael Del Balso for help in constructing a questionnaire. [back]
  2. Jacques Guyard, Rapport: Les sectes en France, Commission d’enquête parlementaire, Rapport no. 2468 (Paris: La Documentation française, 1996) (Rapport Guyard). [back]
  3. For legal perspectives, see Alain Garay, L’activisme anti-sectes de l’assistance à l’amalgame (Toronto: Edwin Mellen Press, 1999). [back]
  4. One aspect of the project was to explore the ties between France and Quebec’s new religious movements and the attempt to prove my hypothesis that Quebec has become North America’s new "Plymouth Rock" for persecuted religious minorities in Europe. [back]
  5. Interview with Nitai Gaurasundara das, ISKCON’s Paris temple president, 5 March 2002. [back]
  6. Interview with Nitai Gaurasundara. [back]
  7. Personal communication from MEL’s Paris secretary. [back]
  8. Interview with Mme Castano ("Maiteé") at Horus in La Coucourde, 12 July 2001. [back]
  9. "A Small Lesson of Freedom for French Authorities Who Are Instituting Intolerance," Apocalypse (1st Trimester 55 A.H./2000): 41. [back]
  10. Interview with Anouchka, second-generation French Raëlian, at the November 2001 Raëlian meeting in Montreal, Québec. [back]
  11. Personal communication from a former member of Horus. [back]
  12. For a full description of the case, see Olivier Séguy, Les Radis de la colère (St Zeno, Quebec: Louise Courteau Éditrice, 1999). [back]
  13. Interview with Germaine, secretary-treasurer for Mankind Enlightenment Love, in Paris, 20 July 2001. [back]
  14. Interview with Elena, secretary-treasurer for Mahikari Center, Paris, 19 July 2001. [back]
  15. See the testimony of a couple (former Raëlians) whose private school was closed down after an article appeared in the magazine VSD, in Rapport sur la discrimination à l’encontre des minorités spirituelles et thérapeutiques en France (Paris: Coordination des associations et particuliers pour la liberté de conscience, 2000). [back]
  16. Séguy, Les Radis de la colère. [back]
  17. See "Au nom de l’enfant," Lyon Figaro, 30 July 1992. [back]
  18. "Histoire d’une rumeur qui tue," L’Yonne Républicaine, 20 June 2000. [back]
  19. A particularly useful study is by Joël Labruyère, L’État Inquisiteur: la spiritualité en danger (Auxerre, France: Éditions des Monts, 2000). [back]

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