The COVID pandemic, QAnon, and debates on “separatism” have revitalized the French anti-cult structure MIVILUDES. Folk statistics may lead to bad choices.
by Massimo Introvigne
France has a tradition of governmental activism against “cults” (called sectes in French). Groups labeled as “cults” tend to organize themselves somewhat differently with respect to mainline society, which the French tradition of laïcité perceives as part of “separatism,” i.e., a “separation” from the general consensus around what French call “Republican values.” The new law against “separatism” originally included provisions targeting “cults” in addition to Islamic radicalism, although these provisions, of dubious constitutionality, were later eliminated by the government.
However, the national debates on the law against separatism have been one of the factors leading to a revitalization of the MIVILUDES, the Interministerial Mission of Vigilance and Combat against Cultic Deviances, created by the French government in 2002 as a successor of MILS (Interministerial Mission of Fight Against Cults). French media noticed a decline of MIVILUDES since 2015, as more resources were devoted to the fight against radical Islam. When in 2019 the MIVILUDES was reorganized as a part of the Interministerial Committee to Prevent Delinquency and Radicalization (CIPDR), anti-cultists lamented that the MIVILUDES was about to disappear.
Now, however, the MIVILUDES has been revamped and reinforced. The discussion about “separatism” has been a factor, together with concerns about the activities in France of “cults” promoting alternative medicines during the COVID-19 pandemic, and of “political cults” such as QAnon in the wake of the American Presidential elections of 2020. A role has been played by the fact that Ms. Marlène Schiappa, a politician who has decided to jump on the anti-cult bandwagon for her own reasons, since July 2020 serves as Minister Delegate in charge of Citizenship, attached to the Minister of the Interior, i.e., in the position dealing inter alia with “cults.”
The MIVILUDES, together with several police bodies, has recently published both what seems to be its new yearly report on “cults,” and a note “provided as requested by Ms. Schiappa” on “the new trends of cultic deviances.” Although the second documents was presented as a summary of the first, this is not really the case. The “new trends” note includes names, and discusses incidents, that are not mentioned in the report.
The report admits that the first French approach, leading to the publication in 1996 a list of “cults” that immediately became very controversial, was wrong. Groups were included in the list “not on the basis of objective criteria, but on the level of social acceptance at that particular time.” This is a very important admission, because the MIVILUDES is recognizing here that the scholars who criticized the list—who were criminalized as “cult apologists”—were right, and authorities were wrong, and that religious movements were “stigmatized” and harassed just because they were unpopular.
Recognizing the mistake, the report explains, led to focus not on “cults” but on “cultic deviances,” a new notion “unknown to the fields of religion, sociology, and law” created ad hoc by the French government. Apart from the emphasis presenting “cultic deviances” as almost the greatest French invention since the champagne and the camembert, what is claimed here is both important and alarming. “The State, the report says, has thus transformed the presence of cults, a social fact, into a question of public order, in which the criterion of dangerousness takes precedence. For the State, cultic deviances are considered to be dangerous not because they threaten traditional religious boundaries, but because they challenge standards the State has established in strategic areas. The problem comes from the possibility that a group of believers may form a closed community in which education, health care, nutrition, and social life are organized according to patterns that are beyond the control of the State.”
Perhaps one needs to read twice to understand what is really claimed here, i.e., that the French State does not tolerate “separatism” in broad “strategic areas” that include “social life” and “nutrition.” You should either “organize according to patterns under the control of the State” or be called a “closed community” and a “cult.” Whether this widespread “control of the State” is compatible with a democratic concept of individual and religious liberty is a different question.
However, even by applying this expansive notion of “cultic deviances,” it seems that it is not a major problem in France. Scholars know that moral panics about the “cults” are usually promoted through folk statistics. Commenting the MIVILUDES documents, French media have reported that “cultic” fasting is a serious problem in France. Yet, the MIVILUDES reports that it has found just three cases of “extreme practices” connected with food in twelve months.
We also read that MIVILUDES in one year found 500 cases of problems involving minors. Ms. Schiappa translated it in a press release introducing the MIVILUDES documents into “90,000 minors in danger,” an excellent example of the use of folk statistics to artificially create social alarm. The report states that MIVILUDES and the police working on “cults” do not have reliable statistics, yet Ms. Schiappa understands inflated numbers are very much liked by journalists.
Interestingly, we read that around some 3,000 cases of “cultic deviances” noticed by the MIVILUDES, only 16 have been forwarded to prosecutors under Article 40 of the Criminal Proceedings Code, which makes it mandatory for a public servant who becomes aware of a crime to denounce it to a prosecutor. In other words, in 2,984 cases out of 3,000 the MIVILUDES itself recognized there was no crime to be prosecuted. And we do not know how many of the 16 cases forwarded to prosecutors were in fact prosecuted and led to convictions.
To its credit, MIVILUDES is now repudiating the strategy of the 1990s that led to the publication of lists of “cults,” and causes years of suffering to the members of the groups so labeled and “stigmatized.” But as long as accusation of “cultic deviances” are liberally applied to cases where, as the MIVILUDES itself admits, there is no crime in more than 99% of the incidents it has considered, an attitude of general suspicion against all groups perceived as “different” or “alternatives” will be perpetuated. And this is a problem for religious liberty and democracy.