The fallout from the Paris Court of Appeal’s ruling against Scientology was not long in coming.
On Thursday, February 2, the court confirmed the convictions for organised fraud of two Scientology organisations, the Celebrity Centre and Scientologie Espace Librairie its books outlet.
Within hours, the mayor of the 17th arrondissement, where the Celebrity Centre is based, was calling on Interior Minister Claude Guéant to look at ways of shutting it down.
Brigitte Kuster welcomed the appeal court judgment against the organisation and five of its leading members in a statement posted on her website.
The court had clearly brought to light the cult-like activities the Paris branch of the movement had practised against some of its members, she wrote.
The ruling “…should be an major step towards banning the cult, pure and simple,” she added.
In the meantime, she wrote, with the Scientology’s appeal to the Cour de Cassation pending, she asked the government to look at ways of closing the Celebrity Centre on the grounds that “it constitutes, in itself, a form of dangerous proselytism.”
To that end, said the statement, she had contacted the interior minister.
This may turn out to be nothing more than a bit of opportunistic gesture politics: it is difficult to see on what grounds the centre could legitimately be closed – for the moment at least.
But should Scientology be convicted again, the laws already exist in France to ban it completely, as two leading critics of the movement have made clear.
Immediately after Judge Claudine Forkel read out the Court of the Appeal’s judgment last Thursday, Olivier Morice, lawyer for French counter-cult group UNADFI, stepped out of the courtroom to face the TV cameras.
What was significant about this ruling was that Scientology organisations had been convicted of organised fraud: in previous trials in the 1990s only individual Scientologists were convicted because back then the law did not provide for anything more.
Now, he said, with other cases against Scientology being prepared, other convictions a real possibility, the possibility of the movement being banned was in sight.
George Fenech, the head of MIVILUDES, the government body charged with monitoring cult-like activities, drew a similar conclusion. Speaking a few hours after the appeal court verdict, he said the judgment marked the beginning of the end of the movement in France.
This was more than just idle talk.
France’s cult traumaTo understand why the law in France evolved as it did, you need a little context.
French attitudes to the issue of cults were transformed by the shock of the Solar Temple massacres of the mid-1990s.
French nationals were among the first wave of killings, in Canada and Switzerland in 1994 53 people died.
Then on December 23, 1995, the charred remains of 16 people were found in a forest clearing at Vercors in southeast France. Among the victims were three children, aged two, four and seven.
The manner in which they had died – and the fact that children were among the victims – made a nonsense of any talk of ritual suicide. In France, many of the victims had been drugged and suffered multiple shot wounds; the victims in Switzerland were also shot, while in Canada some of the dead had been stabbed death.
Also in Canada, investigators found the body of a three-month old baby stuffed behind a radiator at one of the cult’s villas.[i]
It was in this context that thinking hardened towards any fringe group applying totalitarian values to its members while operating within the relative freedom of an open society.
In 1996, French deputies considered a bill that would allow the government to close any organisation considered cult-like if it had been convicted on several occasions of offences, such as fraud, illegal practice of medicine and abuse of confidence.
That bill failed however in the face of objections that this was handing too much power to the politicians: it was too easily open to abuse.
The 2001 About-Picard Law revisited the idea. This time however, instead of granting these powers to the executive, it gave them to the courts.
Its supporters argued that the checks and balances offered by the judicial process, the testing of evidence and law, was enough to answer the civil liberties objection.
And that convinced France’s elected politicians: for it is worth noting that however much the law has been criticised – in France and abroad – French senators gave it their unanimous backing.
The About-Picard law operated in part by extending the range of existing laws.
It was already possible to dissolve some organisations, such as companies, for criminal offences, due to a law dating back to 1994. The About-Picard law extended its reach to a broader range of offences that included those typically relevant in the context of cult-like activities: fraud, abuse of confidence and the illegal practice of medicine or pharmacy.[ii]
And as well as giving the criminal courts the power to dissolve an organisation, it also created the possibility of a similar application through the civil courts.
This would apply to an organisation whose activities were aimed at “…creating, maintaining or exploiting the psychological or physical subjection of people”.
Here too however, the organisation in question would have had to have been convicted on at least two occasions of any of the relevant offences.[iii]
The law provided for heavy fines – and jail terms of up to two years – where someone tried to set up an organisation under a different guise after it had been dissolved.
But any court decision to dissolve a movement, whether by the criminal or civil route, would be subject to the full appeals procedure provided for by the courts.
A “double Sword of Damocles”Where does this leave Scientology?
In a very difficult position according to lawyer Hervé Machi the current general secretary of MIVILUDES.
Machi, having explained the provisions of the law set out above, summed up Scientology’s situation in this way.
If in the future Scientology as an organisation is convicted of a second criminal offence then it faces the possibility of being dissolved by the criminal court that convicts it.
The criminal court is not obliged to apply this ultimate sanction of course – and of course any such sentence would be subject to the usual appeals procedure.
But if a criminal court convicted a Scientology organisation without ordering dissolution, an interested party could still apply to the civil courts. Citing the twin criminal convictions, they could ask for the organisation concerned to be shut down.
“So you can say now that the Church of Scientology has a double Sword of Damocles over its head,” said Machi.
The obvious question then is who counts as an interested party so far as recourse to the civil option of dissolution is concerned: according to Machi, it would not have to be a group recognised as a plaintiff in a criminal case.
Thus UNADFI, which failed in its bid to be accepted as such in this last case, could make the request: so could MIVILUDES.
Presumably then, so could Brigitte Kuster, the mayor of Paris’ 17th arrondissement, where the Celebrity Centre – for the moment at least – has its home.
All this of course raises the question of whether this is the best way to deal with Scientology’s excesses or a case of using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut – a fairly tough nut, admittedly.
[i] Some investigations into the Solar Temple affair have seen more than just a cult-related massacres. French film-maker Yves Boisset’s documentary Les mystères sanglants de l’Ordre du Temple Solaire suggests that, far from it being a purely cultic affair, the Solar Temple deaths were linked to international arms-trafficking and money laundering. For a critique of Boisset’s theory, which also implicates the French state, see Arnaud Palisson’s analysis, “L’Ordre du Temple Solaire et la théorie du complot : Les “X-Files” d’Yves Boisset” at the intelligence-related blog Rapports Minoritaires (you can find an English version at the Google-translated version of the site here).
[ii] This process of extension applies not just to a group regarded as a cult, but to any organisation found criminally responsible for any of the listed offences.
[iii] The About-Picard Law on reinforcing the prevention and repression of cult-like movements that undermine human rights and fundamental freedoms. The offences listed cover those that put people in physical danger or restrict their freedom or endanger children; also illegal exercise of medicine or pharmacy; fraud and deceptive advertising. The convictions last week against Scientology were for organised fraud and the illegal practice of pharmacy. For an illuminating summary of the law see the following legal commentary, written in 2004, at the Miviludes site (in French).