The New Heretics of France: Minority Religions, la République, and the Government-Sponsored "War on Sects"

By Susan J. Palmer | Go to book overview

6
Néo-Phare
The First Application of the About-Picard Law

In October 2004, Arnaud Mussy, a young prophet from Nantes, stood on trial. A fellow member of his group had just committed suicide, and under the new About-Picard law he faced charges of “abuse of weakness.” This trial was an important moment in French legal history and received extensive media coverage, for it possessed a valeur juridique. Mussy, the prophet-founder of NéoPhare found himself at the center of the first experimental application of a new law specifically designed to prosecute sect leaders (gourous) who caused harm to their followers through the mysterious power of manipulation mentale.1

The About–Picard law2 was passed in the National Assembly in May 2001 and ratified on June 12, 2001. Initially, this new law was proposed by the right-wing Senator Nicholas About, and then it was taken up by Catherine Picard, a socialist deputy in the National Assembly. The law facilitated the repression of those groups labeled as sectes that “violate the rights of man and fundamental liberties” (according to Picard). The law was designed to allow the prosecution of cult leaders who “seriously threaten the integrity of the State and its citizens” by creating a new category of délit (misdemeanor) called abus de faiblesse (“abuse of weakness”).3 According to its legal definition, this form of abuse had led to various forms of social deviance: escroquerie (fraud), physical and psychological abuse, mass suicide, pedophilia, and the illegal practice of medicine. Any sect leader found guilty of l’abus frauduleux de l’état d’ignorance ou de faiblesse would be liable to 5 years in prison and a fine of up to 750,000 euros in damages.4

An earlier, even more draconian version of this law had been proposed in 1998. It had defined sectes as “militias.” This would place new religions within the jurisdiction of a 1936 law that gave the president the power to disband movements that threatened state security.5 But then Catherine Picard rewrote it so that it no longer targeted les sectes directly by defining them as criminal gangs. She avoided the knot y problem of defining a secte by focusing rather on the “sectarian dangers” that might arise from cult leaders’ uncanny control over their

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