She oversees the anti-cult mission MIVILUDES and tells a dramatic tale about her past. But her brother raises doubts about it.
By Massimo Introvigne
Bitter Winter (28.11.2022) – https://bit.ly/3ihM9aa – Sonia Backès is the new French State Secretary for Citizenship, and she has in her portfolio the MIVILUDES, the controversial Inter-Ministerial Mission for Monitoring and Combating Cultic Deviances (“dérives sectaires”: note that the French “secte” and its derivative words should be translated into English as “cult” and not as “sect”). She has also a dramatic story to tell, one French media love to report. She insists she is a “cult” survivor, who managed to escape at age 13 from what for the MIVILUDES is the quintessential “cult,” the Church of Scientology.
While we at Bitter Winter make no mystery of our criticism of the MIVILUDES and of the French governments’ attitude to “cults” (sectes)—which we believe puts freedom of religion or belief at serious risk—we also respect individual stories and feelings, including those of both Secretary Backès and her relatives who are still parishioners of Scientology. We also believe that the public deserves to hear both sides of controversial stories. Backès’ version “is easily available on several French media, including “Le Figaro,” the French “Huffington Post,” and “France Info,” where it is easy to hear her story from her own voice.
Bitter Winter presents an alternative narrative, and gives voice to Backès’ brother, a Scientologist. He is understandably angry about his sister’s criticism of their mother, who died last July. Our readers may compare the two versions of the story, and decide for themselves.
BW: Your sister Sonia Backès is now the State Secretary for Citizenship in France, under the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and she has in her portfolio the MIVILUDES, the controversial “anti-cult” agency of the French government. She recently spoke publicly about having been raised by her mother, who was a Scientologist, and said that when she was 13, she escaped and went back to live with her father in New Caledonia, with the purpose of fleeing Scientology. How did you react?
“Actually, I was very upset. My mother died at the end of July, and just after that my sister gave an interview to the French newspaper ‘Le Figaro,’ where she told a story about my mother, and her pretended childhood in Scientology that I know is not true. The truth is that she never ‘escaped Scientology’ as she pretended in ‘Le Figaro’ and elsewhere. When she was 14, Sonia and I were living in Paris with our mother, and Sonia was nostalgic of her life in New Caledonia where she was born and had been raised in her early age. It was my mother, after discussing with her, who paid a flight ticket for my sister to go back to Noumea and live with her father.
My mother was indeed a Scientologist, and we have been raised by Scientologist parents who told us about their faith, as it happens in any religion. Then, like in any religion, some children will keep practicing and others will drift away from their church or from practicing. It happens to the Catholics, it happens to the Protestants, it happens to Muslims, to Jews, nothing weird here. Nonetheless, Sonia and our mother kept a very strong relationship for their whole life.
Of course, sometimes there could have been conflicts, as it often happens between parents and children, between mothers and daughters, but that should not become a reason for smearing the memory of your dead mother just after she passed away. My mother was a very brilliant woman, who always did everything she could to help and take care of her children. She deserves better. Sonia knows it, but it looks like her political career became somewhat more important than the truth.”
BW: It seems gross that a politician may attack her own mother for the sake of her career. Why should your sister invent a story that is not true?
“Well, a few days before she died, my mother showed and gave me a text message that Sonia had just sent to her. In the text message, Sonia was explaining that she was going to have MIVILUDES in her portfolio as a State Secretary, and that she was afraid that Mediapart (a French online newspaper specialized in investigating politicians and potential scandals) would discover that our mother was a Scientologist. As you know, MIVILUDES has always promoted the discrimination of Scientologists. Then, Sonia added that for this reason, she would have to say that she had left the family because of Scientology, to avoid a scandal.
My mother answered that, instead of inventing stories, she should tell the truth, which is that she always respected the religion of her family and was in fact respecting the freedom of religion of anyone, and that would have been it. The truth is that she never attacked the chosen religion of her mother, stepfather, and brother until she got a government position in relation with the MIVILUDES, where it is expected that she is a bigot.
Can you believe that she was creating a story that she had to leave her own mother because of Scientology, and in the next sentence of her text message, she was saying that they should see each other when they would have time? It seems to me that MIVILUDES insists that those associated with it attack new religions, and force them to separate from their family members who belong to a new religious movement. Isn’t this precisely the “cultic behavior” that they pretend to combat?
My mother was upset, and she would have liked to take it up in person with Sonia. But then she was admitted to the hospital, and died before being able to talk to Sonia further about it. I would have spoken to Sonia about it, but when my mother died Sonia was in New Caledonia, and after I went back to the US, I thought I would have time to speak with Sonia when I would have come back to Paris. But she went on spreading lies to several medias before I came back.
Nevertheless, I came to Paris recently, and asked Sonia if we could meet and have a coffee together. Indeed, since our mother passed away, we never had the opportunity to chat in person. She invented a fake professional obligation not to meet.”
BW: How do you remember your sister’s relations with Scientology?
“The truth is what my mother said. My sister never told me anything negative about Scientology. She knew that her family was doing well, that it was a Scientologist family, and she was of course OK with that. She was regularly having holidays with us. In fact, we had a wonderful time in Paris all together in April, Sonia, me, my mother and my father (Sonia’s stepfather). We are all Scientologists.
Then, when she had been appointed as a State Secretary in July, she invited my mother and my father Place Beauvau, at the Ministry of the Interior, to show them her new office. If she really had a problem with our religion as she pretends now, she would not have done it. The truth is that my mother has always taken care of her family, including Sonia. And Sonia knows that she was part of the family, that we were respecting and loving her, and before she became what she recently became, before she was forced by her commitment to MIVILUDES to lie and attack her own mother, she was respecting us and our beliefs, naturally.”
BW: Both Sonia and you were raised by Scientologist parents in your early age. Was your experience different from what Sonia told the media?
“Definitely. I have been raised by parents who were Scientologists, and in fact, I decided quite young to study Scientology by my own. In fact my parents, including my mother, never forced me to do anything. I love Scientology and, to the opposite of what is often said in some medias, I believe it gives more freedom, more ability to take your own decisions and more self-determination than anything else that I know of.
Every Scientologist I know would confirm it, and it’s a religion based on your own observation, your own ability to understand for yourself what is life, and how to be a better person. Today, I live in the US for professional reasons, I have a flourishing career and honestly, Scientology has been helpful for my whole life with no downside.”
BW: Well, definitely this is not Sonia’s discourse on Scientology now. You say it is proving difficult for you to meet her. But, if you would be able to meet, what exactly would you like to tell her?
“I would tell her that I understand that she could have a vision different than mine, that she could also have her own personal story with our mother, and that she has also to take a public position and deal with difficult image situations, but that none of these should be a sufficient reason to lie, and to choose what she thinks will help her political career over truth and family.
She knows that what she says is not true, and she should have told the MIVILUDES that everything they are saying about Scientology is a lie, because she knows it from her personal experience with her family. My personal opinion is that this story proves that those at the MIVILUDES are the ones breaking up families. And moreover, Sonia should respect the memory of our mother with integrity. Living with integrity and truth is more important than immediate political success.”
Photo 1: Secretary Sonia Backès with her brother in April 2022. Courtesy of Secretary Backès’s brother.
Photo 2: Secretary Backès with her mother and stepfather, April 2022. Courtesy of Secretary Backès’ brother.
Massimo Introvigne (born June 14, 1955 in Rome) is an Italian sociologist of religions. He is the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), an international network of scholars who study new religious movements. Introvigne is the author of some 70 books and more than 100 articles in the field of sociology of religion. He was the main author of the Enciclopedia delle religioni in Italia (Encyclopedia of Religions in Italy). He is a member of the editorial board for the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion and of the executive board of University of California Press’ Nova Religio. From January 5 to December 31, 2011, he has served as the “Representative on combating racism, xenophobia and discrimination, with a special focus on discrimination against Christians and members of other religions” of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). From 2012 to 2015 he served as chairperson of the Observatory of Religious Liberty, instituted by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to monitor problems of religious liberty on a worldwide scale.