France puts itself on suicide watch

A government agency is taking on superstitious cults with unusual zeal

On suicide watch

Pascal Pavani/AFP/Getty Images

No other nation in recent history appears to have taken so fervently to apocalyptic prophesies as France has, reports the London Times. Then again, not many nations have a government agency specifically responsible for investigating “cults and suspicious spiritual activities.” Indeed, the French agency—known as MIVILUDES—delivered a mass-suicide warning last week, apparently worried about a possible suicide frenzy come Dec. 21, 2012, the day the 5,000-year-old Mayan calendar ends. MIVILUDES contends that the Internet age, natural disasters, and economic turmoil—combined with the ancient Mayan prophecy—have inspired widespread belief in a coming Armageddon (there has been a recent migration of people to the hilltop village of Bugarach, said to be a place immune to apocalypse).

The agency’s concern is not entirely outlandish: in the 1990s, 74 people belonging to a cult called the Order of the Solar Temple—16 of them in France and eight in Quebec—died in murder-suicides to avoid an Armageddon. But cult expert Susan Palmer of Concordia University says that “MIVILUDES is creating artificial emergencies to support the state-sponsored anti-cult movement.” Palmer, whose upcoming book The New Heretics of France, about the French anti-cult movement, believes MIVILUDES spends more time vilifying cults than actually researching them—“obviously trying to justify its own existence.”