Why you should care

Because even revolutionaries let their guard down sometimes.

I stand at the bottom of a staircase with red walls and a dirty red carpet. An elderly woman wearing a powder-blue suit and matching eye shadow stands in the middle of the stairs, illuminated by a chandelier. “Are you here for the conference?” she asks with an otherworldly smile.

I follow her into a room with five rows of chairs facing a large screen. Most of the chairs are occupied by young people looking around expectantly, but interspersed throughout are long-haired, middle-aged men, all wearing large medallions that look like a cross between a swastika and a Star of David. The lights dim, and a man wearing the largest medallion in the room saunters in front of the screen, flashes a perfect smile and signals for the slideshow to begin.

On the screen, a CGI flying saucer emits a strand of DNA in place of a tractor beam; above the spacecraft is the phrase “Aliens Scientifically Created Humanity.” For the next hour, the man explains how a race of aliens called the Elohim created all life on Earth using cloning technology. The kindly visitors’ final creation were humans, whom they made in their own image. So, basically the book of Genesis, I think, but with aliens and cloning machines. As I leave, several long-haired men ask if I would like a copy of a book titled Intelligent Design: Message From the Designers, by Raël. I decline and head out into a busy Parisian street.

French sects have continued to expand, with more than 600 groups active today compared with just 200 in the mid-1990s.

And so went my experience with the Raëlians, a free-love, pacifist, alien cult founded by Frenchman Claude Vorilhon (aka Raël) in 1974. The group claims 70,000 members worldwide. A week before the conference, I had been handed a flier by a medallion-wearing man who asked, “Would you like to know the secrets of the universe?” The openly cultish nature of the exchange surprised me — for nearly 20 years France has taken a notoriously hard-line stance on sects.

But over the past few years, it seems to have lowered its guard. As a result, cults have been making a comeback. According to the latest report from the government’s cult-tracking agency, sectarian activity jumped from 954 incidents in the first half of 2015 to 1,266 in the first half of 2016. A survey published by the market research firm Ipsos also finds that French sects have continued to expand under the government’s radar, with more than 600 groups active today compared with just 200 in the mid-1990s.

France began cracking down in 1995, in response to a murder-suicide in the Vercors Mountains, where 16 members of the Order of the Solar Temple were shot and killed and arranged in a star formation by two other members who then committed suicide. In 2001, the repressive policy culminated in the controversial About-Picard Law, which allowed the government to ban religious groups if they were found to be manipulative and abusive.

To enforce About-Picard, the French government created a watchdog agency called Miviludes, the Interministerial Mission for Monitoring and Combating Cultic Deviances. Famously, Miviludes went after the Church of Scientology in 2006, when it classified the organization as one of France’s most dangerous cults. Three years later, the French government convicted the church of defrauding recruits and levied a $600,000 fine on the Scientology Celebrity Center. “When the church came under fire in 2009, my family left France for America,” one Scientologist tells OZY, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Once a prominent voice in the media, Miviludes has remained virtually silent since 2014, when it assessed the sectarian risk posed by Femen, a radical feminist group whose mission is “complete victory over patriarchy” (the agency found them not be a threat). Miviludes did not respond to requests for comment.

Miviludes may be suffering an identity crisis, resulting in a lull in action and diminished presence. “Cults have changed in France,” says Didier Pachoud, president of GEMPPI, the Group for the Study of Thought Movements and Protection of the Individual. “You don’t see the creation of larger groups anymore, but rather, smaller ones that usually come under the guise of ‘self-help,’ ‘life coaches’ or ‘holistic healing.’” These smaller cults are much harder to identify and track. Furthermore, GAT (Groupe Appui Technique, or Technical Support Group), a government task force created in 2009 and charged with informing health professionals of dangerous holistic health trends, disbanded in 2015. Miviludes tentatively tried to tackle radical Islam following the outbreak of terrorist attacks in 2014, but the Minister of the Interior has long held that this is an issue best left to the police.

The cult patrol’s exclusion from France’s fight against radical Islam could be a result of About-Picard’s international dissenters, most notably the U.K. and the U.S. In 2002, Leila Sadat, commissioner of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, stated that the law was born out of a “growing atmosphere of intolerance toward new religious movements and other minority religious groups in France.” Critics point to the sweeping ambiguity of the law’s rhetoric, which does not clearly define “coercion” or “cult.” This means that the government could target groups for their political agendas, which is what some observers say happened when a Union for a Popular Movement representative brought Femen to Miviludes’ attention.

The emboldened presence of what Miviludes would deem cults can be seen daily on the streets of Paris. Even the heavily monitored Jehovah’s Witnesses agree that government pressure has lessened. The former head of Miviludes, Georges Fenech, “followed us very seriously,” says Guy Canonici, a representative of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, “but thankfully things have really calmed down recently.” Now, church members stand on nearly every busy corner distributing pamphlets, Scientology centers continue to open and, of course, the Raëlians hand out fliers offering the answer to the meaning of life.

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