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Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State, September 5, 2000


The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, the Government–including the legislative branch–took some actions during the period covered by this report that affected religious minorities that it considers to be “sects.” The 1905 law on separation of church and state–the foundation of current legislation on religious freedom–makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of faith.

There was no change in the general status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

Relations among the various religions are generally amicable; however, there were instances of threats and violence against members of religious minorities.

The U.S. Embassy maintained active contact with government officials on the issue of religious freedom.

Section I. Government Policies on Freedom of Religion

Legal/Policy Framework

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice; however, the Government–including the legislative branch–took some actions during the period covered by this report that affected religious minorities that it considers to be “sects.” (A “cult” or “culte” is generally considered to be a “religion.” Cults are considered to be positive elements in society, while “sects” or “sectes” are defined as “persons who profess the same doctrine,” often with a negative connotation.) The 1905 law on separation of church and state–the foundation of current legislation on religious freedom–makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of faith.

The Government uses many categories to describe associations. Two of these categories apply to religious groups: “associations cultuelles” (associations of worship, which are exempt from taxes) and “associations culturelles” (cultural associations, which are not exempt from taxes). Associations in these two categories are subject to certain management and financial disclosure requirements. An association of worship can organize only religious activities, which are defined as liturgical services and practices. It may not operate a school or employ a board president. A cultural association, on the other hand, is a type of association whose goal is to promote the culture of a certain group, including a religious group. Although a cultural association is not exempt from taxes, it may receive government subsidies for its cultural and educational operations (such as schools). Religious groups normally use both of these categories; the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, for example, runs strictly religious activities through its association of worship and operates a school under its cultural association.

Religious groups must apply with the local prefecture to be recognized as an association of worship and, therefore, receive tax-exempt status for their religious activities under the 1905 statute. The prefecture, upon reviewing the documentation supplied regarding the association’s purpose for existence, can then grant that status. In order to qualify, the purpose of the group must be solely the practice of some form of religious ritual. Printing publications, employing a board president, or running a school can disqualify a group from receiving tax-exempt status.

According to the 1905 law, associations of worship are not taxed on the donations that they receive. However, the prefecture can decide to review a group’s status if the association receives a large donation or legacy that comes to the attention of the tax authorities. If the prefecture determines that the association is not in fact in conformity with the 1905 law, its status can be changed, and it can be required to pay a 60 percent tax rate on present and past donations.

According to statistics published by the Ministry of the Interior, 109 of 1,138 Protestant associations, 15 of 147 Jewish associations, and 2 of 1,050 Muslim associations currently have tax-free status. Roughly 100 Catholic associations are tax exempt; a representative of the Ministry of the Interior reports that the total number of non-tax-exempt Catholic associations is too numerous to estimate accurately.

For historical reasons, contrary to practice in the rest of the country, the Jewish, Lutheran, Reformed (Protestant), and Roman Catholic groups in three departments of Alsace-Lorraine enjoy special legal status in terms of taxation of individuals donating to these religious groups. Adherents of these four religions may choose to have a portion of their income tax allocated to their church in a system administered by the central government.

The State subsidizes private schools, including those that are affiliated with churches.

Central or local governments own and maintain religious buildings constructed before 1905, the date of the law separating church and state. In Alsace and Moselle, special laws allow the local government to provide support for the building of religious edifices. For example, in April 2000, the mayor of Strasbourg proposed granting a tract of land and subsidizing construction costs for a new mosque. The decision provoked controversy in the Muslim community, part of which supported a different project. In May 2000, the city council decided to support both projects.

Religious Demography

The Government does not keep statistics on religious affiliation. The vast majority of the population is nominally Roman Catholic, although many Catholics do not practice their faith actively. According to one member of the Catholic hierarchy, only 8 percent of the population are actually practicing Catholics. Muslims constitute the second largest religious group in number; Islam has approximately 4 million adherents in France. According to the Ministry of the Interior, there are 1,536 mosques or prayer rooms in metropolitan France. According to various estimates, about 6 percent of the country’s citizens are unaffiliated; Protestants account for 2 percent; and the Jewish and Buddhist populations each account for 1 percent. Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that 250,000 persons attend their services either regularly or periodically. According to various estimates, Orthodox Christians number between 80,000 and 100,000; the vast majority of these persons are associated with the Greek or Russian Orthodox Churches. The Jewish community numbers between 600,000 and 700,000 persons and is divided among Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox groups. According to press reports, up to 60 percent of the Jewish community celebrates at most only the high holy days such as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. One Jewish community leader has reported that of the practicing Jews in the country, the largest number are Orthodox.

Religion is not taught in public schools. Parents may home school children for religious reasons, but all schooling must conform to the standards established for public schools. Public schools make an effort to supply special meals for students with religious dietary restrictions.

The Government has made efforts to promote interfaith understanding. The Government also has strict antidefamation laws prohibiting racially or religiously motivated attacks. For example, the Government has programs to combat racism and anti-Semitism through public awareness campaigns, and by encouraging dialog between local officials, police, and citizen groups.

The Minister of the Interior has met periodically with various representatives of the Muslim community to encourage the creation of a Muslim council to discuss that community’s religious concerns; however, internal divisions have prevented Muslim leaders from responding positively.

Governmental Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Government’s response to some minority groups that it views as “sects” has been to encourage public caution. In 1995 the National Assembly formed a parliamentary commission, known as the Gest or the Guyard Commission (after the names of its chairman and rapporteur respectively), to study so-called “sects.” In 1996 the Commission issued a report that defined sects as groups that place inordinate importance on finances; cause a rupture between adherents and their families; are responsible for physical as well as psychological attacks on members; recruit children; profess “anti-social” ideas; disturb public order; have “judiciary problems;” and/or attempt to infiltrate organs of the State. Government officials have stated that “sects” are “associations whose structure is ideological and totalitarian and whose behavior seriously oppresses fundamental liberties as well as social equilibrium.” (These attributes are in addition to specific criminal behavior prohibited by law.)

The Commission’s report identified 173 groups as sects, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Scientology. The report was prepared without the benefit of full and complete hearings regarding the groups identified on the list. Groups were not told why they were placed on the list, and, because the document exists as a commission report to the National Assembly, there is no mechanism for changing or amending the list short of a new National Assembly Commission inquiry and report.

The ensuing publicity contributed to an atmosphere of intolerance and bias against minority religions. Some religious groups reported that their members suffered increased intolerance after having been identified on the list. The Commission’s findings also led to calls for legislative action to restrict the activities of sects, which the Government rejected on grounds of religious freedom. Instead, the Justice Ministry issued a directive to all government entities to be vigilant against possible abuses by sects and to monitor potentially abusive sect activities.

In 1996 the Government created an interministerial working group on sects (known as the Observatory on Sects) to analyze the phenomenon of sects and to develop proposals for dealing with them. The working group’s final report in 1996 made several proposals, including granting legal standing to organizations that oppose sects, thereby allowing them to initiate civil actions against sects; a modification of the law requiring associations to divulge information regarding the sources and management of their finances related to their effort to obtain tax-exempt status; a limit on the allocation of public campaign funds in order to limit public financial support for small fringe groups; the creation of a representative in each prefecture to provide information on sects to local officials; the creation of a permanent commission at the European Union level to reinforce international cooperation in controlling sect activities; and measures to restrict group members’ entry into professional training programs.

In October 1998, the Government issued a new decree disbanding the Observatory on Sects and creating an “Interministerial Mission to Battle Against Sects” (mission interministerielle de lutte contre les sectes, or MILS). Although the decree instructs the MILS to “analyze the phenomenon of sects,” it does not define what is meant by the term “sect,” or how sects differ from religions. The MILS also is charged with serving as a coordinator of periodic interministerial meetings, at which government officials are to exchange information and coordinate their actions against sects.

On February 7, 2000, the Interministerial Mission for the Fight Against Sects submitted its first annual report to the Prime Minister, which addressed the perceived problem of “sects.” Publication of the report had been delayed; according to press reports, the delay was due to government reservations about the content of the report, which reportedly advocated new legislation aimed at abolishing a number of so-called “dangerous sects.” The Prime Minister’s office, as well as some prominent government figures, publicly opposed such measures, citing concerns about the constitutional protection of “freedom of conscience.” The report specifically raised the possibility of the dissolution of movements which, being “in essence and in action totalitarian” are dangerous to their members and to democracy in general. The report urged government action to deal with sects or cults according to their degree of dangerousness, such as groups that limit personal freedoms of members, “new age” groups, and “absolutist” groups that are totalitarian in nature. However, the report did not advocate new legislation to abolish groups considered to be dangerous. The report presented two options: The use of criminal cases against individuals for violating existing laws, which rarely is done, and the use of existing administrative and political means–a 1936 decree against “factious leagues”–which would require action by the Council of Ministers and the assent of the President. The report specifically cited concerns regarding the Church of Scientology and the “Solar Temple” group.

In December 1998, a deputy introduced a private bill in the National Assembly that would allow anti-sect groups, classified as having “state-approved” (“utilités publiques”) status, to become parties to court actions involving sects. Its main provisions, with some modifications, were integrated into a separate bill on legal reform aimed at strengthening the presumption of innocence and victims’ rights. That bill, which became law in June 2000, allows associations that defend or aid an individual or a collective entity against a person or organization that is characterized as having the goal or the effect of creating or exploiting a psychological or physical dependence to have standing in judicial proceedings. Still further modifications of this law, which would limit this standing to associations classified as “utilités publiques,” are contained in pending legislation on “sects.”

In December 1998, the National Assembly created a new parliamentary commission to study the way that sects are financed. In June 1999, the National Assembly released its second report on “sects,” which addressed the finances of the groups. The report was based on questionnaires sent to groups listed as “sects” in the 1995 parliamentary report, requesting detailed information about the finances of these groups, including donations, investments, financial activities, and other sources of income. The report focused on multinational groups, especially Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Scientology. The stated basis of concern was that these groups may use excessive or dishonest means to obtain donations, which then are transferred out of the country and beyond the reach of French tax authorities. The report also raised questions about volunteers, who should be compensated under the law for having provided uncompensated labor to “for-profit” organizations.

In March 2000, a Paris Correctional Court fined National Assembly Deputy Jacques Guyard, the president of the 1999 Parliamentary Commission of Inquiries Against Sects and a drafter of the 1996 National Assembly report on so-called “sects,” approximately $16,500 (90,000 francs) in damages to three groups that were named in the June 1999 parliamentary report. These three groups–the Federation of Steiner Schools, the New Brotherly Economy, and “le Mercure Federal” (an anthroposophical medical association)–had charged Guyard with slander for labeling the groups as “sects” in a June 1999 television interview. The court found that Guyard had made accusations against these groups when existing evidence did not warrant even a serious inquiry into their activities. The court noted that the National Assembly report resulted from written declarations from persons claiming to be victims of anthroposophy, but that the Commission had not heard any of the claims in person, and that there was no supporting documentation for accusations that the groups had used mental manipulation, pressure to give money, or practical medicine that endangered lives. The court rejected Guyard’s later attempts to qualify his statements, and also rejected a request from Guyard’s lawyer for parliamentary immunity, stating that Guyard’s high position as head of the Commission would cause his remarks to have substantial influence on the public.

In June 2000, the National Assembly passed on its first reading a private bill that would tighten restrictions on religious and other organizations. This bill–which amended an earlier version that had originated in and had been passed by the Senate in December 1999–included the following clauses: (1) criteria for the dissolution of so-called “sects,” (2) the prohibition of sect publicity in “vulnerable” areas (i.e., near schools and hospitals), (3) prohibition of the reconstitution of dissolved “sects” under a different name, and (4) establishment of the new crime of “mental manipulation.” This bill was sent back to the Senate, where it may receive a second reading as early as late October 2000. However, various sources indicate that this proposed legislation, in its current form, is unlikely to become law prior to early 2001, if at all. The Justice Minister, who attended the National Assembly vote, noted that certain provisions of the bill would help “victims” of “sects,” but warned that other provisions might threaten fundamental liberties, such as freedom of association and belief. She questioned whether certain clauses were in conformity with the European Convention on Human Rights and called for a “parallel reflection” on these points to be organized by human rights groups when the Senate reconsidered the bill in the fall.

The Government has not outlawed any of the groups on the list; however, several groups have reported that they have experienced discrimination since the publication of the 1996 parliamentary commission report. For example, leaders of l’Institut Theologique de Nimes (ITN), a private Bible college founded in 1989, claim that the institute and its members began experiencing discrimination in 1996, after the group was named on the 1995 list. The founder and leader, Louis Demeo, is head pastor at an associated church (Eglise Evangelique de la Grace), which also runs a private high school and a private primary school. However, the church itself was not named on the list. The Church of Scientology claims that its members have been targets of discriminatory behavior.

Local authorities often determine the treatment of religious minorities. For example, in April 1999, an official of a district of Paris refused in writing a request to stage an art exhibition on city property because of the applicant’s affiliation with the Church of Scientology. The Association of the Triumphant Vajra also has been involved in a dispute with local officials over the building of a statue and a temple. Alleging unfair treatment on religious grounds, the association mounted a public campaign, which included an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, to prevent application of a Court of Cassation ruling upholding a lower court order to tear down a statue that allegedly had been erected without a permit.

Some observers are concerned about the scrutiny with which tax authorities have examined the financial records of some religious groups. According to the 1905 law separating church and state, religious associations are not taxed on voluntary donations that they receive, although all churches pay taxes on certain activities. Religious groups must differentiate between activities carried out as an association of worship (“cultuelle”), which are not taxed, and activities carried out as a cultural association, which are subject to tax. The Government currently does not recognize the Church of Scientology or some branches of Jehovah’s Witnesses as qualifying religious associations, and therefore subjects them to a 60 percent tax on all funds that they receive.

In January 1996, the tax authorities began an audit of the French Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and in May 1998, formally assessed the 60 percent tax against all donations received by Jehovah’s Witnesses from September 1992 through August 1996. In June 1998, tax authorities began proceedings to collect the assessed tax, including steps to place a lien on the property of the National Consistory of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The total amount claimed–including taxes, penalties, and interest–is over $42 million (300 million francs). However, in June 2000, the Conseil d’Etat, the highest administrative court in the country, decided that two of the branches of Jehovah’s Witnesses could be recognized as religious associations according to the 1905 law, and thus be exonerated from certain tax obligations. Separately, in July 2000, a Nanterre court decided against the French Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, confirming the necessity to pay the approximately $42 million (300 million francs) in back-taxes to the fiscal authorities. The case was sent to an appeals court, and the tax proceeding continued throughout 2000.

Authorities also have taken action against the Church of Scientology. Tax claims asserted in 1994-95 against several Scientology churches forced them into bankruptcy. In the case of the Paris church, the Ministry of Finance refused to grant the church authorization to import funds to pay the claimed taxes even though the church offered to pay the total amount of all taxes assessed. In December 1997, the Government filed legal action for the claimed amount against former officers of the Paris church and against the Church of Scientology International (a California nonprofit organization). The hearing in this legal action was deferred pending a decision regarding an administrative claim by the Paris church that the Minister of Finance acted improperly in refusing to allow the church to import funds to pay the assessed taxes. In January 1999, the Conseil d’Etat requested the advice of the European Court of Justice, and on March 14, 2000, the Court ruled that French law was incompatible with European Union laws regulating the free flow of capital. However, the Court ruled that such regulations could be allowed if required on the grounds of a threat to public security or public policy. The Conseil d’Etat overturned the tax assessment. However, the judgment’s practical effect was limited because the affected churches had dissolved themselves and been reconstituted in the intervening period under different names.

A number of court cases have been initiated against the Church of Scientology. These cases generally involved former members who have sued the Church for fraud and sometimes for the practice of medicine without a license. According to representatives from the Church of Scientology, there also have been cases under the data privacy act brought against the group by former members who have continued to receive mailings from the parent church in the United States. A 1999 case in the Marseille Correctional Court received wide media attention after judicial officials admitted that 3½ tons of documents pertaining to the case had been destroyed by mistake. In November 1999, the Marseille court in that case found a former local leader of the Church of Scientology and four other church employees guilty of fraud for swindling money from former members. The court sentenced the local leader to 2 years in prison, of which 18 months were suspended and the remaining 6 months served prior to sentencing, and a fine of approximately $16,700 (100,000 francs). The other four members received suspended sentences; charges against two other persons were dropped.

Problems experienced by Muslims appear to be based on cultural rather than on religious differences. Debate continues over whether denying some Muslim girls the right to wear headscarves in public schools constitutes a violation of the right to practice their religion. In 1989 the Conseil d’Etat ruled that the “ostentatious” wearing of these headscarves violated a law prohibiting proselytizing in schools. After much unfavorable media attention to the wearing of such headscarves, the Ministry of Education issued a directive in 1994 that prohibits the wearing of “ostentatious political and religious symbols” in schools. The directive does not specify the “symbols” in question, leaving school administrators considerable authority to do so. The Conseil d’Etat in 1995 affirmed that simply wearing a headscarf does not provide grounds for exclusion from school and subsequently struck down some decisions to expel girls for wearing headscarves. The decision about whether or not headscarves or other religious articles are “ostentatious” rests with the director of each school. Various reports indicate that, while some school directors permit the wearing of headscarves, others do not. Students are free to pursue their right to wear religious articles of clothing through the court system, and the courts have ruled upon a number of cases regarding headscarves. The outcome of these cases varies, and no national decision has yet been taken to rule definitively on whether or not the wearing of headscarves should be allowed.

Foreign missionaries must obtain a 3-month tourist visa before leaving their own country. Upon arrival missionaries must apply with the local prefecture for a carte de sejour (a document that allows a foreigner to remain in the country for a given period of time), and then must give the prefecture a letter from their sponsoring religious organization.

On October 21, 1999, the Court of Cassation upheld a Bordeaux court’s 1998 conviction of Maurice Papon for his actions as secretary general of the prefecture of Gironde from 1942 to 1944. Papon was found guilty of complicity in committing crimes against humanity for his role in the deportation of hundreds of Jews to Nazi concentration camps during the World War II German occupation. The Bordeaux court had sentenced Papon to 10 years’ imprisonment; however, he remained on bail pending the outcome of his appeal to the Court of Cassation. Just before that court’s ruling, Papon fled to Switzerland. His failure to appear resulted in an automatic rejection of his appeal. On October 22, he was arrested in Switzerland and returned to France, where he remains in prison. According to press reports, his lawyer intends to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

There was no change in the general status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

Forced Religious Conversion of Minor U.S. Citizens

There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government’s refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

Interfaith relations at a popular level are amicable.

The annual National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (NCCHR) report on racism and xenophobia, released in March 2000, noted an increase in the number of attacks against Jews after a steady downward trend since 1992, although the number of anti-Semitic threats continued to decline. In 1999 there were 9 reported attacks and 52 reported threats, compared with 1 and 73 respectively in 1998. The attacks recorded in 1999 occurred throughout the country and included three assaults, three acts of vandalism, and three attempts to set fire to synagogues. There were also occasional attacks on members of the large Arab/Muslim community.

The Conseil des Eglises Chretiens en France (CECEF), formed in 1987 and made up of three Protestant members, three Catholics, and three Orthodox Christians, serves as a forum for dialog among the major Christian churches. There is also an organized interfaith dialog among the Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, and Jewish communities, which discuss and issue statements on various national and international issues. The Ministry of Interior has urged the creation of a Muslim council to discuss that community’s religious concerns, but internal divisions have prevented Muslim leaders from responding positively.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Embassy maintained active contact with government officials on the issue of religious freedom. Representatives from the Embassy have met several times with government officials and members of the Parliament. Embassy representatives also meet regularly with a variety of private citizens and nongovernmental organizations involved in the issue. Several other visiting officials, including Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom Robert Seiple, also discussed religious freedom issues with senior French officials.

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