French Secularism Put to the Test


July 1, 2009

First published in Newsline June 26, 2009

We often point to France as a beacon of secularism, a country with a constitution that guarantees religious rights but ensures that they are completely separate from the functions of the state.

Now religion and secularism in France are in conflict in two arenas. First, whether a parliamentary commission should be established to consider banning the burqa from French soil and second, whether Scientology should be outlawed in France.

President Sarkozy said in a speech to both houses of the French Parliament last week that he favored a ban on face coverings for Muslim women.

He said "The burqa is not a religious problem, it's a question of liberty and women's dignity. It's not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement. I want to say solemnly, the burqa is not welcome in France. In our country, we can't accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That is not our idea of freedom."

In the same speech he said that Islam deserved respect like all other religions in the secular republic. He said any restrictions on wearing the burqa would not be anti-Islam but pro-women's freedom.

Some commentators suspect that Sarkozy is generating this controversy to deflect attention from his plans to change the constitution in a way that would give him more presidential power. Already he has manipulated the right for the president to talk directly to legislators – something that had previously been proscribed in order to protect the independence of lawmakers.

We should always look at ulterior motives before we make any judgments about what Sarkozy is saying.

In the meantime, a Paris court case that drew to a close this week was considering the claims of two former members of the Scientology cult that the "church" has defrauded them of large amounts of money and damaged them psychologically.

The case rapidly turned into the question of whether Scientology should be banished entirely from France. Two of the prosecutors called for dissolution of the church itself.

The Church of Scientology and its legal team argued vociferously that French authorities are using Scientology as a "scapegoat," as one defense lawyer said, as an overall campaign in France against freedom of religion and a crackdown on sects. We will have to wait until the judgment is issued on Oct. 27 before we know whether the calls for a ban will be heeded.

Roger Gonnet, a former Scientology official who testified against the "church",  told the Monitor news site 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."

" his 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."

But French analysts are divided over the scope of the precedent a ban of the church would set. Those who say it won't matter much 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 non-starter.

 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."

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 uses the demarcation of "church" – with the rights implied – to claim privileges and hide unsavory behaviour.

Six U.S. lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee in the United States 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.

Terry Sanderson is the president of the National Secular Society (U.K.). He is also the editor of the weekly NSS Newsline, in which this article first appeared on June 26, 2009. This article is republished by permission of the NSS.