Trailers for a new French film opening in Paris this week feature a wide-eyed guru named "Magic," a portly Texan in a cowboy hat with plaid pants, and lots of rope, dynamite, and ill-gotten cash. The subject of this "carnival of gags": a mass sect suicide.
Nearly a year after 16 members of the Swiss-based Solar Temple group were found dead in a forest in eastern France, government and publicly funded anti-sect groups are stepping up their efforts to control the spread of so-called sects in France.
Advance publicity for the film "Fallait Pas!" (loose translation: "Just say no.") includes an anti-sect reading list as well as government tips for how to recognize a sect.
But for many religious minorities in France, this new government campaign is no laughing matter. Anti-sect campaigns can too easily degenerate into a "witch hunt" in favor of the "religiously correct," they say.
On Nov. 14, investigators closed their inquiry in the Solar Temple deaths, determined to be a "murder-suicide," and warned that the doomsday cult could rebuild. The deaths, including three small children, prompted calls for a government crackdown.
French police estimate that there are some 250 sects in France, representing 160,000 members and 100,000 sympathizers. The government's criteria for what it calls a sect include: mental destabilization; exorbitant financial demands; a break with job, family, or friends; dangers to health; indoctrination of children; antisocial discourse; disturbing public order; troubles with the law; embezzlement; infiltration of government.
French officials have rejected new laws to outlaw sects as well as calls for a high council to determine which religious minorities should be called legitimate churches. Instead, they opted to apply existing laws more rigorously to curb the activities of sects.
Last week, conservative Prime Minister Alain Juppe presided over the first meeting of a new 30-member government panel, or "observatory," to track sects. And this week, a verdict is expected in a trial charging the Church of Scientology with responsibility for the suicide of an adherent.
Since October, France's ministry of youth and sports has managed an ambitious program to curb sects that recruit young people. A nation-wide poster and leaflet campaign warns that sects rob youths of their freedom of judgment, their health, and family ties.
"The United States is without doubt the country most affected by sects, because sects can hide in the multitude of small churches in that country, as well as in the extreme respect for all that presents itself as religion," explains an internal document for training ministry personnel. "The reasons such groups are gaining such ground in France is the erosion of traditional values and fear of the future," says the report.
Informants can call 'Mr. Sect'
In addition, the ministry has appointed a "Mr. Sect" for each region, who remains anonymous but can be contacted by phone by those with information about sect activities. "We don't want them to be interviewed by the press or known to the public, for reasons of personal security," says a spokesman for the Ministry of Sport. "We don't want any interference in their work ... Sects are everywhere."
French police have been collecting data on religious minorities for years, but until the establishment of a national observatory, such data have not been a matter of public scrutiny or debate. Some religious minorities say that bringing this debate out of secret government files and into the open could be a positive development.
"Before, all this information on sects was secret. Now, at least, groups will have the opportunity to defend themselves against the label sect or dangerous sect," said Pastor Christian Saytre, secretary general of the Paris-based Protestant Federation of France. "We've had calls from churches saying they want the observatory to look into government information about them. The observatory may turn out to bring more objectivity to the process."
But other critics charge that the new anti-sect campaign lines the government up on the side of established religious groups and others who oppose religious minorities. As such, it violates freedom of religion as well as separation of church and state, guaranteed by the French Constitution.
"In the United States, the battle between sects and opponents of sects is a battle of private groups. The government doesn't intervene to support one or the other. With this new Observatory, the French government is lining up on the side of the anti-sect groups. The Observatory hasn't bothered to look deeply into the phenomenon of religious minorities. It bases its work on anti-sect literature," says Regis Dericquebourg, a sociologist at the University of Lille, who has studied religious minorities since 1975.
"The government should ensure public order. That's normal. But it should not back anti-religious clans or a fringe of extremists connected with established churches," he adds.