France mingles a strong private Roman Catholicism with an ardent public secularism, and its acceptance of smaller faiths and sects swings back and forth. But in the past decade, there's been a singleminded focus on the Church of Scientology and its estimated 45,000 members here.
Now, in closing arguments before a criminal court in Paris, two French prosecutors this week called for dissolution of the church itself, the first such instance in France.
The case, which brings suits filed years ago by two former adherents charging the church with fraud, swindling, and mental harm, treads into legal waters rarely navigated in a nation that, since 1905, has kept religion a strictly private matter.
The Church of Scientology and its legal team argue vociferously that French authorities are using Scientology as a "scapegoat," as one defense lawyer said, for an overall campaign in France against freedom of religion and a crackdown on sects.
How far the court will go toward banning Scientology, the US-based church known for its Hollywood celebrities and unorthodox recruiting tactics, won't be known until an Oct. 27 ruling.
Roger Gonnet, a former Scientology official who testified against the church, told the Monitor that "French courts don't rule about religion in law, but no association [church] should be allowed to get away with illicit activity and fraud, or cover it up with private settlements.
"This is a church built on lies, and France is taking it seriously," he adds. "France doesn't take 11 days in court with two prosecutors on such a case if it isn't significant."
Eric Roux, acting president of a Paris Scientology branch, wrote in an e-mail that the trial prosecutors, "who receive orders directly from the Justice ministry ... showed nothing new in any charge. Instead, the religion of Scientology was attacked in a very general way, like an Inquisition for 45,000 of us. Still, we believe that after 50 years of Scientology in France, the French Constitution will protect us."
Setting a precedent with a ban
But French analysts are divided over the scope of precedent a ban of the church would set. Those who say it will matter very little point to a narrow prosecutorial focus on the behavior of two Paris Scientology centers, and say change of the 1905 laws on religion is a nonstarter.
But human rights lawyers like Valerie Billamboz in Strasbourg say a recent push by an intergovernmental French body to list 173 unorthodox sects in France means that a ban "would set a real precedent for those groups, and allow a larger witch-hunt."
"There is not much jurisprudence in France on church-state matters, but now there will be," she argues.
Attacking religious freedom?
Indeed, some legal experts note that state prosecutors, by escalating far past a mere settling of grievances for two plaintiffs, and pushing for an outright ban of the church, appear to be attacking religious freedom in exactly the manner Scientologists claim.
Critics of the church, however, argue that Scientology, founded by L. Ron Hubbard, author of "Dianetics," uses the demarcation of "church" – with the rights implied – to hide unscrupulous behavior.
Berlin authorities in 2006 tried to ban the sect; the effort was quietly abandoned last fall. During that period, Germany squashed efforts to ban leading Scientologist Tom Cruise from filming, in Germany, the recent film "Valkyrie," in which the actor played Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, leader of a failed assassination attempt on Hitler.
French 'black list' of sects
Six US lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee last month sent a letter to Pierre Vimont, the French ambassador to Washington, expressing concern about a new "black list" of 173 sects in France, stemming from what is known as the MIVILUDES report, emerging out of the prime minister's office.
"Not only would … a new 'black list' represent a major step backward for religious freedom in France, it would contravene fundamental human rights," the letter stated.
French media opinion during the trial, which began May 28, has been generally unsympathetic to Scientology.
Christophe Barbier, deputy editor of l'Express, backed the "eradication of Scientology from French soil," saying it would be a "symbol for the world … by protecting the public from crooks and charlatans…."
Patrick Maisonneuve, lead attorney for the church, however, said a church ban would symbolize a narrow and intolerant side of France.
Scientology is recognized in Portugal, Sweden, Spain, and elsewhere, he said. Will French authorities "burn Ron Hubbard's books in the courtyard of the Sainte Chapelle while the international community stares in bewilderment?"
[Editor's note: Scientology bears no relationship to the Christian Science church, which publishes this newspaper.]