Gwen Le Berre doesn't understand the "electrometer" machine he keeps in his Normandy bedroom. He just knows it's a piece of kit from the Church of Scientology, which he blames for his mother's death.
Four days before Christmas 2006, Gwen's mother Gloria Lopez, a 47-year-old secretary, tidied her kitchen, hung out her washing, left her dull, suburban apartment overlooking the railway in Colombes, west of Paris, and walked the 30 metres on to the tracks. She stood with her arms outstretched, smiling at the driver of the oncoming commuter train. He couldn't stop in time.
After divorcing Pascal Le Berre, a French teacher, Lopez met Scientologists and signed up. The church was to become her life. Eventually, she moved to Paris, leaving her two children behind, to be nearer the Scientology Centre.
The Le Berres filed a legal complaint partly blaming Scientology for her death. In 10 years as a Scientologist, they estimate, Lopez spent up to $400,000 on courses and books - despite her secretary's salary of $3300 a month. Her family claims she was counselled by Scientology financial advisers and decided to sell a property she had inherited in Spain. "They stole my mother," Gwen says. "I don't feel I knew my mother apart from in her role as a Scientologist."
Several investigations and legal cases in France have prompted Scientologists to complain of a "climate of hatred" and a state-sponsored "inquisition" against them. Together they have the potential to threaten Scientology's survival in France and undermine it elsewhere. Not only could its two flagship centres in France be closed down, but the church could be convicted of "organised fraud".
Founded in California in the 1950s by the flamboyant science fiction author L.Ron Hubbard, the Church of Scientology claims to offer spiritual self-improvement based on his writings. It attracted controversy from the start. It vehemently opposes conventional psychiatry, instead favouring Hubbard's philosophy of mental health, known as Dianetics. This teaches that a person's spirit can be cleared of negative experiences and encourages members to progress up the Bridge to Total Freedom through a complex "auditing" process, until they reach the most advanced level of spiritual "clarity". The movement is fiercely protective of copyright over its teachings and its central idea that humans are descended from Thetans - a race exiled from another planet. Scientology considers itself one of the world's fastest-growing new religions, claiming more than 7900 churches, missions and groups in 164 countries.
Scientology has no religious status in France, and in the 1990s was included in a government inquiry's list of sects. The Church of Scientology says it has six churches and six missions in France, totalling 45,000 members. The French Government puts membership at 2000 to 3000.
In May the most serious fraud trial faced by the Church of Scientology opened in Paris. Six important French Scientologists were in the dock for organised fraud and illegally practising as pharmacists - for selling vitamins classed as medication in France. And, for the first time, the church was accused of organised fraud. The prosecutor asked judges to dissolve Paris's two flagship Scientology premises: the Celebrity Centre and its bookshop. The verdict is due at the end of October, and the world is watching.
Aude-Claire Malton, a former hotel housekeeper, testified that she completed the Scientology personality test questionnaire and a few days later was contacted. "They told me I was in a very uneven state, and that they could help me by giving me some courses," Malton said. The first course cost $33; immediately afterwards she was offered several sessions for $8000. She emptied several savings accounts, her life insurance policy, and took out a loan to pay for more courses on the advice of her Scientology personal financial adviser.
"You have to understand," she explained to the judge. "You're in the brouhaha of the Scientology Centre where everyone repeats to you: 'You must continue, you're making progress, you're going to be able to better yourself, all this is for you'."
Scientology urged Malton to "move house, get money for life insurance, pay back [$27,000], resign."
If convicted, Scientology could be fined $6.7 million. Hefty sentences could be levelled against six individuals, among them Alain Rosenberg, who denied prosecution charges that Scientology was a business ensnaring new members to defraud them. He defined purification treatments, electrometers and courses in Ron Hubbard's book, Dianetics, as "religious services", arguing "spiritual elevation" had no price.
Just before the fraud trial began, Alain Stoffen published his Voyage to the Heart of Scientology. At 24, he took a piano teaching job in a Paris music school, which he says was run as a recruiting ground by Scientologists. He plunged into Hubbard's teachings. His initial communication courses at the Celebrity Centre helped Stoffen overcome shyness and perform better on stage. "The results were phenomenal, tangible, concrete."
He says it is wrong to assume people who join Scientology are weak. "The people who sign up have a healthy approach, they want to go forward in life, achieve their projects and ambitions." Stoffen became tortured by his struggle to progress to higher levels of "clarity" and constantly scraping for money to pay for courses. "You would do everything to pay that sum. It was a question of life and death for us, spiritual life or death," he says.
In 15 years, Stoffen says he spent $75,000 on Scientology courses and books; others, he says, "spent well over $500,000".
Then he discovered a 150-page dossier detailing his personal life, including a program on how to "deal" with him and get more money from him. "I vomited all night."
Miviludes, a French government agency monitoring sects and cults, is headed by Georges Fenech, Scientology's number one enemy. "This is not something against the Ron Hubbardian doctrine, or beliefs about intergalactic happenings thousands of years ago," Fenech says. "What we're interested in is that people are dragged into this movement, lose their liberty, autonomy and sometimes their life." He says French law protects freedom of religion, but "religion isn't a protection against the law".