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How the pandemic in France has led to an explosion in number of sects

The French government has increased its budget to monitor cults by tenfold after at least 500 religious sects considered potentially dangerous sprung up during the pandemic.

Scientologists in Paris protest against Miviludes - a French state-backed organisation set up to monitor and fight against cults.
Scientologists in Paris protest against Miviludes - a French state-backed organisation set up to monitor and fight against cults. (Photo by PIERRE VERDY / AFP)

For almost 30 years the French government has had a watchdog dedicated to monitoring religious cults, but now its budget has been increased tenfold to €1 million a year over years about pandemic-related sects.

Speaking on FranceInfo in April, citizenship minister Marlène Schiappa said that the pandemic had led to the emergence of some 500 sectes (religious cults) that could pose a danger to society.

In French, culte refers to a religion. A secte or dérive secte (literally a ‘sectarian aberration’) is a more official way to refer to a cult in the English sense of the word. 

“You have new gurus who are using the pandemic to preach practices of ‘well-being'”, she said, but are really practising “psychological subjugation and efforts to take money and goods.”  

“Women are disproportionately targeted by cults because there is sexual predation too and because they are more likely to be in precarious situations.” 

She also revealed that yoga and meditation groups are fastest-growing methods by which people are being lured into cult activity.

The vast majority of the €1 million in funding will go to the Mission interministérielle de vigilance et de lutte contre les dérives sectaires (Miviludes) – France’s national cults watchdog. 

Massacre

Mivuludes came into being after a series of reports in France following high-profile cult deaths including the Jonestown Massacre in 1978, in which cult leader Jim Jones instructed 918 of his followers to drink cyanide-laced juice.

The deaths, which took place in Guyana, close to the French overseas territory of French Guiana, sent shockwaves around the world.

In the 1980s, MPs in France worked earnestly on various reports identifying a dozen of so religious groups that presented a danger to society. There were few concrete actions taken as legislators were unsure how to balance freedom of religion while preventing potential abuses – a conflict which continues today. 

When the Order of The Solar Temple, another cult, organised another wave of mass suicides in the mid-1990s, in France, Switzerland and Canada, the French government were forced into taking more concrete action . 

In 1996, the Inter-Ministerial Sect Observatory was set up to investigate sects, report abuse to prosecutors, inform the public about the dangers. 

This organisation was eventually re-named MILS in 1998 and again as Miviludes in 2002. In Former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe called on the organisation to take on a role targeting religious extremism in 2017. Earlier this year, Miviludes was tasked with cracking down on practitioners of gay conversion therapy. 

Yoga and meditation

The main missions of Miviludes today is to investigate cults, coordinate law enforcement action against them, train and inform law enforcement on sects, educate the public about the dangers and put victims in touch with support services. 

Miviludes received more than 3,000 referrals in 2020 – a 40 percent increase over five years. Alerts of cult activity linked Covid-19 were among the most common.

In an interview with Le Monde, Schiappa revealed that around 140,000 adults are currently involved in cults in France. 

Minors are by far the most targeted population group when it comes to cults.

It operates under the direct supervision of the Interior Ministry and is seeing a resurgence after years of budget cuts.  

The most recent nationwide report from Miviludes, published in July, revealed a number of findings. 

The organisation recognised Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, Neo-Shamans, some evangelist protestant groups, some Christian groups, a selection of Christian and Islamic groups, mediums, personal development specialists, multi-level marketers, and even alternative medicine practitioners as belonging to sects. 

The report found that yoga and meditation were the fastest growing ways through which the public were being lured into ‘sectarian aberrations’. 

One testimony quoted in the report comes from a man worried about his partner.

“She decided some months ago, to take a professional yoga course. She seems anaesthetised, robotised sometimes. She has memory loss and is searching for words. She seems like she is not really here – that she is disconnected from everything besides her quest to become a yoga teacher,” it reads. 

A recent statement issued by the Gendarmerie Nationale and Miviludes states: “The increasing number of yoga, meditation and shamanic initiation retreats generates an enormous risk of sectoral aberrations.”

Pandemic

During the pandemic, various yoga practitioners in France supported anti-vaccine positions and issued bogus claims that time spent practising yoga outside reduced the risk of catching Covid. Miviludes observed a significant crossover between yoga practitioners and conspiracy theorists. 

A number of sex abuse claims were made against yoga teachers – particularly those of the Sivananda movement – in France last year. 

Miviludes and La Famille 

A recent media frenzy over La Famille, an insular religious community in the east of Paris, has brought cults back into the spotlight.

La Famille is a religious group of some 3,000 people based in the east of Paris. 

The community is composed of descendants of the jansénisme convulsionnaire movement – a mystical sect that was banned in France in the 18th Century but continued practising underground. 

Members of La Famille have an insular existence and are wary of ‘outsiders’. Various reports conducted over the last two years have portrayed it as a cult. 

The gene pool is limited as members must marry within La Famille – most often between cousins. Couples are monogamous and typically have a dozen or more children – who go to school but only up to the obligatory age of 16. Le Parisien were among to publications to have alleged sexual abuse within La Famille.

Miviludes has opened a file on La Famille, noting that while it does not have a guru-like leader nor a proselytising mission, it does have a closed off culture that could lead to the cover-up of sexual abuse. 

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POLITICS

Macron seeks allies as new French parliament opens

France's lower house of parliament reopens Tuesday after an election upset for President Emmanuel Macron whose centrist allies are little closer to building a stable majority, putting Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne's job potentially on the line.

Macron seeks allies as new French parliament opens

After this month’s ballot brought surges for the far right and hard left, opposition forces have made clear that they will not be lured into a lasting arrangement to support Macron’s government which is 37 seats short of a majority.

Borne and other senior Macron backers have been trying to win over individual right-wing and moderate left parliamentarians to bolster their ranks, with one MP telling AFP that “the phones are running hot.”

But Olivier Marleix, head of the conservative Republicans group seen as most compatible with Macron, said that “we have much better things to do today than selling ourselves piecemeal”.

“It’s about making progress for the French people,” he told Europe 1 radio on Monday.

But he added that his MPs would “do everything we can to reach an agreement with the government” on an upcoming draft law to boost households’ purchasing power in the face of food and energy inflation.

“It’s not in the interest of parties who have just been elected” to make a long-term deal to support the government, said Marc Lazar, a professor at Paris’ Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po).

First woman speaker

The first days of the new National Assembly will be taken up with elections for the speaker and other senior parliamentary officials and committee chiefs.

Pro-Macron candidate Yael Braun-Pivet is expected to be the first woman in French history to claim the speaker’s chair in a series of votes Tuesday.

The same day, parties with at least 15 members will be able to form official groups, which enjoy more influence and speaking time.

One key question is whether Thursday’s vote to head the Finance Committee — with its extensive powers to scrutinise government spending — will be won by an MP from the far-right National Rally (RN).

Led by Macron’s defeated presidential opponent Marine Le Pen, the RN would usually have a claim on the post as the largest single opposition party.

It could face a stiff challenge if the NUPES left alliance encompassing Greens, Communists, Socialists and the hard-left France Unbowed (LFI) can agree on a joint candidate.

Confidence vote?

Next week could see exchanges heat up in the chamber, as government chief Borne delivers a speech setting out her policy priorities.

It is not yet clear whether Borne will call the traditional vote of confidence following her appearance — which is not strictly required under France’s Fifth Republic constitution.

Macron told AFP at the weekend that he had “decided to confirm (his) confidence in Elisabeth Borne” and asked her to continue talks to find either allies for the government in parliament or at least backing for crucial confidence and budget votes.

Macron has ruled out both tax increases and higher public borrowing in any compromise deals with other parties.

After the president promised a “new government of action… in the first few days of July” once he returns from this week’s G7 and NATO meetings in Germany and Belgium, some observers see the compressed calendar as ambitious.

“In all other European countries, when they’re in talks to form a government, it can take months” rather than the days Macron has allowed, political scientist Lazar said.

Even as the government projects business almost as usual, hard-left LFI especially has vowed to try to prevent key proposals like a flagship reform to raise the legal retirement age from 62 to 65.

Party deputy chief Adrien Quatennens said Sunday there was “no possible agreement” with Macron, saying cooperation would “make no sense”.

“We haven’t heard (Macron) move or back down one iota on pension reform” or other controversial policies, he added.

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