All of a sudden, French media “discovered” a new “cult.” It has been in existence for more than 200 years, and is now threatened by the government.
by Massimo Introvigne
“A cult in the very heart of Paris.” This and similar titles could be read in French media from January 2021 on, each media outlet competing with the others for more sensational revelations. Marlène Schiappa, Minister Delegate in charge of Citizenship, attached to the Minister of the Interior, and a politician who has decided to jump on the anti-cult bandwagon for her own reasons, announced an investigation.
However, the “cult” that suddenly became newsworthy is not new. “La Famille,” the most used name for a group without formal structures or organization, has been in existence for more than two centuries.
To understand what “La Famille” is all about, one should start from Jansenism, a theological movement born in the 17th century that imported into Catholicism some Protestant elements, including a doctrine of predestination, the autonomy of national churches, and the introduction of readings in French rather than in Latin within the Catholic liturgy. It took its name from Dutch Bishop Cornelius Jansen (1585–1638) and was particularly successful in France, where it seduced prominent intellectuals such as philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) and a sizable number of bishops and priests. For political as well as religious reasons, it was suppressed in the 18th century by both the Catholic Church and the French monarchy, although its cultural influence continued into the 19th century and extended to other countries.
Jansenism was not a movement of intellectuals only. A popular Jansenism developed around the cult (not authorized by the Catholic Church) of “saints” such as Jansenist Deacon François de Pâris (1690–1727). His grave in the Parisian cemetery of the Saint-Médard parish church witnessed the first phenomena of the “Convulsionaries,” who convulsed, fainted, screamed, prophesied, and claimed to have been healed from various illnesses. Eventually, the movement of the Convulsionaries spread from Paris to several cities and villages of France, and added to the convulsions extreme practices called secours, where devotees, mostly female, willingly submitted to beating, torture, and even crucifixion to mystically connect with Jesus and early Christian martyrs. Early scholars of Jansenism regarded Convulsionaries as a deviance, while later historians have emphasized continuities between the “cultivated” and the “popular” Jansenism.
The Convulsionaries never became a unified movement. They formed a network, and a devotee moving from one French city to another might be welcomed by other Convulsionaries. More often, the different small groups criticized and excommunicated each other, particularly after some of the leaders advanced messianic claims for themselves.
One successful group of Convulsionaries developed around Father François Bonjour (1751–1846), later known as “Silas,” the parish priest of Fareins, a village in the French region of the Dombes, some 25 miles from Lyon. Father François’ activities, carried out with the cooperation of his elder brother, Father Claude Bonjour (1744–1814), and other priests, belonged to the extreme wing of the Convulsionaries.
The crucifixion in 1787 of a female devotee, Etiennette Thomasson (who survived, while another female parishioner submitted to heavy secours died), led to police intervention, and the Bonjour brothers ended up in jail. The confusion of the years of the French Revolution set them free, but Father François decided to leave Fareins and move to Paris. The main reason for this was that, claiming it had been commanded to do so by a divine revelation, the priest had taken two lovers, his servant Benoite Françoise Monnier, and Claudine Dauphan (sometimes spelled “Dauphin,” 1761–1834), the servant of a Convulsionaries leader in Lyon, and both were pregnant.
Eventually, Father François explained the events within the framework of a millenarian theology. Benoite will generate a male child, Jean Bonjour (1792–1868), who will serve as the John the Baptist to the new divine incarnation, Claudine’s son Israël-Elie Bonjour (1792–1866), nicknamed Lili, who will open the path to the Millennium, a world without illnesses or death where the true believers will reign for 1,000 years. Not all Convulsionaries in Paris accepted the strange “holy family” of Father François, but some did, and the birth of Lili was celebrated with great enthusiasm. A prophetess, “Sister Elisee” (Julie Simone Olivier, d. 1817), joined the group and predicted the imminent advent of the Millennium in no less than 18,000 pages of revelations, although she later broke with the Bonjours and established her own separate group.
The Bonjours’ followers belonged to the faction of the Convulsionaries who welcomed the French Revolution as a deserved punishment for the Catholic Church and the monarchy that had persecuted them (while other Convulsionaries remained loyal to the King and opposed the Revolution). However, the Revolution did not welcome those who were now called “Bonjouristes,” particularly after Napoleon signed in 1801 his Concordat with the Catholic Church. In 1805, the Bonjours, including 13-year-old Lili, were arrested and exiled to Switzerland (or, as others maintain, negotiated with the government a move to Switzerland as an alternative to being jailed).
In Paris, Jean-Pierre Thibout (1762–1836), the concierge of the building where the Bonjours lived, emerged as the leader of the remaining “Bonjouristes.” He later claimed that Lili, before leaving France, had passed his mantle to Pierre’s son, the then three-year-old Augustin Thibout (1802–1837), known as “St. John the Baptist” among the devotees.
The years after the Revolution were somewhat confused. The Bonjours were allowed to return to France in 1811, but they seemed to have lost interest in their new religion. Lili, who had behaved as a temperamental messiah as a child, married the daughter of a rich merchant, Marie Collet (1794–1829), who gave him ten children. With the help of his father-in-law, Lili became a successful industrialist, as well as a colonel in the National Guard, awarded the Legion of Honor in 1832. He did not play a significant role in the subsequent development of the Bonjouristes, although some continued to correspond with him and received his blessing.
In fact, Jean-Pierre Thibout built a “Bonjourisme” without the Bonjours, which continued to venerate Lili as a mystical presence independently of the real flesh-and-blood Lili, who was busy elsewhere with his businesses. The group celebrates to this day the reorganization of the movement in 1819, when Thibout was discussing Lili’s mission in a coffee shop with his co-religionist François Joseph Havet (1759–1842). At the moment of paying the bill, they put two coins on the table, and a third coin, they reported, appeared miraculously, a sign that God was blessing their projects.
But in fact a group of families had kept the faith in Lili, and will continue to meet and intermarry to these days. “La Famille,” as it came to be called, insisted it had no leader, but in fact the elder sons of the Thibout family, all named Augustin as Lili had once requested, had a certain prominence in the movement.
In 1892, Paul Augustin Thibout (1863–1920), a direct descendant of Jean-Pierre Thibout who was called “Uncle Auguste” (Mon Oncle Auguste) enacted a series of precepts aimed at preserving La Famille from contacts with the larger society, which he believed to be hopelessly corrupted. What he exactly prescribed is a matter of controversy between members and opponents. Certainly, he expressed little sympathy for public schools, holidays, and work outside the community. These precepts are now largely disregarded, and children of La Famille (except those of a minority of arch-conservative families, which prefer home-schooling) do attend public schools (often with very good results), join their parents in taking holidays, enjoy modern music, and may achieve significant professional results in careers Uncle Auguste would have not approved of (although they normally do not become doctors or lawyers, believing only God is the master of health and law). Women today do not necessarily wear long shirts or keep their hair long, according to other precepts of Uncle Auguste, although some do. What however remains of his legacy is that La Famille does not proselyte and no longer accepts new members from outside, and devotees do not marry “gentiles,” i.e. non-members. This has led to a situation where all the members of La Famille are identified by the same eight last names.
Uncle Auguste also celebrated drinking wine as a bond between male members of the movement, citing biblical precedents, and this has remained a distinctive feature of La Famille. And he inaugurated the practice of celebrating the main feasts of the country and the movement in his property of Les Cosseux, in Villiers-sur-Marne, which still belongs to La Famille and has been restored after an arsonist (possibly an angry ex-member) set in on fire in 2013. Some 3,000 members (although precise statistics are difficult) live mostly in the same area of Paris (11th, 12th, and 20th arrondissements), often in the same buildings.
La Famille remained largely unknown to both media and scholars, with books on the Bonjourisme wrongly proclaiming it extinguished in the 19th century, until in 1960 a member of the Thibout family, Vincent (1924–1974), who had visited Israel, decided to establish a kibbutz in Pardailhan, Hérault, and took with him some twenty families from La Famille. Although the experiment, which collapsed in 1963, was disavowed by the Paris community and led to a total separation from La Famille, it attracted the attention of several media, which also mentioned the Famille origins of the founders.
After the end of the Pardailhan kibbutz, Vincent Thibout established two businesses ruled according to the kibbutz philosophy. After his death, one of his successors was incriminated for physical violence against other devotees. Critics use this incident to attack La Famille. This seems unfair considering that members of Vincent’s group, now called Community of Malrevers, describe their religion as closer to Judaism and, if anything, are highly critical of La Famille’s theology and lifestyle.
Another element that took La Famille out of its comfortable shadow was the prevalence of government-sponsored anti-cult campaigns in France. These were noticed by ex-members of La Famille, who contacted the governmental anti-cult mission MIVILUDES in the 2010 decade. In 2017, the MIVILUDES published a note that showed that it was difficult to apply its “cult” model to La Famille. French anti-cultists believe that in each “cult” there is a “guru” exploiting gullible followers, who was nowhere to be seen in La Famille. But it still found there “dérives sectaires” (cultic deviances), a notion invented in France and used to find “cult-like” problems in many groups denounced by ex-members and anti-cultists.
A tiny band of angry ex-members also noticed the development of anti-cult campaigns on social networks, and one started operating a Facebook group. He rendered a service appreciated by scholars by digitalizing and posting otherwise inaccessible hand-written material from La Famille, but he also applied to his former movement the usual French stereotypes about “cults.”
Reporters liberally used the material he supplied, and articles on the “secret cult in Paris” started appearing, and proliferated in 2021. In the same year, journalist Suzanne Privat published La Famille. Itinéraires d’un secret (Paris: Les Avrils), a book she started researching after discovering that young members of a religious community she knew nothing about, physically resembling each other and with a limited number of surnames, were in the same schools in Paris with her two children. Privat did considerable homework (only, for reasons I do not understand she changed the last name “Havet” to “Brin,” perhaps to protect the privacy of the Havet family). She also produced a very readable book, where she acknowledged that several members reported positive experiences of La Famille on social media. Lacking a religious background, however, she accepted at face value the ideas about “les sectes” (the cults) of the MIVILUDES, ignoring the criticism they had been subjected to by most international scholars of new religious movements. Since interviewing current members of La Famille proved impossible, she only talked with hostile ex-members, which made her book less balanced that she would probably have preferred it to be.
What are the “problems” with La Famille, which Minister Schiappa promises to investigate? Privat notes that children are socialized in a conservative milieu (although she found teenagers using social networks and familiar with contemporary music as well), their choices are largely controlled by their families, and girls marry young and quickly produce numerous children. Since endogamy leads them to marry more or less distant cousins, genetic illnesses are also frequent in the children. The emphasis on celebrating with wine reportedly generates problems of alcoholism, and some ex-members also claim that certain incidents of sexual abuse were not reported to the authorities (a problem, if real, not exclusive to La Famille). As in other groups, ex-members report that they are shunned by members.
The presence of hostile ex-members on Facebook also led some members to counter their claims, and tell a different story of united families that find safety and happiness in a community perceived as more benevolent than the cold and materialist society “out there.” Interestingly, one member also commented that they are aware of the problem of genetic diseases caused by consanguinity and, while finding some reports of their prevalence in La Famille exaggerated, the issue and possible solutions are being discussed within the community.
Laws can forbid marriage between cousins (although the French law doesn’t), but cannot prevent them from sleeping together and producing children (often, La Famille marriages are stipulated through a religious ceremony only, and are not legally registered). Endogamy’s genetical problems are common to other groups and can only be solved by the community itself.
Today’s La Famille celebrates the Convulsionaries as saintly ancestors, but does not repeat their practices, just as Roman Catholics venerate saints who practiced extreme austerities but do not imitate them. La Famille reads about Lili, and expects that he or his spirit will return in some way to usher in the Millennium, but its millennialism is not that different from countless other Christian groups. What disturbs Ms. Schiappa and the anti-cultists about La Famille is its “separatism.” They have survived for centuries by largely keeping to themselves. They do not vote in the elections (or vote with a blank ballot), and do not even participate in the French cult of the dead, which is both secular and religious—their dead are buried in common graves.
La Famille is not surprised by what is happening to them, as persecutions were predicted in their prophecies. They are a good test showing how French anti-cultism and “anti-separatism” produce intolerance of lifestyles that, while unusual, would not be regarded as illegal in most democratic countries. Children also live somewhat differently from their schoolmates, but a large majority of them meet the legal schooling requirements. Objecting that adults can choose their own lifestyles but not “impose” them on their children is hypocritical. Without socialization of the new generations, no religion can survive.
Does La Famille has a right to continue its century-old experiment, including by passing its lifestyle to its children, and be left alone? International principles of religious liberty and liberty of education would suggest that the answer is yes, but French anti-cultism and anti-separatism may lead to a different answer.
This month, I commented a U.S. Supreme Court decision about the Amish, allowing them to forbid their children not only the use of cell phones, but of telephones in general (that adults do not use as well), and even to refuse to install modern septic tanks in the name of a rejection of modernity based on their theology. I was reminded that the best decision the Amish took in their history was to migrate to U.S. and Canada from Alsace, which is now part of France (others came to North America from Switzerland). Had they remained in France, the Amish would now be targeted by Ms. Schiappa and the MIVILUDES, and compelled to renounce their century-old lifestyle in the name of anti-cultism and anti-separatism.