The New Heretics of France?

Susan PalmerThe New Heretics of France: Minority Religions, la République, and the Government-Sponsored “War on sects”, by SUSAN J. PALMER. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, 251 pp.

Considering the extreme difficulty of undertaking any serious research on such a topic in France, where positions remain highly polarized, Susan J. Palmer’s work is impressive, both in terms of field work and of its fundamental orientation. Here in the Hexagon, the scientific, social and media-related obstacles are still such that a French religious sociologist would be hard put – or would not be able at all - to produce so well-documented a study.

In many respects, Palmer’s work takes the form of a pedagogical chart of the situation of minority religions in France. The reader is guided through a panorama of the relations between cults and anti-cult movements rather than provided with any deep theoretical explanation of the latter. That being said, the work remains highly relevant for anyone interested in the status of minority religions in contemporary France.


The fact is that, in France today, sociologists working on the subject are relatively few and far between, and their voices at best ignored, at worst, treated with acrimony. The experience the author has undergone, that of being immediately classified as a partisan protagonist on a battle-field, corresponds exactly to the experience of any native French sociologist approaching the subject. Being labeled “a friend of the sects”, seeing one’s testimony disqualified out of hand, is here a common experience when attempting to work impartially on New Religious Movements in France. The book contains so accurate a depiction of the scientific and social blockage affecting the field here that it becomes highly significant. The main interest of the book is to succeed in highlighting the gaping divide between the Anglo-Saxon and the French approaches to religious freedom. But at the same time, Susan J. Palmer seems so appalled by the French situation that her tone from time to time verges a little too much on indictment, while the commendable effort of examining all the sides of the issue is proportionately weakened.

794-Heretiques-au-bucher1 referenceThe main thesis of the book is the assumption that there really exists a government-sponsored war on “sects” (New Religious Movements), thus encapsulating a secular French intolerance towards new spiritualities and alternative way of living and worshipping. The relationship between France and its Minority Religions is seen as enshrined in a sort of French tradition regarding heresy, running through the crusades against the 'Cathar' heresy, the Protestant Reformation or – perhaps more questionably – the fate of the Jews during the Dreyfus Affair and the Second World War. The book effectively arraigns a French society where the State, the Media and civil associations – namely the ADFIs and UNADFI – systematically conspire to bring about the dismantlement of any New Religious Movement in France.

Susan J. Palmer indeed bases her theories on interviews and research work carried out in France between 2000 and 2008, and on earlier studies. She goes so far as to qualify France as a “War Zone”, where cults struggle for survival in a dissymmetric environment. The book is well-documented, with plenty of excerpts from interviews.

TalmudtrialPalmer chooses to start her work by presenting the anti-cult movement and its origins. The French system is highly specific, regarding the functioning, funding and status of the associations involved. The striking fact is that there is a collusion between French institutions and the anti-cult movement. Its salient symbol is the leadership continuum between associations and parliamentary comitees. Susan J. Palmer clearly and relevantly shows how both the government, through the Interministerial Mission for the Struggle against Sectarian Slippage (Mission Interministérielle pour la Lutte contre les derives Sectaires), formerly the Interministerial Mission to fight Cults (Mission Interministérielle pour combattre les Sectes), and the French National Assembly converge and concur in supporting the anti-cult movement. And Palmer shows how the French Government and National Assembly, if not directly supportive, at least provide the framework for judicial harassment by associations through the issuing of black lists, the votation of anti-cult legislation and support provided to anti-cult leaders in the media.

The main part of the book deals with 6 out of the 173 “sects” identified in the Guyard Report, the French National Assembly’s first massive identification report on cults [1996]. That report is the first decisive milestone identified by Palmer in the war against cultts. For many New Religious Movements, alongside with some global minority religions, The latter was to mark the opening of hostilities by the anti-cult movement. Palmer uses her six examples to point out seven specific grievances between groups and anti-cult activists, namely ‘mediabolization’ (the fact the Media actively participate in the crusade against minority religions), sexual stigmatization, scientific orthodoxy, children, money, the illegal practice of medicine and the tricky issue of mental manipulation/mind control. Following Palmer, each of these topics has turned out to be a stumbling block between the French State, the media, anti-cult associations, public opinion and the New Religious Movements. Consequently, this part of the book is the most richly documented.

However, the third and final part of the book, “reflections on the meaning of the French sect wars” is by far the most interesting, even if rather short. Palmer attempts to show how the French treatment of sects has emerged from French history and how Minority Religions have responded. That effort to stand back from her field experience is salutary, since it enables the reader to distanciate from a panoramic overview in order to engage with the core analysis of the issue at stake. The main regret one may have concerning this part of the book – and this applies in fact to the whole book - concerns the absence of any pedagogical presentation of France’s legal architecture regarding religions as a whole. Except for the new laws created to confront the Sectarian Problem, such as the About-Picard law on mental manipulation, the issue of the core constitutional basis just does not seem to be spelt out boldly enough.

Overall, the book is a remarkable achievement. It gives a relevant insight into the status of cults and the issues surrounding them in France, with enough information to understand the stakes as seen from the point of view of the cults themselves, even if a more balanced presentation might have been an extra advantage. It is definitely to be hoped - if somewhat optimistically! - that the book will be translated into French soon. Both the Media and the Government's reluctance to grant credit to French scientific work in this field of research has created a wide gap that the book would perfectlycontribute to fill.

Though the book does not constitute a scientific breakthrough in its field, its clear and relevant organization makes it a must-have for the New Religious Movement sociologist who needs to update his data on the situation in France.