January 7, 2022 | Massimo Introvigne | BitterWinter

If you read French, you have probably read that because of COVID-19 “cults,” an old obsession in France, are proliferating more than ever. In fact, there are now 500 “cults,” with 500,000 “victims,” of which from 50,000 to 90,000 are “children.” These fantastic figures have been repeated by French media, and even mentioned internationally.

Fact-checkers in reliable media probably at first sight regarded them as slightly strange. However, they were certified by a governmental institution, the MIVILUDES, the Mission interministérielle de vigilance et de lutte contre les dérives sectaires (Interministerial Mission of Vigilance and Combat against Cultic Deviances). Because of this governmental stamp, those who repeated these figures in the media got away with them.

Unfortunately for these media and the MIVILUDES, in France there are laws similar to the American FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) allowing citizens to access documents of the government under certain conditions. An NGO with special consultative status at the United Nations’ ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council) called CAP-LC (Coordination des associations et des particuliers pour la liberté de conscience, Coordination of associations and individuals for freedom of conscience) used these laws to ask the MIVILUDES where these statistics came from.

On July 19, 2021, the MIVILUDES answered, and the letter has now been published by the French magazine Rebelle[S]. It is a sensational letter, where the MIVILUDES admits that it does not have any recent statistics and it is only relying on old documents, sometimes dating to 25 years ago.

For the “500 cults,” the MIVILUDES states the figure is taken from the controversial 1995 report of a French Parliamentary Commission on “cults.” In fact, this report listed 173 “cults,” and as the letter explains the number of 500 included the “local units” (filiales). Including the “filiales” would be similar to claiming than in France there are tens of thousands of religions considering each Catholic parish as a religion. More importantly, the 1995 list was so much criticized and even ridiculed that the MIVILUDES itself has repeatedly stated that it no longer relies on it. Only, it does when it comes to create alarm through bogus statistics.

The number of 500,000 “victims” of the “cults,” the letter says, adjusts the number of 460,000, which allegedly comes from the yearly report of activity of MIVILUDES of 2010, i.e. of 11 years ago. In fact, this comment shows that the MIVILUDES misreads its own documents.

In the 2010 report, page 253, we read in a session about New Caledonia, that there “60,000 adepts of the cultic groups” (adeptes des groupes sectaires) were found, meaning that New Caledonia, while accounting for less than 4% of the national population of France, was plagued by 20% of the whole number of cultists in France, evaluated at “300,000 to 400,000 on the total territory of France” (3 à 400 000 sur l’ensemble du territoire français).

If 60,000 is presented as a percentage of the total, it means that the figure is included in the total. 60,000 is 20% of 300,000, meaning that whoever wrote the section on New Caledonia of the report regarded the lower figure as less unbelievable than the higher one of 400,000.

Looking for a way to justify its current figure of 500,000, the MIVILUDES in 2021 took the higher figure of 2010 (400,000) and added the 60,000 in New Caledonia (which in fact were already counted as part of the 300,000 or 400,000), inaccurately claiming that the 2010 report referred to 460,000 “cultists,” and adjusted the figure to 500,000. Media likes round figures after all. As in similar cases, the section on New Caledonia of the 2010 report did not supply any source or evidence for both the New Caledonian and the national figure.

Finally, the letter states that the figure of 50,000 to 90,000 minors who are “victims” of “cults” adjusts the figure of “between 35,000 and 100,000” of a report published 15 years ago, in 2006, on the influence on “cults” on the physical and mental health of minors. No undergraduate student could get away with a term paper creatively “adjusting” decade-old statistics. The 2006 report, at any rate, introduced its figures as conjectural, stating that the real number “remains difficult to evaluate” (reste difficile à évaluer).

The 2006 document stated that “the evolution of the movements characterized as cults makes any more precise estimation of the number of the minors involved difficult” (L’évolution même des mouvements à caractère sectaire rend difficile toute appréhension plus précise du nombre de mineurs concernés: pages 21 et 22). A range “between 35,000 and 100,000” shows that this was not even a real statistic, and in fact was based on statements by a few witnesses, who did not explain their sources or methodology.

Summing up, we now know not from critics of the MIVILUDES but from the MIVILUDES itself that it has no statistics on “cults,” and the figures it mentions comes from documents of 1995, 2006, and 2010, which are not even quoted correctly and of course cannot say anything about the situation today. These documents were widely criticized by scholars when they were published, and offered unbelievable figures based on statements by a small number of witnesses and sources that were left unmentioned or perhaps did not even exist.

False statistics, as we learned during the COVID crisis, are a particularly dangerous part of fake news. They are intolerable when they are spread by media, and become a public scandal when governmental institutions are involved.