The anti-cult About-Picard law is ineffective against real abuses and dangerous for religious liberty. The government wants to make it even more dangerous.
by Massimo Introvigne
When France introduced in 2001 the controversial anti-cult About-Picard law, the first draft tried to punish “mental manipulation.” International and French scholars, and leading legal experts, protested that this was just a synonym of the discredited theory of “brainwashing,” exposed as pseudo-science and a tool to discriminate against unpopular religions by academics and courts of law in several countries.
Afraid that a law against “mental manipulation” would run into constitutional problems, the anti-cult politicians backed off, and introduced instead the “abuse of weakness” (abus de faiblesse). This was another cosmetic and semantic game hiding their intention to criminalize “brainwashing.” However, finding evidence that something that does not exist caused concrete harm proved to be difficult. As Canadian scholar Susan Palmer demonstrated in her acclaimed Oxford University Press 2011 book “The New Heretics of France,” the About-Picard law is strong with the weak and weak with the strong. If a religious movement lacks the resources to hire good lawyers and experts, its leaders may be convicted of the imaginary “abus de faiblesse” and go to jail. Groups that command significant resources would easily find ways of challenging a law born under a pseudo-scientific cloud. In fact, even groups guilty of real abuses—to be distinguished from the non-existing “brainwashing”—may take advantage of the vague wording of the law and get away with their crimes.
Scholars are not the only ones who have noticed this. Anti-cultists and the MIVILUDES, the French governmental agency combating “cultic deviances,” are aware of the problem too. From several years, they have asked the government to amend the law to make it possible to hit with charges of “brainwashing”—by whatever name—the larger new religions the MIVILUDES itself indicates as its main targets.
On November 15, the government presented a draft law to “reinforce the fight against cultic deviances.” The reason offered for a new crackdown on “cults” is that the number of “saisines” received by the MIVILUDES is growing. As “Bitter Winter” has documented, the “saisines” are not reports of actual incidents, include simple questions sent to the MIVILUDES, and may easily be false or manipulated.
It is also alleged that “cults” grew during COVID and some spread anti-vaccination ideas. Hence, a new crime is created of “provocation to abandon or not to undertake a needed medical treatment,” punished with a jail penalty of one year plus a fine. Obviously, the implications go well beyond COVID and vaccines. Note that the State Council, when examining the draft law, recommended to drop this article as dangerous for freedom of speech and “the freedom of scientific debates.” However, the government rejected the recommendation of the State Council and kept the article in the draft.
The anti-cult measures are also reinforced by allowing the anti-cult associations to be present in the court cases against “cults” as civil parties and by encouraging judges and prosecutors to seek the opinion of the MIVILUDES on groups they are judging or prosecuting.
The heart of the new draft law is the creation of a new crime of “psychological subjection.” Those who place their victims in a state of “psychological subjection” through “serious or repeated pressure or the use of techniques capable of modifying their judgement” will be punished with a jail penalty of three years, or of seven years when the defendants are part of an “organized band” routinely using these techniques, in other words a “cult.” The crime is perpetrated when the use of the “psychological subjection” techniques has “the effect of causing a serious deterioration in the persons’ physical or mental health or leading the persons to perform an act or abstain from an act which is seriously prejudicial to them.” “Psychological subjection” will also affect already existing crimes as an aggravating circumstance.
It is important to understand the difference with the already existing provisions on “abus de faiblesse” and why the government believes that the new crime will make it possible to criminalize “cultic deviances” not captured by the existing law. The “abus de faiblesse” is currently punished when a victim is in a “situation of weakness” and has been (allegedly) led through psychological techniques to do something harmful to herself, for example making a large donation or surrendering sexually to the “cult” leader. In the introductory comment to the new draft law, the government claims that “the About-Picard law in its present text does not allow to incriminate directly the psychological or physical subjection status determined by operations and techniques aimed at putting the victim under the control of the perpetrator.”
The new crime is different from the “abus de faiblesse” in two respects. First, it is not necessary that the victim is in a situation of “weakness.” Everybody can be the victim of “psychological subjection.” Second, the use of “or” rather than “and” in the sentence connecting the deterioration in the victim’s mental health and the fact that the “brainwashing” techniques may lead the manipulated person to do something harmful to herself is all-important. As the same introductory report explains, this “or” allows to punish the “psychological subjection” even when it cannot be proved that the victim was induced to a self-damaging behavior. It will be enough to argue that “a deterioration of mental health” has occurred.
The report specifies that, almost by definition, the situations of psychological subjection normally generate a “deterioration in the victim’s mental health.” Hence, using the mysterious “techniques creating a situation of psychological subjugation” will be punished even when the victim did not engage in any specific behavior that can be classified as self-damaging. After all, anti-cultists maintain that joining or remaining in a “cult” is in itself a danger for mental health. And remember, the anti-cult associations will be part of the trials to push this theory, and when in doubt the prosecutors and judges are counseled to seek the opinion of the MIVILUDES.
It seems that France is back to the year 2000 and plans to re-introduce the crime of “psychological manipulation” that the drafters of the About-Picard law had to abandon in 2001 due to constitutional concerns. Sometimes, the State Council in France exerts a moderating influence. In this case, it has examined the draft law on November 9 and rendered its already mentioned preliminary opinion. As far as the new crime of “brainwashing” is concerned, it has noted possible problems of violations of religious liberty. However, it has only recommended to change the original word “assujettissement” (subjugation) into “sujétion” (subjection), which the government did, and to specify that the crime should concern a one-on-one manipulation exerted by the defendant on the victim and not a generic manipulating discourse addressed to a plurality of potential victims, including through the Internet.
This is not enough to avoid serious violations of freedom of religion or belief. Most scholars of new religious movements agree that “brainwashing” does not exist, and its incrimination is basically a fraud. When the normal process of religious persuasion has as its object beliefs and practices that the powers that be regard as “normal,” it is argued that there is no “brainwashing.” When the beliefs and practices are non-conventional or unpopular, this is offered as evidence that only “brainwashed” victims can embrace them because they have been put in a status of “psychological subjugation” (or “subjection”).
The French government solemnly proclaims that through the new law it is not criminalizing beliefs, only the techniques through which certain beliefs are promoted. In fact, however, the proof that a belief has been inculcated through “illegal” techniques is that the anti-cultists, the MIVILUDES, the majority of society, or the media regard it as a “cultic deviance.”