In France, the Senate is working on a bill to “reinforce the fight against cultic deviances”, But its content seems to pose serious problems for experts in freedom of religion or belief and scholars of religion.
On November 15, the Council of Minister of the French Republic sent a draft law to the Senate aimed at “reinforcing the fight against cultic deviances”. The bill will be debated and voted upon at the French Senate on December 19 and then sent to the National Assembly for review before final vote.
Of course, “fighting against cultic deviances” would seem to be very legitimate, if anyone could come with a legal and accurate definition of “cultic deviance” or even “cult”. However, besides the title of the bill, it’s its content that appears to be highly problematic in the eyes of FoRB (freedom of religion or belief) experts and religious scholars.
Its article 1 aims to create a new crime defined as “to place or maintain a person in a state of psychological or physical subjection resulting from the direct exercise of serious or repeated pressure or techniques likely to impair their judgement and having the effect of causing serious impairment of their physical or mental health or leading this person to an act or abstention which is seriously prejudicial to them”. Again, with a rapid reading, who would be against punishing such bad behaviour? But the devil is in the detail.
The return of the “mind control” theories
“Psychological subjection” is a synonym of what is usually called “mental manipulation”, “mind control”, or even “brainwashing”. That is clear when you read the “study of impact” of the French government, which tries to justify the need of such a new legislation with great difficulty. These vague concepts, when applied to criminal law and religious movements, have been finally debunked as pseudo-scientific in most of the countries where they had been used, with the exception of some totalitarian countries like Russia and China. In the US, The 1950’s concept of “mind control” that was used by the CIA to try to explain why some of their soldiers developed sympathy for their communist enemies, started to be applied by some psychiatrists to new religious movements in the 80s. A task force of psychiatrists was created to work on “Deceptive and Indirect Methods of Persuasion and Control” by minority religions and they rendered a “report” to the American Psychological Association in 1987. The official answer from the Ethical board of the American Psychological Association was devastating. On may 1987, they rejected the authors notion of “coercive persuasion”, declaring that “in general, the report lacks the scientific rigor and evenhanded critical approach needed for APA imprimatur”, and adding that the authors of the report should never publicize their report without indicating that it was “unacceptable to the board”.
Just after this, the American Psychological Association and the American Sociological Association submitted an amicus curiae briefs to the US Supreme Court in which they argued that cultic brainwashing theory is not generally accepted as having scientific merit. This brief argues that cultic brainwashing theory does not provide a scientifically acceptable method for determining when social influence overwhelms free will and when it does not. Consequently, US courts have repeatedly found that the weight of the scientific evidence has established that the anti-cult brainwashing theory is not accepted by the relevant scientific community.
But France (or at least the French civil servants who drafted the law, but also the government which endorsed it) do not really care about scientific accuracy.
Italy and the “Plagio” law
A law similar to the one proposed in the French bill actually existed in Italy from 1930 to 1981. It was a fascist law called “plagio” (which means “mind control”), that entered the following provision in the Criminal Code: “Whoever submits a person to his own power, in order to reduce her to a state of subjection, is punished with imprisonment for five to fifteen years”. Indeed, that’s the very same concept than the one contained in article 1 of the French bill.
The Plagio law became famous when it was used against a well-known Marxist gay philosopher, Aldo Braibanti who had taken into his home two young men to work as his secretaries. According to the prosecution, he brought them to a state of psychological subjugation with the aim of making them his lovers. In 1968, Braibanti was found guilty of “plagio” by the Rome Court of Assizes, and sentenced to 9 years of prison. On final appeal, the Supreme Court (going even beyond the decisions of the lower courts) described Braibanti’s “plagio” as a “situation in which the psyche of the coerced person was emptied. This was possible even without resorting to physical violence or the administration of pathogenic drugs, through the combined effect of various means, each of which alone might not have been effective, while they became effective when combined together.” Following this conviction, intellectual like Alberto Moravia and Umberto Eco, and a great deal of leading attorneys and psychiatrists, petitioned for the abolition of the statute on “plagio.”
Whilst the conviction was never overturned, it created debates in Italy for years. The criticism of the law was of two kinds. One was from a scientific point of view: most of the Italian psychiatrists believed that “plagio” in the sense of “psychological subjection”, did not exist, and others were arguing that in any case, it was too vague and undetermined to be used in criminal law. The second kind of criticism was political, as critics argued that the “plagio” was allowing ideological discrimination, like in the case of Braibanti who was convicted out of a patent homophobic point of view, because he was promoting an “immoral lifestyle”.
Ten years after, in 1978, the law was then applied to pursue a Catholic priest, Father Emilio Grasso, accused of having practiced “mind control” on his followers. Emilio Grasso, a leader of a Charismatic Catholic community in Italy, was accused of having created psychological subjection on his followers to have them work as full-time missionaries or volunteers for charitable activities in Italy and abroad. In Rome, the court in charge of assessing the case raised the question of the constitutionality of the crime of “plagio”, and sent the case to the Italian Constitutional Court.
On 8 June 1981, Constitutional Court declared the crime of plagio unconstitutional. According to the Court’s decision, Based on the scientific literature on the subject, whether from “psychiatry, psychology or psychoanalysis,” influence or “psychological subjection” are a “normal” part of relationships between humans: “typical situations of psychological dependency can reach degrees of intensity even for long periods, such as a love relationship, and the relationships between priest and believer, teacher and pupil, physician and patient (…). But practically speaking it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish, in situations such as these, psychological persuasion from psychological subjugation, and to differentiate between them for legal purposes. No firm criteria exist for separating and defining each activity, tracing a precise boundary between the two.” The Court added that the crime of plagio was “a bomb about to explode in our legal system, since it can be applied to any situation that implies the psychological dependence of a human being on another.”
That was the end of psychological subjection in Italy, but apparently, that’s not sufficient to prevent the French government from coming back with the very same fascist concept today.
Who could be touched?
As stated by the Italian Constitutional Court, such a concept “can be applied to any situation that implies the psychological dependence of a human being on another”. And that’s definitely the case for any religious or spiritual group of any denomination, moreover if there is social or governmental hostility against them. The assessment of the impairing effect of such a “psychological subjection” will have to be entrusted to expert psychiatrists, who will be asked to give an opinion on the characterization of a concept that has no established scientific basis.
Any priest could be accused of maintaining the faithful in a state of “psychological subjection”, as could be a yoga teacher or a rabbi. As told us a French lawyer about the bill: “It is easy to characterize serious or repeated pressure: repeated orders given by an employer, a sports trainer, or even a superior in the army; an injunction to pray or to confess, can easily be qualified as such. Techniques for altering judgment are in everyday use in human society: seduction, rhetoric and marketing are all techniques for altering judgment. Could Schopenhauer have published The Art of Always Being Right under the influence of this Project, without being accused of complicity in the crime in question? Serious impairment of physical or mental health is also easier to characterize than it might at first appear. In the run-up to the Olympic Games, for example, a top-level athlete under repeated pressure could suffer a deterioration in his or her physical health, for example in the event of injury. A seriously prejudicial act or abstention covers a wide range of behaviors. An army soldier, under repeated pressure, will be driven to actions that could be seriously prejudicial, even in a military training context.”
Of course, a conviction based on such a vague legal concept could lead to a final conviction of France by the European Court of Human Rights. As indeed, in its decision Jehovah’s Witnesses of Moscow and Others v. Russia n°302, the Court already tackled the subject of “mind control”: “There is no generally accepted and scientific definition of what constitutes ‘mind control'”. But even if that was the case, how many persons will be wrongly convicted to jail terms before the first decision from the ECHR will come?
The provocation to abandon medical treatment
The draft law contains other controversial provisions. One of them is in its article 4, which aims to criminalize “Provocation to abandon or refrain from following a therapeutic or prophylactic medical, when such abandonment or abstention is presented as beneficial to the health of the persons concerned, whereas, given the state of medical knowledge, it is clearly likely to have serious consequences for their physical or mental health, given the pathology with which they are afflicted.”
In the post-pandemic context, everyone is of course thinking about people advocating for not taking vaccines and the challenge it represented for the governments pushing for vaccination. But as the law would apply to anyone “provocating” generally on social medias or in print medias, the danger of such a provision is more broadly concerning. In fact, the French Council of State (Conseil d’Etat) rendered an opinion on this provision on November 9:
“The Conseil d’Etat points out that when the incriminated facts result from general and impersonal discourse, for example on a blog or social network, while the objective of protecting health, derived from the eleventh paragraph of the Preamble to the 1946 Constitution, may justify limitations on freedom of expression a balance must be struck between these constitutional rights, so as not to jeopardize the freedom of scientific debate and the role of whistle-blowers by criminalizing challenges to current therapeutic practices.”
Finally, the French Council of State advised to withdraw the provision from the bill. But the French government could not care less.
Anti-cult associations given the thumbs-up
The draft law, which in fact appears to be the result of an important lobbying of French anti-cults associations belonging to FECRIS (European Federation of the Centers of Research and Information on Sects and Cults), did not leave them without compensation. With article 3 of the law, anti-cult associations will be allowed to be legitimate plaintiffs (civil parties) and bring civil actions in cases involving “cultic deviances”, even if they have not personally suffered any damage. They will only need an “agreement” from the Ministry of Justice.
Actually, the study of impact attached to the bill, names the associations that are supposed to receive this agreement. They are all known to be exclusively funded by the French State (which makes them “Gongos”, a coined term to mock pretended non-governmental organizations which in fact are “governmental-non-governmental organizations), and to target almost exclusively religious minorities. With that article, no doubt that they will saturate the judicial services with untimely criminal complaints against movements they disapprove of, in this case religious minorities. That, of course, will jeopardize the right to a fair trial for religious minorities in France.
It’s also interesting to note that several of these associations belong to FECRIS, a Federation that The European Times has exposed as being behind Russian propaganda against Ukraine, accusing “cults” to be behind the “Nazi cannibalistic” regime of President Zelensky. You can see FECRIS coverage here.
Will the law on cultic deviances be passed?
Unfortunately, France has a long history of messing up with freedom of religion or belief. While its Constitution calls for respect of all religions and respect of freedom of conscience and religion, it’s the country where religious symbols are forbidden in school, where lawyers are also forbidden to wear any religious symbols when entering courts, where many religious minorities have been discriminated as “cults” for decades, and so on.
So it’s unlikely that French MPs, who are usually not interested in questions of freedom of religion or belief, understand the danger that such a law would represent for believers, and even for non-believers. But who knows? Miracles happen, even in the country of Voltaire. Hopefully.