Home-Grown Intolerance in France

Passed by the French Parliament, and signed into law in June 2001, the “To reinforce the prevention and repression of groups of a sectarian nature” aims to restrict the free expression, growth, and development of religious groups. Amazingly, many of those targeted are from mainstream religious beliefs, which flourish in the United States under the basic human right of freedom of conscience and belief.

While the legislation is specifically aimed at “sects” and cults,” the consequences of this bill are extremely dangerous, not only for religious groups, but also in the long run for democracy and religious rights in Europe and throughout the world. While there is no legal definition for the terms sect and cult in French law, these words do carry a derogatory meaning and characterize what are seen to be dangerous groups.

The legislation contains repressive measures that will have a chilling effect on the freedom of religion and belief, including the dissolution of targeted religious associations, the imprisonment of members of such groups, and infringement upon freedom of speech—including speech intended to persuade another person to a particular point of view, whether philosophical or religious.

The law gives a court the authority to dissolve any group if it or any of its leaders have been found guilty of more than one vaguely defined criminal offense. It provides for the dissolution of any related group if a leader of that related group has at least one conviction against him or her. The law also allows the government to decide who is a “leader” of a group. It provides for fines and jail sentences if there is any attempt made to reestablish the dissolved group under another name or corporation.

Mental Manipulation
A particularly disturbing aspect of the legislation is the creation of a new criminal offense: that of causing “a state of psychological or physical subjection resulting from serious and repeated pressures or from techniques which can alter [a person’s] judgment,” originally entitled “mental manipulation.” Although the terminology “mental manipulation” has been replaced by the more acceptable phrase “abuse of a person’s state of weakness,” the text of the crime remains unchanged.

In essence, the law permits the government to prosecute any organization that establishes a seeming state of physical or psychological reliance that causes the follower to behave differently from their usual past behavior. One wonders where the change known as “conversion” fits into this new legal norm.

Additionally, any type of religious education or proselytization can be suspect under the vague crime of “abuse of a person’s state of weakness.” It is no wonder, then, that people of many traditional faiths—including the Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim communities—are concerned about the lack of clarity regarding the law’s criminalization of “mental manipulation.”

Acts Leading to Dissolution
The list of predicated penal acts set forth in the law is extremely broad. Moreover, the law does not even require that the convictions involve offenses committed when acting for the religious organization.

An individual convicted under the law may also be denied civil and family rights (such as child custody) and may be denied the right to participate in a professional or social activity, if it is determined that the activity led to the action at issue in the penal proceedings. If the presumed “crime” of “causing a state of subjection” takes place on the premises of a religious organization, it is subject to closure for five years or more.

In addition, religious organizations themselves are liable under this provision. These are extremely drastic penalties for a “crime” couched in subjective, unscientific, and arbitrary standards vague enough to encompass any religious activity, including teaching and proselytizing. Any form of education and any form of persuasion can be defined as “techniques which can alter judgment.” Under this law individuals will be subject to imprisonment and religious associations themselves to conviction, closure for five years or more, and then dissolution, if a judge determines that the religious beliefs or practices are somehow harmful to a person—even if the practices and beliefs are otherwise lawful and freely consented to by the individual.

A variety of international standards are violated by the ambiguous and severe provisions for civil dissolution in the legislation. The government is providing for the eradication of a religious group based on actions unrelated to the dealings of the group itself. As Elizabeth Clark pointed out in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May 2001, “the law is inconsistent with recent European court decisions on freedom of association, which recognize that the right to have a legal entity is an integral part of the right to freedom of association. The fact that a leader may have done something illegal —regardless of the religion—does not deprive the rest of the group the right to associate.”

This legislation violates several international principles and standards, all of which France has adopted. Among those violated are the nondiscrimination principles of the 1981 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and the Vienna Concluding Document.

Criminal Actions
Another repressive provision allows associations fighting against religious faiths to initiate criminal actions as civil plaintiffs on behalf of affected persons, even if the “victims” have no complaint with the organization. In addition, “any association duly classified as being of public interest” organized in its bylaws and articles of incorporation to “defend” and “assist” individuals or protect “collective freedoms” may initiate a civil dissolution action against a religious organization. This will allow antireligious groups with ingrained prejudices against faiths to first initiate criminal actions against targeted individuals and organizations, and then initiate dissolution actions.

International Consequences
Not only is this legislation a threat to believers in France, it also will have a significant effect on believers worldwide. The South China Morning Post reported on April 6, 2001, that, “the model proposed in France would almost certainly be studied by the SAR [Hong Kong] Government if it chooses to respond to recent pressure from the pro-Beijing camp over the Falun Gong’s local activities by considering introducing criminal laws to deal with the sect. . . . Indeed, there were reports last month that the French antisect laws have already caught the eye of the Department of Justice and the Government may use French laws as a reference point in defining an ‘evil cult.’ ”

Participants of the international conference Totalitarian Cults and Threat of the Twenty-first Century, which took place April 25-27, 2001, in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, also referred to the French legislation as a guide when it stated in its final report, “We assume that the legislation of our country on freedom of conscience and religious activity up to now is not adequate. Traditional religions do not need any specific state protection from totalitarian sects, but citizens of Russia do. We put forward an initiative to introduce into Russian legislation alterations or amendments, or to adopt new legislative acts of direct action in order to put under a strict control, to restrict or even to ban the activity of totalitarian sects [destructive cults] and other groups falling under such definition. Here we can use legislative experience of such European countries as France, Belgium, Germany and Austria.”

Domestic and International Opposition
In France itself there has been serious and consistent resistance voiced by representatives of the civil society and the major monotheistic faiths. In May 2001 Pastor Jean-Arnold de Clermont, president of the French Protestant Federation, and Cardinal Louis-Marie Bill鬠president of the French Conference of Catholic Bishops, expressed their reservations about the legislation in a letter to Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

When formally accepting the credentials of Alain Dejammet, the new French ambassador to the Holy See, Pope John Paul II devoted an entire section of his speech to religious liberty, an unusual theme when receiving ambassadors of Western democratic countries. The pope reminded the ambassador that “religious liberty, in the full sense of the term, is the first human right. This means a liberty which is not reduced to the private sphere only. . . . To discriminate religious beliefs, or to discredit one or another form of religious practice, is a form of exclusion contrary to the respect of fundamental human values and will eventually destabilize society, where a certain pluralism of thought and action should exist, as well as a benevolent and brotherly attitude. This will necessarily create a climate of tension, intolerance, opposition and suspect, not conductive to social peace.”

In April 2001, 50 members of the parliament of the Council of Europe wrote to the French Senate urging it to stop the vote on the then-draft law, commenting on its potential to create “religious discrimination in France.”

In a January 2, 2001, letter, then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright expressed her concerns regarding the dangerous trend of religious intolerance advancing across Europe. Secretary Albright stated that “. . . the proposed legislation is part of a disturbing trend in western Europe where some states have adopted, or are considering, discriminatory legislation or policies that tend to stigmatize legitimate expression of religious faith by wrongfully associating them with dangerous ‘sects’ or ‘cults.’ Such laws and policies pose a danger to freedom of religion.”

In his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Europe, the acting assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, Michael Parmly, commented that “although the proposed bill does not apply exclusively to religious groups, it is clearly intended to target the new and less familiar religions in France. We are concerned that the language in this context is dangerously ambiguous and could be used against legitimate religious endeavors, such as religious schools, seminaries, monasteries or retreats.”

The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights has stated, “We need for France to show respect for international standards. . . . But this law contradicts France’s obligations undertaken in the Helsinki process. It contradicts the standards of the Council of Europe. . . . The law is a threat to religious tolerance and basic liberties that are central to French political values. The law reflects a demonizing attitude toward minority religions and will increase the sense of insecurity felt by members of minority religions.

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Joseph K. Grieboski is president of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, in Washington, D.C.

Article Author: Joseph K. Grieboski