Six Scientologists go on trial in Paris next Monday on a range of fraud-related charges.
It is just the latest in a series of court cases involving the movement in France that stretches back more than 30 years.
This time however, the stakes are particularly high: because this time the trial also targets two Scientology organisations.
If convictions follow, it could lead to its Paris region branch – and much of its operations in France – being shut down.
The problem – at least from Scientology’s point of view – is not the so-called About-Picard law.
Passed in 2001, it was designed to strengthen legal sanctions against abuses by what it calls "cult-like" movements. But it cannot be applied retroactively and the events in this case date back to the 1990s.1
The threat is from another law, which already gives the courts the power to shut down organisations.
Under its provisions, a non-profit group can be closed if found to be a money-making enterprise; and a for-profit operation convicted of fraud faces a similar sanction.
Prosecutions in the 1980s and 1990s targeted Scientologists, not the various Scientology associations, even if some cases involved senior members of the movement's French hierarchy.
Since the About-Picard law was passed however – and passed with all-party backing – the courts seem to have woken up to the possibility of going after the organisation and not just the individuals.
For within a year of the law reaching the statute books, one Scientology association had fallen foul of the French courts.
In May 2002, Scientology's L'association spirituelle de l'église de scientologie d'Ile-de-France (ASESIF), active in the Paris region, was convicted along with its director of having violated the country’s data protection laws.
The group had kept former members on its mailing lists even after they had asked to be taken off. One of them finally complained to France’s data protection watchdog, La Commission Nationale de l'Informatique et des Libertés (CNIL).
Although ASESIF insisted that the relevant names had been wiped from their database, the junk mail kept coming – and it was on that point alone that the court convicted them.
This time around, the Paris Celebrity Centre of the L'Association spirituelle de l'Eglise de Scientologie (ASES) and its Scientology bookshop Scientologie espace librarie (SEL) are on trial.
Both organisations face charges of organised fraud. And since SEL operates a network of bookshops across the country, a large part of the movement's French operations are threatened.
'A media lynching'
Scientology’s French representatives have already come out fighting.
Danièle Gounord, the movement’s main spokesman in France, has denounced what she called a “carefully orchestrated campaign” against the movement in the run-up to the trial.
In a media release and in her own blog, she pointed out that the case was coming to trial despite a recommendation from the public prosecutor in September 2006 that there was no case to answer.
This is perfectly true: but since under the French system the examining magistrate investigating the case is independent of the prosecutor, he is free to reach a different conclusion.
For Gounord, the recent flurry of hostile media coverage of Scientology was a bid to put pressure on the court to convict in what was essentially a trumped-up case.
“Their only chance [of winning the case] is to organise a media lynching in the hope that that will influence the judges,” she said.
Gounord pointed to the flurry of news stories on the forthcoming trial – and the publication earlier this month of a book by ex-Scientologist Alain Stoffen in which he recounts his experience inside the movement.2
She saw this as part of a coordinated campaign against Scientology – rather than just shrewd marketing on the part of the publisher.
Gounord blamed two organisations for the wave of hostile coverage. “This is a carefully orchestrated campaign, because MIVILUDES, UNADFI want to put pressure on the court.”
But one can see why she might be concerned.
MIVILUDES is the government’s cult watchdog, attached to the prime minister’s office.3 Its president, appointed in September 2008, is Georges Fenech – and he and Scientology are old sparring partners.
Fenech was the examining magistrate who led the investigation into the 1988 suicide of Scientologist Patrice Vic in Lyon. At the time he died, Vic was under pressure to borrow money to take out a loan to pay for his next course.
The 1996 trial saw the leader of the movement’s Lyon operation convicted of homicide involontaire, or manslaughter, for having contributed to Vic’s suicide. Several other Scientologists were convicted of fraud or fraud-related charges.
UNADFI, Gounord's other bête noire, is a national alliance of groups set up by the relatives of members of high-demand groups such as Scientology, the first of which was set up in 1974.4
The current president of UNADFI is the socialist politician Catherine Picard.
Eight years ago, as a deputy in the National Assembly, she was one of the prime movers behind the law that, sooner or later, threatens to hang over Scientology like the sword of Damocles: the so-called About-Picard law.
Next in the series: The Original Plaintiff
1 Under the provisions of the About-Picard law, if a "cult-like" movement is convicted of a serious criminal offence, then the courts have the option of shutting it down. It is only an option – not an obligation – and the judgement is left to a court, not the politicians: but the option is there.
Despite what some lawyers have been claiming in the press however it cannot be used in this case as the events in question predate its creation (the first complaint in this case was lodged in 1998). But existing laws could still provide for the dissolution of the associations.
3 MIVILUDES: the Inter-ministerial Mission for Vigilance and the Struggle against Cult-like tendencies.