LONDON, Sept. 18, 2008 — -- The Church of Scientology faces trial on deletion fraud charges in Paris, with the possibility that the organization, which claims around 5,000 active members in France in addition to a bevy of Hollywood celebrities such as Tom Cruise, could be banned in France if it loses.
While it enjoys an active presence in the U.S. -- it has been recognized as a religious organization by the I.R.S. since 1993 -- Scientology has faced strong opposition from French authorities.
France has refused to acknowledge Scientology as a religion, and Miviludes, the French government agency in charge of protecting its citizens from sectarian manipulations, has warned French citizens against participating.
"Scientology is a dangerous movement," Milivudes president Jean-Michel Roulet told ABCNews.com. "It puts pressure on its victims, it tries to intimidate them and blackmails them."
Isabelle Montagne, spokesperson with the Paris court of Justice, told ABCNews.com that if Scientology is found guilty of fraud or illegal practice of medical activities, the president of the Paris Scientology Celebrity Centre, one of the biggest centers in France, could be sentenced to seven years in prison and the organization could be forced to close its doors.
Part of the French wariness of Scientology likely stems from a culture that is skeptical of any purported religious organization that requires members to pay money, says Roulet, who says members spend up to $40,000 within their first years in Scientology.
"It is possible for members to pay that amount within a few years," Daniele Gounord, spokesperson for Scientology in France, told ABCNews.com. "It is possible, if a member is willing to progress fast."
"This does not fit with the French mentality," answered Roulet. "At church you are free to give money or not. We are not used to religions in which you have to pay for everything."
Scientology: 'A Dangerous Movement'
In the latest legal challenge, the plaintiff in the fraud case reportedly says she was approached by Scientologists on a Paris street in 1998 and offered a free personality test. She says she was pressured to spend more than $28,000 for courses, books, illegally prescribed drugs and an "electrometer" that was supposed to measure fluctuations in her mental state, according to the BBC.
Gounord said the person who is accusing Scientology of fraud and illegal practice of pharmacy has been reimbursed by Scientology. "We have never been found guilty of fraud by a court," she said.
In 2002 the organization was found to have violated France's data privacy law after a former member said he was still receiving mail from the organization despite having asked that his name be removed from their database.
The organization and the president of its Paris center were each ordered to pay $7,000, though the fines were later suspended
Gounord said the organization kept the former member's personal data by accident. "That was a technical problem," she said, "no one really understood what happened.
"It's just a lot of noise about nothing," Gounord told ABCNews.com. "The case is empty. We are not worried at all."
According to Roulet, legal procedures against Scientology are often laborious and the organization has often been acquitted.
"They have a lot of money and they can afford to pay a lot of lawyers," said Roulet.
French members of Scientology who spoke to ABCNews.com said they see themselves as victims of the French secular system and of a typically Gallic religious narrow-mindedness.
"The French system attacks minorities," said Gounord. "It is easier to attack smaller religious movements."
Scientology, founded in 1954 by American science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, promotes "well-being" and its own vision of a "better world" through collective spiritual sessions, readings and social actions.
The first Scientologist church in France was open in 1959.
"I would like France to be more like the United States," said Paris-based Scientology member Michel Raoust, "where there is more tolerance towards religions."
"I cannot even consider the end of Scientology in France," said Raoust. "The truth will be known, and the truth is that we are a religion of goodwill."
Former Member Cries Foul
Roger Gonnet, who said he was a prominent member of Scientology in Lyon, France, between 1974 and 1982, strongly disagrees.
"Scientology is a cult and a rip-off," Gonnet told ABCNews.com.
"They promise you perfect health and a life without any problem," said Gonnet, "but when I reached the highest levels of the organization I found out that their 'secrets' were completely dumb."
"There were no positive results in my life, but fares kept going up," he said.
Gonnet said he got kicked out of the organization because he was too outspoken -- a humiliation that led many of his member-friends to follow him and abandon Scientology.
According to Gounord, Gonnet, who worked for Scientology, was expelled because he mishandled the group's finances.
"The only thing that is free with Scientology is the entry questionnaire," said Miviludes' Roulet.
Raoust, a Paris-based engineer who is still a member, said he joined Scientology in 1975 and has paid large amounts of money to the organization, though he says he never counted exactly how much.
"I make good money, so it doesn't bother me to invest in my personal development," Raoust said. "I would rather do that than buying a beautiful convertible."
According to Roulet, leaving the Scientology can be particularly tricky.
"The victims join the group willingly, but little by little they stop thinking for themselves and do whatever their guru tells them to do," he said.
It happens sometimes that people realize that they spent all the money they had to progress within the organization and that that did not yield anything positive, said Roulet.
But Scientology spokesman Gounord said that if members reach a point where they decide to actually leave the organization, Scientology offers them a reimbursement package.
"We are the only ones who do this," Gounord told ABCNews.com.
Although today it struggles to get recognition in France, Scientology is indeed a powerful and internationally established organization, but this does not seem to intimidate Roulet and the like.
"It may take several years," he said, "but we can ban this organization in France."