French history proves that countries with democratically elected Parliaments can nonetheless abuse human rights. This is true for Taiwan, too.

by Thierry Valle*

*A paper presented at the hybrid seminar “Effective Parliamentarism and the Tai Ji Men Case,” organized by CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers on July 1, 2022, at the Renaissance Hotel, Washington DC, after the International Day of Parliamentarism, June 30.

An article already published in Bitter Winter on July 11th, 2022.

The French Assemblée Nationale (lower house).
The French Assemblée Nationale (lower house). Credits.

French parliamentarism has a very long history that goes back well before the famous French Revolution of 1789, which changed French politics from a monarchy of divine right to a Republic. It also generated the first Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, whose articles remain the fundamentals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in force today.

Indeed, one of the most famous precursors of the spirit of the Republic was Montesquieu who, as early as 1748, with his book De l’esprit des lois (The Spirit of Law) inspired the French Constitution and breathed a new political concept into the philosophers of the century of Enlightenment, such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot, to mention just the most famous.

From the French Revolution to the present day, parliamentarism has had various forms, and has evolved throughout the different Republics that France has known.

From the tumultuous First Republic resulting from the French Revolution, the Parliament laid the foundations of the French Republic but quickly collapsed with the advent of the Empire of Napoleon I.

It was again a revolution that gave birth to the Second Republic, impregnated with a humanist impulse driven by speeches of deputies such as  the famous author and politician Victor Hugo, from whom will come out the maxim “Liberté Egalité Fraternité” (Freedom Equality Fraternity). The French Parliament abolished slavery and instituted the first universal suffrage.

After the episode of the Second Empire of Napoleon III, the Third Republic was born from the French defeat against Prussia, and another revolution known as the Commune. It was the longest-lasting Republic, almost 70 years, although it was plagued by political and moral scandals.

La Commune revolution.
La Commune revolution. Credits.

Its long parliamentary life brought about profound changes in French society with, for example, the law of 1905 which ratified the separation of the Churches and the State.

It is also this Parliament which succeeded in making the “sacred union,” which welded together all the parliamentarians of all political or religious tendencies at the beginning of the First World War in 1914.

It was the Second World War that put an end to these 70 years of parliamentary life. The parliamentarians of the very brief Fourth Republic had the arduous task of reconstruction and decolonization.

Today, France is under the Fifth Republic, which despite some major advances in human rights, such as the abolition of the death penalty in 1981, also knows, unfortunately like the previous ones, its share of human rights violations, sometimes even instigated by parliamentary decisions.

To illustrate this, I will develop the most flagrant case of a parliamentary decision having generated a restriction of the freedom of religion or belief, violating the principle instituted by this same Parliament in 1905 on the separation of Churches and State.

This particular event was unique in the history of French parliamentary life. It was the result of three parliamentary commissions of inquiry:

– The first in 1995 led to the establishment of a blacklist of 172 religious and spiritual movements labeled as cults (sectes).

– The second in 1999 had for subject the cults and money.

– The third in 2006 was about cults and children.

In 2001, this same Parliament voted a law known as the About-Picard Law, which was intended as a powerful weapon against all movements qualified as cults. This resulted in a climate of hysteria in France, and a witch hunt against all these movements.

Around the same years,  Tai Ji Men in Taiwan suffered similar persecution: undue tax assessments, confiscation of property, stigmatization and persecution of members.   

In France, faced with this wave of injustice, caused by a Parliament that was supposed to protect all its citizens from unequal treatment, the persecuted French movements organized themselves. Like Tai Ji Men today, they fought on all fronts.

I will briefly mention two cases that illustrate this fact, already developed more precisely in previous seminars. The first concerns the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They went to the European Court of Human Rights and obtained redress against undue tax bills issued by the French tax administration. The second example is the Church of Scientology, who also won a case where the French government was found guilty of gross negligence.

Bible Museum of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Louviers, France. Source:
Bible Museum of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Louviers, France. Source:

In parallel, associations such as CAP-LC and the organizers of this seminar, CESNUR and Human Rights Without Frontiers, and others, denounced these parliamentary abuses to national and international authorities and succeeded in making this discriminatory French policy known and condemned around the world.

There are two conclusions about the history of French Parliament that may be relevant for Taiwan and the Tai Ji Men case. The first is that parliamentarism does not always prevent but can even lead to human rights violations. This is relevant for transitional justice, and Taiwan should acknowledge that human rights violations that need to be rectified occurred even after parliamentarism was introduced.

The second lesson is that the perpetuation of human rights abuses is something that can be changed. The mobilization of civil society can change the course of events.

This is, I believe, important for Tai Ji Men. They should continue both their struggle and their effort to mobilize international human rights activists and scholars. I am confident many will help them.