Le Monde article on the Tarnac Nine

Investigation: The Tarnac nine
Isabelle Mandraud and Caroline MonnotLe Monde, November 21 2008

When 27 year old Mathieu B. remembers his arrest, he has this image, funny and bitter at the same time, of men in ski masks of the anti-terrorist police task force “looking for explosives in my mother’s pots of jam.” Until recently a sociology master’s student at the prestigious School of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS), he is one of nine young people arrested on November 11 and accused of “criminal association connected to a terrorist enterprise.” Five of them – “the hard core” according to the court – are also accused of “conspiracy to destroy railroad lines as a terrorist action”, the now notorious acts of sabotage of railroad power lines.

This was not the case of Mathieu. He was released under judiciary control after four days of detention, along with three other people. Of the hours and hours of interrogation he remembers this: “We are your buddies. We will lock you up. We agree with you. You are full of shit because you’ve been reading books. We will get you a sandwich. You will never see your son again.” When we contacted him he asked for a little time to think about it because “this sort of experience is pretty hard to describe.”

Like him, most of the nine arrestees are brilliant students with multiple diplomas. All of them with police files for, to quote madam the Minister of the Interior Michele Alliot-Marie, belonging to the “ultraleft, anarcho-autonomist movements.” Julien Coupat, 34, presented by the police as the leader and whose name was widely publicized, graduated from an exclusive business school, the Essec, following with an advanced degree in business, before starting a PhD at the EHESS (School of Advanced Social Studies) in history and civilization. According to his father, he was preparing to go to medical school. His girlfriend Yldune L, 25, daughter of a university professor, completed her masters in archeology with honors. Benjamin R., 30, studied Political Science at the University of Rennes, and spent a year at the University of Edinburgh studying sociology of development and environmental responsibility. The youngest of the group, Elsa H., 23, and Bertrand D., 22 , are studying at the University of Rouen graduate English and sociology, respectively. The other three are different: Gabrielle H., 29, nursing student since September, Mannon G., 25, musician, first prize in clarinet at her conservatory, and Aria T., 26, actress who starred in the role of a rebellious teenager in a popular Swiss sitcom.

All of them have good relationships with their families. The parents, a director of a pharmaceutical laboratory, a physician, an engineer, a university professor, a teacher, all middle class, were seeing them on a regular basis. Yldune, an archaeology student, imprisoned since her arraignment on November 15, was still living with her mother and father. Thus no family quarrels or break-ups. Yet, all of them had decided to live according to rules different from those of their middle-class milieu, away from commercial society.

One day in 2003, looking for a “not too expensive” farm, Julien Coupat shows-up at the office of Jean Plazanet, at the time the communist mayor of Tarnac, population 335, in the Correze region. The deal is sealed quickly: a house, auxiliary buildings, and 40 hectares of land. The name of the farm is Le Goutailloux. “Afterwards I saw a group of young people arrive, all very nice and helpful”, Jean Plazanet enthusiastically tells the story.

They re-open the village grocery store. Benjamin R. takes over the management, he has previous experience organizing alternative living situations running a squat in Rennes called L’Ekluserie. He is the most environmentally-minded of the group. From the ages of 16 to 19 he had volunteered with organizations protecting water wildlife, birds of prey and otters. He was briefly the president of the European Federation of Young Greens.

In Tarnac, the group is raising sheep, chickens, and ducks, and supplies food to the elderly in the area. “It wouldn’t be wrong to say that one of the goals was to give ourselves the material and emotional means to escape the frenzy of the city in order to develop ways of sharing,” says Mathieu B.

They avoid salaried work, reject the capitalist systems and hyper-consumption. Without compromise they ban cell phones. They say it’s because they refuse to become dependent. The police believe it’s because they want to keep clandestine. Friends and networks consider them radical in their writings, in their readings, in their behavior. This attitude translated into actions, suspect the investigators who have been surveilling them since the spring and claim to have spotted two of them in proximity to one of the high-tension railroad powerlines damaged the night of November 8. Paris D.A. Jean-Claude Marin spoke of “accomplished plans for attacks.”

“I am a communist of the time of the Paris Commune,” Julien Coupat said to his father one day. All nine of them spend long hours reading and writing, but also travel a lot. Some of them travel thousands of kilometers to visit political squats, to participate in the counter-demonstrations for the G8 or other European summits. On November 3 many of them went to Vichy during the European Ministerial Conference on Integration. The demonstrations there ended in clashes with the police.

Tarnac is not Julien Coupat’s permanent residence, where three years ago the daughter he has with Gabrielle H was born. In Paris he frequents the intellectual circles. He built real ties with the philosopher Giorgio Agamben whom he met at a seminar. Every once in a while they play soccer together. The philosopher helped him launch the magazine Tiqqun by finding a printer in Italy. Julien Coupat was a member of the editorial committee of this short-lived publication, influenced by situationism.

“He is part of the postsituationist movement complete with the language that goes with it, he has excellent knowledge of Guy Debord” stresses Luc Boltanski, director of studies at EHESS. “He was a brilliant student, someone extremely kind,” continues the sociologist, who mentions him by name in the preface of his book The New Spirit of Capitalism (co-authored with Eve Chiapello, Gallimard 1999). “He is the kind of guy who knows more than his professors,” assures his friend of six years, Eric Hazan. For him, the methods of action and the words of the past are to be abandoned. He is not a speculative philosopher. This Parisian publisher printed The Insurrection to Come (La Fabrique, 2007) a work signed “Invisible Committee” which has attracted the curiosity of the police for months. Written in the style of other situationist works, the book is fascinated with riots. In it, sabotage of the high speed train (TGV) is mentioned as a way to blockade the economic machine and to create “regenerating” chaos. Julien Coupat has been designated as the principal author of the book.

The court in Paris assigns him the role of the thinker and the leader of a terrorist group. As such he is facing twenty years in prison. “Julien told me: ‘I want to live frugally,'” shares his father, a physician who co-founded a pharmaceutical laboratory, today retired. “He could have become a financial executive at Barclay’s.” But this only son who lives on 1000 euro per month has turned his back to the cozy universe where he grew up in the Hauts-de-Saine region (the wealthy north-west suburbs of Paris). “In a way this must have been a wonderful catalyst for his thinking”, reflects the father out loud amidst the rich residence nestled in a kind of forested enclave.

Mr. Coupat, who discovered Tarnac a year ago, bought the house next to the grocery store. He also purchased for his son an old craftsman studio of 50 square meters in the 20th arrondissement of Paris, which was going to house the future project of a militant journal. Unduly presented in the media as a luxury loft, the studio was Julien and Yldune’s current refuge.

Crushed and shocked by the “terrorist” label, the parents are trying to make do, paralyzed at the thought of “betraying” their children with a tactless phrase or saying too much. They had to get the hang of it all in just a week: the lawyers, the hallways at the courthouse, the pressure from the media. The mother of Gabrielle H. spent 72 hours in police custody.

Yldune’s mother constantly relives the scene of her daughter dragged out of bed, handcuffed, trembling so badly that the cops called the paramedics. At the archaeological society where Ylidune has been a member for eight years her colleagues are offended that the “iron tongs” confiscated during the raids could be construed as evidence for sabotage of the railroad lines. “She is an expert on the neolithic and smelting bronze, we’ve seen her dozens of times work with these tongs during her research!” exclaims one of her friends.

“I’ve read all of Julien’s writings, I’ve never found even the slightest call to murder or violence against a person, I am outraged by all this”, protests journalist and researcher Olivier Pascault, an old fellow student at the EHESS. For Giorgio Agamben “they can’t treat them like the Red Brigades, it’s got nothing in common! They are looking for terrorism and they end up constructing it themselves, all this so they can spread fear among young people”. The lawyers Irene Terrel, Steeve Montagne, Cedric Alepee, Dominique Valles denounce an “out of control” terrorist incrimination, the “weakness” of the cases and evoke the fact that their young clients don’t have criminal records.

Inside the studio in the 20th arrondissement everything is frozen, humid, in total disarray. On the door a plywood sign written in a little childish hand is an inscription: “This is my home, fleeting like the previous ones. The things are in the places that I have designated for them. Tomorrow I will move away and they will follow me. Between them and me who is more in exile?” And a little further: “ I am like a solder who doesn’t wear a uniform, who chose not to fight but who struggles all night for other causes.”

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