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France’s Law Affects Freedom of Worship

  • Hon. Christopher H. Smith
    US












House of Representative

107th Congress, First Session

Mr. Speaker, today I take this opportunity to salute France’s historic leadership in the defense of human rights. After the events of September 11th, as freedom-loving people wrestle with the scourge of terrorism, they will look to countries like France to see whether the torch of human rights is being held high. Therefore, mindful of France’s historic work and current commitments to defend human rights, it was with remorse and surprise that I observed this summer the National Assembly’s approval of the law for the “Prevention and Repression of Cultic Movements.”

As participating States of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), France and the United States share the commitment and responsibility to observe and uphold religious freedom, including the right of the individual to profess and practice religion or belief. Through my work as Co-Chairman of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, I am alarmed by recent developments in Europe that impinge on this fundamental freedom.

Recently, it would appear that certain OSCE friends and allies have forgotten that religious movements can play a positive role in society, providing impetus for important social change. For instance, the role of the Catholic Church in Poland during the cold war or the activism of some churches and religious leaders in the Southern United States during the Civil Rights Movement offered vital moral and ethical guidance and support.

Mr. Speaker, particularly in Western Europe, we have observed an increase in laws calibrated specifically to target religious groups. The United States shares with Western Europe core values regarding human dignity and rights, and we gratefully acknowledge Western Europe’s traditional openness toward religious minorities. However, the development of “anti-cult” laws threatens this tradition.

At the same time, I understand and appreciate the dangers of criminal activity operating under the guise of religion. However, I strongly believe that any religious movement violating the rule of law should be prosecuted using mainstream law enforcement tools, as opposed to special laws or extra-judicial investigations not in harmony with the core values enshrined in the OSCE’s Helsinki Final Act and other international documents regarding human dignity and rights.

In sum, I am concerned about vaguely crafted government regulations against religious organizations and adherents that serve to foster intolerance against individuals because of their beliefs. In France, such a law entered into effect this summer. Provisions of the law, Mr. Speaker, provide governmental entities and private citizens the ability to apply civil and criminal sanctions against any so-called “cult” or its de facto leader. Other extensive powers include the removal of basic civic freedoms if an individual is found guilty of using “techniques likely to alter judgment.” Despite the law’s obvious bent against minority faiths, its broad powers, combined with the vague wording, could permit arbitrary application and abuse. Overall, I find the creation of such a law, especially in a mature democracy like France, alarming and incongruent with the nation’s long history of supporting human rights.

I had the opportunity this past summer to meet with the President of the National Assembly, Mr. Raymond Forni, as well as one of the key authors of the bill, Mme. Catherine Picard, and shared with them these concerns. Considering France’s position as a world leader, this domestic action will cause repercussions elsewhere, such as in emerging democracies which will have and look to French leadership on these matters.

Often, the U.S. Government and Congress are criticized for “meddling” in the internal affairs of another sovereign nation. I feel certain detractors in France will level the same argument. However, the OSCE Moscow Concluding Document (1991) speaks directly to this issue, declaring “The participating State emphasize that issues relating to human rights, fundamental freedoms, democracy and the rule of law are of international concern, as respect for these rights and freedoms constitutes one of the foundations of international order. They categorically and irrevocably declare that the commitments undertaken in the field of the human dimension… are matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the State concerned.”

Mr. Speaker, religious believers in France have already offered concerns about the effects of the new French law on their right to profess and practice their faith in their own country. Statutes of this nature, which target individuals with unpopular belief systems, are antithetical to democracies in the twenty first century. Accordingly, I join them in urging French authorities to fully respect France’s commitments as an OSCE participating State when implementing the new law.

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