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.
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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.
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.”
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.