Scientology isn’t a religion, it’s a dangerous sect overseen by convicted criminals—at least as far as France is concerned.
There is no doubt that the last week has brought a flurry of bad news for Scientology. There was the vocal defection of respected film director Paul Haggis, as well as fresh indications that John Travolta, one of Scientology’s two celebrity pillars, is diverging from church orthodoxy. And then there were ongoing repercussions from the two-part Nightline report touching on abuses by Scientology’s leader David Miscavige the previous week. ( The church’s spokesman Tommy Davis stormed out during an interview.) But the real blow came from a Parisian judge: After an extensive investigation into tactics, actions, and leadership, the court concluded that the French branch of Scientology is just short of a criminal enterprise.
Jean-Pierre Brard claimed that Tom Cruise and John Travolta donated $10 million to Scientology, which he equated with a brainwashing structure that bears similarities to Stalinist Russia and North Korea. “It is a diabolic system.”
The judge ordered L'Association spirituelle de l'Église de Scientologie-Célébrity Centre to pay a total of $900,000 in fines for fraud (specifically, for being involved in an "organized criminal scam"). Among the numerous sentences handed out, Scientology’s French leader Alain Rosenberg was given a two-year suspended sentence and a $45,000 fine. Two things kept the judge from banning Scientology outright: a recent change in the law that made it impossible to ban an organization over fraud, and because he believed doing so would drive the organization into hiding and make it more difficult to monitor. A French representative of Scientology told reporters that she believed that the courts were under pressure as part of a “modern Inquisition,” and French Scientology’s attorney Patrick Maisonneuve has promised to file an appeal of last week’s decision.
• Kim Masters: Scientology’s New Face Obviously, this isn’t what French Scientologists were hoping for when Tom Cruise, in 2004, made a high-profile visit to then-Minister of Finance Nicolas Sarkozy and his then-wife Cecilia at the sprawling Seine-side ministry. (“What are you doing here,” a bemused Sarkozy said in French to a laughing-too-hard Cruise.) In that informal chat, Cruise encouraged Sarkozy to perceive Scientology with the sort of tolerance that it garners in the U.S., where it is classified as a religion (not a sect)—before Cruise boarded a police boat toward the heart of Paris. That night, on France’s highest-rated prime-time television news show, Cruise lauded the future French president, saying, “I find that he is just a wonderful guy.”
It is unclear how seriously Sarkozy took his Hollywood-Scientology encounter, but when he was the minister of the interior (France’s top law-enforcement position), he suggested that his energies were better focused on concrete crimes, rather than people’s religious or spiritual beliefs—as long as they don’t harm others. Sarkozy has certainly seemed to be more tolerant of Scientology than a host of French judges, which is a bad sign for Maisonneuve.
Last week’s decision was yet another affirmation of French legal tradition. Courts here have repeatedly pounded Scientology, including its global founder, L. Ron Hubbard, who was sentenced to four years in prison for fraud in 1978. (Hubbard was convicted in absentia but never served a day in prison.) In 1997, a French court convicted the head of Scientology in Lyon for fraud and involuntary homicide after the suicide of a Scientologist. Two years later, five more Scientologists were convicted of fraud in Marseille, while Scientologists in Paris were convicted of spying on former members. But these latest verdicts were not merely condemnations of rogue employees, as were past convictions, they hit at the way that Scientology has acted in France.
The case was built around a pair of former Scientologists who claimed that they were pressured into spending tens of thousands of dollars on pricey “purification classes,” vitamins, and electronic tests that purport to quantify spiritual progress. A half dozen Scientology leaders were convicted last week; four of them were slapped with suspended sentences of up to two years. The sentences were only suspended, the judge said, because of apparent progress in altering Scientology’s local practices.
During the trial, French parliamentarian Jean-Pierre Brard testified that Scientology is “one of the most dangerous and effective sects,” and one of the most profit-obsessed. He argued that the group, which claims 45,000 members in France, has two objectives: power and money—“the money to access power and the power to access money.” In terms of its inner workings, he said that French Scientology creates opaque networks in its decision making and financing, to protect itself. Brard claimed that Tom Cruise and John Travolta donated $10 million to Scientology, which he equated with a brainwashing structure that bears similarities to Stalinist Russia and North Korea. “It is a diabolic system.”
Defense lawyer Maisonneuve told journalists outside the courtroom that the judgment was contradictory. “You cannot say on the one hand that, ‘I sentence Scientology for [fraud],’ and on the other hand, ‘I won’t ban you because, if I ban you, the fraud could continue in a disorganized setting.’"
Of course, the judge did just that. And even if French Scientology lived to pray another day, Cruise and his French allies may have to work with the disciplined determination of a sect to convince that wonderful guy Sarkozy that theirs is an unthreatening religion.
Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel Shake Girl . He has written for the Los Angeles Times magazine, Spin, Vibe, Le Courrier International, Salon, Los Angeles and others. He is based in Paris.