Theoretically, the infamous 1995 “list of cults” is no longer in force. However, it is still used to discriminate against the movements that were included.
by Massimo Introvigne
In 1995, a Parliamentary Commission in France released a report on “cults” (in French, “sectes,” a word to be translated as “cults” rather than as “sects.”) It included a list of 173 “cults.” While a handful of them had been found guilty of real criminal activities by courts of law, the overwhelming majority had committed no crimes, except being regarded as a “cult” by some hostile ex-members and the anti-cult associations, which in turn reported them to the French Renseignements généraux, the police intelligence service.
Being one of the scholars who immediately reacted to the 1995 report through press conferences, articles, and a book, I warned that the list was the most dangerous feature of the whole enterprise. While the Commission did clarify that being on the list did not immediately mean that the “cult” was criminal, this distinction was predictably lost by the media. When confronted with a religious movement they were not familiar with, they checked whether it was on the list or not. If the answer was yes, they declared it a dangerous “cult.” This did not imply media slander only. Members of groups listed as “cults” lost their jobs. Students were bullied in schools. Newspapers refused paid advertisements. And the institutions that rented rooms and conference halls, including hotels, started refusing to rent to “cults.”
I and other scholars coined the expression “effet de liste” (list effect), indicating that the damages done to groups that had committed no crimes and their members was irreparable. It took ten years to the French government to recognize that the list had perhaps not been such a good idea, and in 2005 it stated that it should no longer be used as a reference. However, the “list effect” was a sociological phenomenon, not a law. There was no law against hiring “cultists” or renting premises to them for their conferences. Yet, the power of the list was such that a “law” was enforced by scared citizens and businesses even without existing. Sociological phenomena cannot be stopped by decree. They just continue. Media amplify them, because for a journalist under a deadline is both quicker and easier to check the “list of cults” than to study what a movement is all about.
Last month, evidence emerged that the “list effect” is still at work in 2023. The Raelians, who believe that we have not been created by God or gods but are the result of a scientific experiment by extraterrestrials, a theory to which they add liberal sexual mores and the advocacy of human cloning, may not be the most popular movement in France. Yet, they are duly registered as an association, have not been banned nor liquidated, and have a right to exist and propagate their beliefs, as strange as some may regard them.
In the French city of Rouen, the Raelians had organized for April 22 a conference at the local Hôtel Ibis, which belongs to the Accor Group, the single largest hotel company in Europe. The title was “Welcoming the Extraterrestrials in an Embassy,” a familiar theme for the Raelian movement. The Raelian poster indicated the Hôtel Ibis, while according to Accor the reservation was for a room in the Hôtel Mercure, located next door and part of the same hospitality group.
The local anti-cultists started complaining on social media, and got the attention of local newspapers. According to one of them, “alerted by the media,” the hotel management cancelled the reservation. It claimed it had been “misled” by the fact that the entity that made the reservation did not include “Raelian” in its name. The Raelians countered that who they were and what the subject of the conference was had been clearly indicated.
Be it as it may be, the hotel management told the media, “We do not want this kind of reservations.” The article explained that the subject of the incident was “the Raelian Movement, listed as a cult by a Parliamentary Commission in 1995.” That the government had stated in 2005 that the list should no longer be used was not mentioned.
Additionally, even the City of Rouen told the media that they were not aware of the conference (why should they have been informed?) but would now immediately report the incident to the Préfet (the State representative in the Department).
Again, one could assume that in the conference—which finally the Raelians held elsewhere near the hotel, according to a press release they issued on May 2— theories about the extraterrestrials many French citizens would find strange would be presented. It is, however, unclear, why this should be forbidden, and a large hotel company or the City should take the initiative to prevent or report it. In a democratic country, even non-mainstream theories have a right to be presented and discussed. In the end, the only reason given by the local media for the discrimination of the Raelians is that their movement was “listed as a cult by a Parliamentary Commission in 1995.” “Effet de liste,” indeed.
For a final comment, I would pass the podium to Don Basilio and his famous aria “La calunnia è un venticello” in Rossini’s opera “Il Barbiere di Siviglia.” Once propagated slander, explains Don Basilio, “nell’orecchie della gente s’introduce destramente, e le teste ed i cervelli fa stordire e fa gonfiar. Dalla bocca fuori uscendo lo schiamazzo va crescendo. Prende forza a poco a poco, vola già di loco in loco. Sembra il tuono, la tempesta, che nel sen della foresta va fischiando, brontolando, e ti fa d’orror gelar. Alla fin trabocca e scoppia, si propaga, si raddoppia, e produce un’esplosione come un colpo di cannone… E il meschino calunniato, avvilito, calpestato, sotto il pubblico flagello, per gran sorte va a crepar” (Into the ears of the people, it penetrates slyly and it stuns and swells the heads and the brains. Re-emerging from the mouths, the noise grows crescendo, gathers force little by little, runs its course from place to place. It seems the thunder of the tempest, which from the depths of the forest comes whistling and muttering, freezing everybody in horror. Finally with crack and crash, it spreads afield, its force redoubled, and produces an explosion like the outburst of a cannon… And the poor slandered wretch, vilified, trampled down, sunk beneath the public lash, and will meet a miserable end).