MAINTENANCE. Sects: “Reports reach records”, warns Sonia Backès

The “Miviludes” is the Interministerial mission of vigilance and fight against sectarian aberrations. Created in 2002, replacing the Interministerial Mission for the Fight against Sects (MILS), which dated from 1998, Miviludes was attached to the Ministry of the Interior in 2020. Sonia Backès, Secretary of State for Citizenshipfollows its work in this capacity.

What does the latest Miviludes report tell us about the activity of sects in France?

That the number of reports increases and that the nature of sectarian aberrations evolves. More than 4,000 reports have been made on the platform last year, an absolute record. This is 33% more reporting than in 2020 and 86% more compared to 2015. Knowing that this is probably only the tip of the iceberg…

The practices of sects evolve?

Modus operandi change, yes. In parallel with the large sectarian groups, the “multinationals of spirituality” that everyone knows, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses or Scientology, are now prospering with 2.0 gurus who create all sorts of small structures on the web, make them disappear, launch others according to the subjects of the moment… The large groups, which continue their actions without developing in a disproportionate way, recruited their future followers by approaching people in the street. These new “gaseous state” entities rely on social networks, with new themes.

Which ones?

Conspiracy theses are a new means of approach, from which we will be able to create a form of mental influence, then financial. The delusional nature of sects like the Solar Temple or Rael was pretty obvious. Seen from the outside, it immediately seemed completely crazy. Today, teaser speeches are more accessible, more believable, constructed according to current events, on everyday issues. And the health crisis has probably had a multiplier effect.

The Covid accentuated the problem?

You can see it in the numbers, yes. The period challenged the indisputability of science, especially around the anti-vax movement. And the lockdown has caused many of us to seek out new sources of well-being, which is obviously great, but can open the door to quackery, with potentially dramatic physical consequences. You can’t cure cancer by drinking vegetable juice. Never.

Do the “gurus 2.0” you mention no longer need physical contact to indoctrinate their victims?

This is a real danger and the reason why we want to have a strong political division on the subject. Our tools must evolve. We will organize meetings on sectarian aberrations and conspiracy, with all the actors working on these issues – associations, academics, state services, schools – at the beginning of next year.

To make an inventory?

And devise an action plan. Sectarian practices evolve, we must evolve accordingly. Review our reporting procedures, equip ourselves with new legislative tools, intervene with major internet platforms, etc.

Why review the reporting procedure?

Reports are only made via the Internet, which is probably insufficient. You fill out a form on and someone calls you. We need to think about all this. We could carry out awareness-raising actions in businesses, local communities, the gendarmerie, the police, at school, distribute information sheets, train teachers to collect alerts so that reports and, where appropriate, complaints, multiply…

At school ?

Yes, because young people are particularly affected by the phenomenon. Nearly 12% of referrals to Miviludes in 2021 concern minors. We conducted a study with a representative panel of French people by presenting them with ten major conspiracy theories. Among the respondents, 21% hold at least five of these ten theses to be true. A proportion that rises to 28% among 18-24 year olds. Today, 40% of people under 35 believe in witchcraft. If these numbers are so high, it’s because we haven’t given them the critical tools they need. We have a my culpa to do. This question should be at the heart of civic education, in the same way as life-saving gestures.

What is the typical profile of victims of cults today?

There are not any. Absolutely none. It’s you, it’s me, people who are doctors, engineers, teachers, salespeople… Everyone can be affected. We all have a point of tenderness that makes us vulnerable. It is the gateway to sects. They always start by offering to treat your discomfort. They first do you good, gradually create a cocoon around you, before extracting money from you. Who, today, in France, has never come across conspiratorial content on the internet? Nobody. If you are not on your guard when it happens to you, you are exposed.

You mention an action with the major internet platforms. What are you planning to do ?

Social media algorithms accentuate our natural cognitive biases in very dramatic ways. If you search for an alternative topic or therapy, they will refer you to related content over and over again, and you will end up seeing only that. If you type ” breatharianism ” Where ” raw food in a search engine, you may see videos with bigoted content appear at the top of the results. We are already acting at this level, by building educational alert videos that we are trying to get back to the top positions. But it will also be necessary to find agreements, probably at European level, in the longer term, so that the platforms agree to quickly remove the dangerous content that we report to them.

You say you lack legislative tools. Justice lacks laws to intervene?

No, no, we still get victories. We were alerted a few weeks ago because, on Doctolib, it was possible to make an appointment with someone who recommended rubbing the genitals of children with ice cubes to bring down their fever. At my request, the site changed its practices and delisted 6,000 naturopaths last week. It now only retains practitioners recognized by the State.

We regularly send reports to public prosecutors under article 40 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which lead to legal proceedings. The case of the guru who called himself Zeus, in Arcachon, judged recently, is an example. But we are indeed helpless in some cases.

I am thinking, in particular, of the project for a European center of the Church of Scientology in Saint-Denis. She bought a huge building not far from the Stade de France and the future Olympic village of the 2024 Olympics. All existing legal tools were used to prevent this establishment, without success. The 2021 anti-separatism law created specific tools to prevent radicalization. We have no equivalent concerning sectarian aberrations.

MAINTENANCE. Sects: “Reports reach records”, warns Sonia Backès