As a fiercely secular nation, France has always had an awkward relationship with religious groups. Officials often find themselves struggling to strike the delicate balance between maintaining church-state separation and honoring the right of citizens to express their faith. But in the current case against the U.S.-based Church of Scientology, authorities have abandoned their usual attempts at fine-tuning religion's standing in French society instead, they want to ban Scientology from France altogether.
In a long-awaited trial that opened this week, French prosecutors are charging Scientology's French affiliate with organized fraud. Six of Scientology's top French officials are defendants in the case that began May 25. When investigating magistrate Jean-Christophe Hullin filed the findings of a nine-year inquiry with prosecutors, he described Scientology as "first and foremost a commercial business" whose interactions with followers are defined by "a real obsession for financial remuneration." The church's bookstores and celebrity center were described by Hullin's investigation as instrumental in ensnaring psychologically fragile people "with the goal of seizing their fortune by exerting a psychological hold." (See pictures of Paris.)
If found guilty, the defendants would face fines and possible prison time. But a conviction would also allow French authorities to designate Scientology as a criminal organization conceived to fleece its followers, which would lead to the banning of the religion in France. That exceptional measure would force Scientology out of the country or underground, along with outlawed practices like Satanism. Given that Scientology has 8 million members worldwide, that strikes some observers are extreme.
After two of the four original plaintiffs agreed to settle out of court, the case now centers on charges by two women who say they were preyed upon by the organization. On Tuesday, Aude-Claire Malton, a hotel employee who makes $1,620 a month, told the court that once she'd agreed to accept the treatment the Scientology "auditors" had prescribed to remedy her spiritual imperfections, she found herself facing a $27,000 bill within two months. The second plaintiff claims she was forced by her Scientologist boss to undergo spiritual auditing in 1998 and was fired when she refused to accept similarly expensive treatment.
Scientology officials in France have denied the allegations, saying the two women like all Scientology members were free to participate in or walk away from treatment and other church activities as they pleased. They and their lawyers also point to what they say is a history of official French hostility to their movement including its inclusion in a 1996 government list of dangerous cults. As contrast to the organization's ostracism in France, Scientology leaders note that their church has the same status as a legitimate religion in Spain, Slovenia and Hungary as it has in the U.S. and Canada. "This is a trial for heresy," said the Church of Scientology's spokeswoman in France, Danièle Gounord, who added that the organization has been relentlessly "hounded" by a French establishment intolerant of the unconventional beliefs of Scientologists.
Though allegations that Scientology bleeds members dry is neither new nor limited to France, some outside observers may agree with Gounord's claims of French intolerance toward religion. France's 1996 list of dangerous cults, for example, contains 172 groups, including Jehovah's Witnesses, Hare Krishnas, the Worldwide Church of God, the Unification Church and even transcendental meditationists all of whom have largely shed their cult status in the U.S. and the U.K.
Some also charge that religious intolerance was behind France's infamous 2004 law banning students from wearing "ostensible religious objects" in public schools a prohibition designed mainly to eliminate the small but slowly growing number of Muslim headscarves in classrooms. As it did when France issued its dangerous-cults list, the U.S. government officially responded to the law banning religious objects with a request that Paris make greater efforts to respect religious freedoms. (Read "'Veil Wars' Reveal Europe's Intolerance.")
Though Washington has stayed quiet about the current trial, France has carefully positioned the case to withstand charges that it is intruding in matters of faith. As in the five previous cases France brought against Scientologists, prosecutors are focusing on charges and evidence of the organization's manipulating members to wring money out of them not on any of the spiritual beliefs or practices that may be involved. The first time that happened, in 1978, a Paris court found Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard guilty of vulgar fraud. In 1997, a Lyon court convicted five Scientology officials of similar charges, which were linked to the suicide of a debt-ridden church member. That verdict came with fines and a suspended prison sentence.
In this trial, which is expected to last until mid-June, prosecutors are likewise trying to portray Scientology as merely a large-scale scam while ignoring the organization's religious conceits. Now a country that constantly wrestles with the separation of church and state will find out just how far it's willing to go to keep the two apart.