A scrum of cameramen and photographers gathered at the entrance to the Chamber 12 of the Paris central court house on Monday, May 25, the first day of the trial.
For the defendants and the plaintiffs, it was an intimidating gauntlet to have to run before getting to the courtroom.
For Maître Olivier Morice, representing the plaintiffs, and Maître Patrick Maisonneuve, leading for the defence, it was business as usual.
Well accustomed to the media presence, they made sure they got their message across before going into court to do battle.
Morice denounced the pressure he said his clients had been under to withdraw their complaints.
Of the five complainants originally attached to the case, three had settled with Scientology before the trial. Under the French system however, the testimony they gave to the police and the investigating magistrate is still admissible.
Maisonneuve, for his part, dismissed any notion of manipulation mentale (mind control). And he made it clear that the alleged actions of a few individuals could not in any case be laid at the door of the movement itself.
At the time, it seemed as if the very existence of the movement in France could be at issue.
For a conviction against the two Scientology associations accused could, just conceivably, lead to the movement as a whole being effectively broken up in France.
Two Scientology associations – the movement’s Celebrity Centre in Paris and its bookshop – are on trial for fraud.
The six Scientologists face charges either of fraud or illegal practice of pharmacy, for having assumed a role reserved exclusively for qualified professionals; two defendants, including the director of the Celebrity Centre, Alain Rosenberg, were charged on both counts. They all deny the charges against them.
Plenty of Scientologists turned out to show their support for the accused and the press received glossy brochures packed with information about the movement.
Scientology’s main spokesman in France, Danièle Gounord, was on hand to denounce the proceedings as a heresy trial, part of what she described as France’s long-running persecution of the movement.
A few critics of the movement had also turned out, including one gentleman who insisted on using a finger puppet to explain the finer points of Scientology’s cosmology – details kept secret from members until they reach the upper levels of the movement’s teachings.
The first afternoon’s proceedings were mainly taken up with preliminary legal skirmishes.
The defence objected to a bid by UNADFI, a national alliance of organisations battling Scientology and other such groups, to attach itself to the case as a plaintiff.
If successful, this would give them access to all the case files and a voice during the trial itself. The prosecution supported their bid.
The three judges decided to defer their decision on the question until they handed down their ruling on the case itself.
But from the outset, the president of the court, Judge Sophie-Hélène Château made it clear that they were not there to judge “questions of society” – presumably a reference to the ongoing debate as to whether Scientology should be considered a religion in France.1
The trial proper got under way the following day, Tuesday, with the appearance of the first plaintiff in the case, one of the two still remaining.2
'They said I was struggling in life'
In the summer of 1998, in the space of barely four months, Aude-Claire Malton spent 140,000 francs (21,000 euros) on Scientology goods and services.
By the time she broke with the movement, she had emptied her bank account and got herself deep into debt.
When Malton came to court, she was flanked by her lawyer, Morice, and by Catherine Picard, the president of UNADFI. She had contacted the organisation soon after breaking from Scientology.
It was with their support and advice that she first went to file her complaint with the police, on December 28, 1998, launching the investigation that had led to the trial.
As she stood up to tell her story, a small figure hunched into a brown leather jacket, she had the three judges in front of her. To her right were the defendants: to the left the two lawyers from the prosecutors’ office.
Behind her on one side were Picard, Morice and his legal assistants; and on the other, a larger team of lawyers representing the defendants.
In a trial of this kind in France, there is no jury: that is reserved for trials dealing with the most serious crimes. In this case, the three judges will determine whether or not any of the defendants are guilty, and if so, what the sentence should be.
The principal judge, referring to the case files, questions whoever is on the stand: plaintiff, defendant or witness. Then she gives the prosecutors, the various lawyers and finally the other two judges their turn.
Judge Château, the most senior of the three judges, invited Malton to tell her story, prompting her with questions when needed.
Malton first came across Scientology in 1998 when she was handed a free personality test as she came out of the metro station at Opéra, in the centre of Paris.
“I took it with me and filled it in. Two or three days later I was contacted by telephone and asked to come in. So I went in and they showed me the questionnaire. Interpreting it, they said I was struggling in life.”
This was certainly true: a year earlier she had broken up with her boyfriend and was still struggling with depression. But the staff at the centre said they had courses that would help her.
“I understood that I had major problems and that I could resolve these problems by following these courses,” she told the court.
For Malton, it was always about Dianetics as a form of self-help: the courses were to help her in her personal and her professional life. She was not interested in Scientology as a religion.
Her first purchase was a minor one, she recalled: a book for 100 francs (15 euros). But the next book cost 950 francs.
And within a few weeks, by the middle of May, she had agreed to spend 31,590 francs (4,816 euros) on Dianetics training – a significant investment given her monthly salary at her hotel job was around 8,000 francs (1,200 euros).
“I told them I couldn't spend that much money,” she said. But she ended up signing.
She was also asked to sign a document declaring she was not a police officer, a journalist or a secret agent: just a formality they said.
When she arrived to start her first courses – Life Repair and the Communication Course – she found several people gathered in the same room. But they split off into pairs to work, she recalled.
“At the end of the course, to pass the course you had to write a letter to say that you were satisfied with what you had done. In order to get to the next course you had to write a letter,” she said.
And did she feel better after having done the course, asked Judge Château? Yes she did, she said. “I felt better because I was caught up in the momentum.”
She did these first courses from June up until the end of July, going from her day’s work at the hotel to study in the evenings. Then, after several hours' study, she would be taken to the sales officer.
“You don't leave the office without having signed a cheque or taken out your credit card, even if it costs a lot,” she said. If she resisted, they would tell her: “It's only money, and it's for you.”
One day she tried going to the centre without her chequebook or credit card, so she would not have to spend any more. “Because I didn't have any money on me I was accompanied to the house to write a cheque.”
Three Scientologists went with her, including one of the defendants, Jean-François Valli. “He proposed accompanying me home because otherwise I risked losing the chance of this package,” she said.
After her initial purchases, Valli had accompanied her every step of the way, selling her packages of goods and courses in advance, which he said meant she was getting them cheaper.
'They took advantage of my weakness'
By August, Malton had signed up for a Purification pack and an e-meter, the device used in Scientology's auditing courses -- a device she didn't yet know how to use.
That package cost her 68,000 francs (about 10,000 euros) – but it was good value, they told her. “They said it could be more expensive but because it was a package they were doing it cut-price.”
The Purification Rundown, a course devised by Scientology's founder, L. Ron Hubbard himself, involves taking large doses of vitamins, going for runs and spending several hours a day in the sauna. The way Malton understood it she had to purify her body and mind to get to the next stage of Scientology's teachings.
“You take vitamins in the morning and then you run so they act on your body, then you do two or three hours in a sauna,” she explained.
Since the process was meant to last at least 10 days, she took time off work, she said. “When I started my holidays, I thought it would be restful.” In fact, she told the court, she felt a constant state of fatigue.
She couldn't sleep any more; she got stomach cramps; she came out in a rash and got spots.
But after 13 days of vitamins and running and hours in the sauna, she felt as if she had achieved a breakthrough, she felt good. She had also lost four kilos (8.8 lbs).
When she filled in the personality test again – the one that had first brought her into the centre – she expected it to register this transformation. But it showed only a slight improvement. She was totally demoralised.
“For me it was an effort to take a holiday and do the Purification Rundown, and to hear that there was a ‘slight improvement’ – that was hard to hear.”
By now however, she had other problems.
“I had to close my bank accounts,” she told the court, in tears now. And once her bank accounts were empty – her current account, her savings account, even part of her life insurance money – she took out a bank loan.
Then the money from that loan ran out. But Valli was there to advise her.
“When I said I had no more money, he said ‘That's not a problem, we are going to find a solution.’” Valli called someone he knew at a branch of the SOFINCO bank and arranged a loan. He even accompanied her to the bank.
By now the people at the centre were urging her to give up her job, move out of her flat and come and work for them. The pay was substantially less than what she had been earning, but they told her she would be able to do courses for free.
Her handlers also encouraged her to tell her family about Scientology, coaching her on how to explain it to them.
But when she approached them in September, it turned out that they had done their own research. Her ex-boyfriend, to whom she had sent a copy of Dianetics, had tipped them off.
“It was he who said, 'Do you know what you are getting into?'” she told the court. Her family showed her press cuttings critical of the movement.
“In the end I realised I had fallen into a system that wasn't necessarily what I was looking for... I didn't realise it was going to cost so much money.”
Her family persuaded her to break with Scientology. “I phoned to say that I didn’t want to continue. They asked me why, but I didn't want to talk about it.”
Although they called back and tried to arrange for a meeting in a café, on the advice of her family she refused the meeting. They also put her in touch with UNADFI, who advised her from that point on.
Looking back, she said that when she got involved in Scientology she had been going through a bad time in her life. “I was depressed. I had just suffered a break-up: I wasn't well.
“They took advantage of my weakness, of my psychological state... for me, the aim [of Scientology] is to use people, to use their weaknesses to get their money.”
And after her experience, how had she felt, Judge Château asked. Completely undermined, said Malton: tired, oppressed, constantly pursued. She felt washed out, worn out, destroyed.
But why had she not been able to resist, the judge asked? “You are caught up in a system in which you are bathed in the glory of Scientology and you can't do otherwise but continue,” she replied.
She was close to tears again when she described her problems after her brush with Scientology.
“I had trouble rebuilding my life. I wasn't sure of myself and then I was completely destroyed... I had trouble trusting people again.”
And why, after all these years, was she still a plaintiff in the case?
“I think that I represent the people who can't appear before the court, because you realise you are manipulated by people and that has to stop: whether it is Scientology or any other cult, it is mind control [manipulation mentale] and it has to stop.”
Next in the series: Defendant #1: the Facilitator
1 An appeal court ruling in an earlier case involving Scientology in Lyon provoked a major controversy when it appeared to acknowledge Scientology’s religious status. That prompted the then interior minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement to retort that it was not for the court to decide. The Court of Cassation, France's highest court, later quashed that part of the appeal court judgment.
2 One of only two remaining individual plaintiffs: the Order of Pharmacists in France had also registered as plaintiffs concerning the charge of illegal exercise of pharmacy.