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France passes new anti-cult law against Senate’s opposition

The law creates a new crime of ‘psychological subjection’, restricts the possibility of criticising mainline medical treatments, and seriously endangers freedom of religion or belief. By Massimo Introvigne, an Italian sociologist of religions, writing for Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF).

On April 9, France finally passed its new amended anti-cult law, after months of debates in which the government failed to persuade the Senate, which on April 2 once again rejected the text in its entirety. However, under the peculiar French system, in the end if the Senate and the House express irreconcilable positions on a draft law, the vote of the House prevails. While the government lobbied heavily the parliamentarians in favour of the text, the opposition was significant even in the House, where the law was approved with 146 ‘yes’ and 104 ‘no’.

Yet, the law has now been passed, although the significant opposition it encountered may perhaps influence its enforcement. The law’s name refers to ‘reinforcing the fight against cultic deviances’. The reason offered for a new crackdown on ‘cults’ is that the number of ‘saisines’ received by the governmental anti-cult agency MIVILUDES is growing. As Bitter Winter has documented ‘saisines’ are not reports of actual incidents, include simple questions sent to the MIVILUDES, and may easily be false or manipulated.

It is also alleged that ‘cults’ grew during COVID and some spread anti-vaccination ideas. Hence, a new crime is created of ‘provocation to abandon or not to undertake a needed medical or prophylactic treatment’, generally recommended by the medical community, which is punished with a jail penalty of one year plus a fine. Obviously, the implications go well beyond COVID and vaccines.


Note that the State Council, when examining the draft law, recommended to drop this article as dangerous for freedom of speech and ‘the freedom of scientific debates’. However, the government rejected the recommendation of the State Council and kept the article. The fight in the Senate only led to the introduction of a new paragraph protecting the ‘whistleblowers’ who reveal questionable practices of medical companies.

The anti-cult measures are also reinforced by allowing the anti-cult associations to be present in the court cases against ‘cults’ as civil parties and by encouraging judges and prosecutors to seek the opinion of the MIVILUDES on groups they are judging or prosecuting. Parliamentary amendments also gave a new and reinforced status to the MIVILUDES.

The heart of the new draft law is the creation of a new crime of ‘psychological subjection’. The law states that ‘It is punishable by three years imprisonment and a fine of €375,000 to place or maintain persons in a state of psychological or physical subjection resulting from the exercise of serious or repeated pressure or techniques likely to impair their judgement and having the effect of causing serious deterioration of their physical or mental health or leading them to commit an act or refrain from acting that is seriously prejudicial to them’.

However, the penalty will be ‘five years imprisonment and a fine of €750,000’ when the ‘psychological subjection’ involves a minor or ‘a person whose particular vulnerability, due to age, illness, infirmity, physical or mental deficiency or pregnancy, is apparent or known to the perpetrator’. The same increased penalty is applied ‘when the offence is committed by the de facto or de jure leader of a group pursuing activities with the aim or effect of creating, maintaining or exploiting the psychological or physical subjection of the persons taking part in these activities’ (read a ‘cult’ leader) or ‘when the offence is committed through the use of an online public communication service or through a digital or electronic medium’ (targeting ‘cultic’ propaganda through websites and social media).

Penalties are further increased to seven years’ imprisonment and a fine of one million euros when two of the above circumstances occur together or ‘the offence is committed as part of an organised gang by members of a group pursuing activities with the aim or effect of creating, maintaining or exploiting the psychological or physical subjection of persons taking part in these activities’. For anti-cultists, ‘cults’ that practice ‘psychological subjection’ are by definition ‘organised gangs’.

It is important to understand the difference with the previously existing provisions on abus de faiblesse (abuse of weakness) and why the government believes that the new crime will make it possible to criminalise ‘cultic deviances’ not captured by the previous law. The abus de faiblesse was punished when a victim was in a ‘situation of weakness’ and had been (allegedly) led through psychological techniques to do something harmful to herself, for example making a large donation or surrendering sexually to the “cult” leader.

In the introductory comment to the new law, the government claimed that ‘the About-Picard law [i.e., the anti-cult law of 2001] in its present text does not allow to incriminate directly the psychological or physical subjection status determined by operations and techniques aimed at putting the victim under the control of the perpetrator’.

The new crime is different from the abus de faiblesse in two respects. First, it is not necessary that the victim is in a situation of ‘weakness’. Everybody can be the victim of ‘psychological subjection’. Second, the use of ‘or’ rather than ‘and’ in the sentence connecting the deterioration in the victim’s mental health and the fact that the ‘brainwashing’ techniques may lead the manipulated person to do something harmful to herself is all-important. As the same introductory report explains, this ‘or’ allows to punish the ‘psychological subjection’ even when it cannot be proved that the victim was induced to a self-damaging behaviour. It will be enough to argue that ‘a deterioration of mental health’ has occurred.

The report specifies that, almost by definition, the situations of psychological subjection normally generate a ‘deterioration in the victim’s mental health’. Hence, using the mysterious ‘techniques creating a situation of psychological subjection’ will be punished even when the victim did not engage in any specific behaviour that can be classified as self-damaging. After all, anti-cultists maintain that joining or remaining in a ‘cult’ is in itself a danger for mental health. And remember, the anti-cult associations will be part of the trials to push this theory, and when in doubt the prosecutors and judges are counselled to seek the opinion of the MIVILUDES.

Most scholars of new religious movements agree that ‘brainwashing’ does not exist and its incrimination is basically a fraud. When the normal process of religious persuasion has as its object beliefs and practices that the powers that be regard as ‘normal’, it is argued that there is no “brainwashing.” When the beliefs and practices are non-conventional or unpopular, this is offered as evidence that only ‘brainwashed’ victims can embrace them because they have been put in a status of ‘psychological subjection’.

The French government solemnly proclaims that through the new law it is not criminalising beliefs, only the techniques through which certain beliefs are promoted. In fact, however, the proof that a belief has been inculcated through ‘illegal’ techniques is that the anti-cultists, the MIVILUDES, the majority of society, or the media regard it as a ‘cultic deviance’. France’s obsession for les sectes, as noted by leading international scholars, continues to make the country one of the worst places in the democratic world for freedom of religion or belief.



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