Unmasking the Spiritual Scammers of Paris

Legions of phony psychics have twisted an ancient West African tradition into a billion-dollar business that cons desperate and lovelorn people. One band of volunteers is determined to stop them.

Unmasking the Spiritual Scammers of Paris

Monsieur Samou sits cross-legged on the carpet, swirling dappled cowrie shells in one hand.

“I see you have lots of potential in your love life,” he says. “But there’s a bottleneck here, and unless you clear it, nothing will change.”

Samou describes himself as a marabout. In West Africa, marabouts are learned Muslims who may be teachers of the Koran, conflict regulators, or leaders of religious ceremonies. They can also be soothsayers. Migrants have brought the latter tradition to Paris and, in the northern neighborhood of Château Rouge, these self-styled clairvoyants have become an institution of sorts. 

A shop sells plantain and other goods in Château Rouge, Paris

Samou practices near Château Rouge’s Marché Dejean, where plantain vendors and fishmongers hawk their wares, and women haggle over okra. He works in a damp, cluttered apartment, where the wallpaper is peeling. Two children sit on a sofa, ignoring Samou and watching cartoons.

His cabinet — his consulting room — is a small walk-in closet. One wall is stacked floor to ceiling with suitcases; animal horns are mounted on another. On the floor is a basket, containing passport-sized photos of two different women. Samou explains that these women are other clients. The passport photos let him carry out rituals for them in their absence.

“The cause of your bottleneck could be anything,” Samou continues, “but someone jealous is probably doing black magic against you.” He moves on, again rotating the cowrie shells in his fist and casting them back into the basket with a flourish.

Samou says that he can perform a ritual to clear this blockage. It will be a mere seven days before the results are visible.

“And I can do this,” he declares, “for the excellent price of €2,000.” 

According to ethnographer Liliane Kuczynski (in her study Les marabouts ouest-africains à Paris), marabouts began arriving in Paris in the 1960s, during the first big waves of migration from West Africa to France. Some were students of Koranic schools; others were men who had previously lived completely outside of the marabout environment but now declared themselves soothsayers and healers. 

By 1981, a “measure of regularization for illegal immigrants” included a special clause for marabouts, who, says Kuczynski, were shown goodwill because of their religious role. They first settled in the northeastern districts of Paris, before moving on to neighborhoods in the 18th arrondissement, including Château Rouge, which is now home to vast African and Afro-Caribbean diasporas. Haitian beauty salons mingle with Congolese fabric shops and Maghrebian butchers. Many former residents now live in the suburbs, priced out of the city by gentrification, but they return to this quarter to buy specialty products or meet with family and friends. 

A Marabout “seer” passes out business cards by the handful in the metro station of Barbès-Rochechouart in Paris, France.

The district is always loud, always bustling. It’s here that marabout “seers” pass out their business cards by the handful.

“Medium” and “healer” Maître Michel offers to help with everything from loneliness and business matters to sexual impotence and driving tests. 

Professeur Konté can return a departed spouse within one week (“payment upon ritual, please”). 

Monsieur Keba lends his “prodigious natural gifts” to legal matters and gambling luck, as well as general protection and spell removal. 

And, if none of that fits your supernatural needs, you can find an array of providers on digital marabout networks

Marabout business cards and flyers are so iconic in France that enthusiasts have stockpiled considerable private collections. In 2005, a graphic designer from Lyon coined the term “magopinaciophile” to describe these collections and created MegaBambou.com, which is dedicated to his own gallery of some 1,800 marabout business cards. (The site even includes a marabout flyer generator.)

According to Youcef Sissaoui, secretary general of France’s National Institute for the Divinatory Arts (Institut National des Arts Divinatoires, or INAD), “90 percent of psychic practitioners in France are running scams.”

Marabout business card thrown on the streets of Paris.

Sissaoui sits behind his desk in the INAD offices, which are unexpectedly concealed inside an exclusive and leafy Parisian courtyard. The phone rings continuously: calls from people who have paid out large sums of money to self-proclaimed marabouts, only to realize later that they’ve been conned.

“Most of the marabouts at Château Rouge aren’t real marabouts,” Sissaoui explains. “Real marabouts tend to remain in West Africa, where they’re seen as holy men. If you consult them as soothsayers, you pay them what you want. But the marabouts at Château Rouge take thousands of euros from their clients. They promise everything and deliver nothing.”

In 2018, French newspaper Le Figaro reported that there were approximately 100,000 psychic practitioners in France and that the industry’s annual revenue was roughly €4 billion (around $4.33 billion). Certain marabouts are taking considerable advantage of that profitability: In 2018, a marabout living in Poitiers, a city in western France, hit the headlines for allegedly scamming three clients to the tune of nearly €60,000.

INAD’s chief mission is to help the swindled. The group, which describes itself as a nonprofit association with expertise in the psychic arts, was founded in 1987 by Sissaoui and two friends — a lawyer and a businessman — and is staffed by volunteers. Thirty years ago, Sissaoui was a practicing medium himself. Alarmed by the industry’s tendency towards “charlatanism,” he set up INAD. Today, the organization carries out spot checks on practitioners by dispatching undercover clients to review their methods. The group has also developed a charter to “moralize” the psychic arts as a profession. Approximately 200 signatories, including mediums, crystal ball readers and astrologers, have pledged that they will work with sincerity and objectivity, that they will never guarantee outcomes, and that they will keep in mind the vulnerability of the lonely, the elderly, the ill and minors.

INAD collects testimonies from those who have been cheated by psychic practitioners and publishes them online. It also intervenes on behalf of victims.

A shop sells plantain and other goods in Château Rouge, Paris

The marabouts, in particular, are a thorn in Sissaoui’s side. For one, their lifestyle poses particular challenges when addressing the claims of the conned.

“Our first port of call is usually mediation,” says Sissaoui. “We try to locate the scammer and get him to pay back what was extorted. If they refuse, the victim can decide if they want to file a complaint with the police.”

But when it comes to the marabouts, mediation can be difficult, as they move around frequently and often use pseudonyms. As Sissaoui explains, “Monsieur Mamadou is much harder to find when Monsieur Mamadou doesn’t actually exist.”

“They have an extraordinary method of persuasion,” Sissaoui says. “In the beginning, they are very nice and propose small fees — perhaps €20 or €30 per consultation. Then, the sums of money they demand increase.”

For Sissaoui, fraudster success is symptomatic of “an industry of human distress.”

He elaborates: “This type of exploitation is easy, profitable and immediate. Fraudulent practitioners locate victims who are very fragile. They know how to manipulate and abuse desperate people.”

A young man from Bangladesh spreads Marabout business cards near the metro station of Barbès-Rochechoart in Paris, France. He says he struggles to find work and gets paid 10 euros a day for this job.

Desperation drove Marco, 40, to hire a marabout in November 2016. (Marco did not wish to disclose his last name, in order to protect his identity.) In a statement to INAD, he said that he had been “very depressed” and had found Monsieur Kalil online.

“When we spoke on the phone, his voice was welcoming and reassuring. I decided to engage his services, hoping that he could reunite me with my girlfriend.”

“His office was dirty, but the decor and the atmosphere were exotic — as though calculated to impress. The air was thick with incense.”

The session began. “I quickly explained my situation, and Kalil told me that the return of my girlfriend was feasible for €1,000. I didn’t have that money. But he convinced me — and we eventually agreed on €260 for him to start his work.”

A few days later, Marco received a phone call in that same cordial, reassuring voice: “Good evening Marco — I have very good news for you. The spirits are happy to help you, but I will need a financial contribution. Since your beloved was born in 1989, the spirits demand €1,989.”

Window front for a fabric store in the Château Rouge district of Paris.

When Marco reminded Kalil that he did not have this amount, Kalil changed tack: “In that case, you must put €100 and a red candle in a sock, and €100 and a white candle in another sock of the same color, and bring them to me.”

Marco did as he was instructed, and presented himself at Kalil’s cabinet with two socks, two candles and €200. Two days later, Marco received a phone call: The ritual had not been powerful enough. An additional €200 would be needed.

As the days passed and nothing changed, Marco’s despair began to grow. But Kalil always found a way “to twist the conversation on to something else” and demand something new, Marco says. By January, he had given Kalil €5,090 euros — and still hadn’t seen any results.

When her husband left her, 45-year-old Laurence contacted a marabout based in Benin, a small French-speaking country in West Africa.

Corner coffee shop with Egyptian-style symbols in the Château Rouge district of Paris.

“I was alone with our toddler and distraught. Doukonon guaranteed that he could send my husband back to me,” she told INAD.

Doukonon told Laurence that he did not publicize his own work, but asked clients to do so instead. He requested that she boast about his powers on social media and — falsely — declare that he had managed to return her husband to her.

“He told me that, if I did this, my husband would return within one day. In my desperation, I agreed. I regret it now, because that might have encouraged others to fall into the same trap.”

Over the subsequent months, Doukonon demanded increasing sums for various rituals, and also that Laurence pass out 500 of his business cards.

“As time passed and I saw no results, I seriously doubted his powers. But I was blinded by love for my husband — and my child kept calling out for his father. I was in deep, and desperate to believe. Every time I doubted him, Doukonon convinced me that to stop there would be a waste.”

“In the end, Doukonon had me perform a ‘ritual,’ half-naked and wearing a ‘magic’ ring. I had to video myself doing so. When Doukonon tried to blackmail me with the video — and also said that I had to give him €3,000 to placate a ‘genie’ — I understood that it had all been a scam.”

A Marabout “seer” spreads Marabout business cards in the metro station of Barbès-Rochechouart in Paris, France.

For Sissaoui, cases like Laurence’s show how modern technology has multiplied the platforms through which clients can be exploited. “Clairvoyance by telephone and online enables all forms of crookery,” he says.

In February of this year, it was reported that the Benin police had dismantled a network of “false magicians” who claimed to be selling “magic” self-filling wallets via social media, targeting overseas victims of a range of different nationalities. They had reportedly taken approximately €4,500 from each one.

Ethnographer Kuczynski says that a perception of African exoticism “nourishes the imagination” of Western marabout customers in Paris. The marabouts themselves appear to recognize this particular allure. In her study, Kuczynski describes a marabout who intentionally receives his clients dressed in a brick red boubou — a type of flowing robe worn in West Africa — which he quickly replaces with a suit when the session is over.

Marabouts use a particular — and problematic — image of Africa, held by some Westerners, to their advantage. Customers have reported that animal horns, voodoo amulets and other talismans abound in the cabinets of Paris marabouts. Others have been given potions and plants in service of obscure rituals. 

Sissaoui claims that some “marabouts” come to France precisely to capitalize on the perception of African “magic.” 

“INAD has never come across a Paris marabout who was born in France,” he says. “A number come here from Africa in order to make money. Then, they return to their native countries to start a grocery shop or renovate a home. When the money runs out, they come back to France again.”

Sissaoui adds that many marabouts in France are sans-papiers — that is, undocumented immigrants. Without employment, a regular income, or access to welfare, they resort to maraboutism. Many, whether undocumented or not, convey similar states of need. Monsieur Samou claims supernatural gifts — and yet his office and home are derelict: The dampness, dilapidation and stacks of suitcases speak not to superpowers but to uncertainty. Other clients have reported similar conditions when visiting Paris marabouts. 

Château Rouge epitomizes the contrasts and contradictions of city life: It sits in the shadow of picturesque Montmartre — an area favored by tourists, famous for the Sacré Cœur basilica and as the whimsical setting of the 2001 film Amélie. But it also borders La Colline, an impoverished neighborhood recently described by The New York Times as the home of “France’s largest open-air crack market.” And in November 2018, the French Council of the State upheld a ruling that castigated the local and national government for failing to protect Château Rouge from unsanitary and unsafe conditions, after a local association complained that the streets were squalid and riddled with drug trafficking and illicit markets.

Paris marabouts may be fraudsters, but they themselves are also marginalized; their world is a risky one. And that, in turn, raises questions about who is truly more vulnerable: those seeking salvation from a marabout — or the self-proclaimed saviors who are fed by their clients’ desperation.