Terror Charges Against French Youths for Train Delays Draw Ire
By Celestine Bohlen
Dec. 4 (Bloomberg) — French police last month swooped on the tiny village of Tarnac with helicopters and dogs and dragged several young people out of bed.
By Nov. 15, police had arrested nine people, including five living in a farmhouse on a hill overlooking Tarnac, and accused them of associating with “a terrorist enterprise.” Their alleged crime: causing massive train delays by draping horseshoe-shaped iron bars over 25,000-volt power lines on four separate tracks, disabling 160 trains.
The charges have reignited debate over a 1996 anti- terrorism law long criticized in France and elsewhere as overly broad. Yesterday, the Liberation newspaper’s banner headline about the case was: “Terrorists, Really?” Last week, raucous demonstrators went to a Paris courthouse to demand the release of five suspects. Three were freed Dec. 2, four were let go earlier and two remain in custody, all pending further investigation.
“To go from sabotage to terrorism is a gigantic qualitative leap,” said Michel Gillabert, a 27-year-old stone- cutter who heads a support group for the suspects. “We’re looking at 20 years in prison for causing train delays.”
The sabotage stranded about 40,000 travelers for up to six hours on Nov. 8, but no one was hurt, and there was no risk of derailment, according to Jean-Paul Boulet, a spokesman for Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais, or SNCF, the national rail company.
Opponents of the law claim it could become a cudgel to intimidate non-violent protestors, especially as France teeters on the brink of recession, making the social fabric more fragile.
“There is a temptation during a time of crisis to consider any illegal manifestation of political expression to be of a terrorist nature,” Gilbert Thiel, a member of France’s elite team of anti-terrorist magistrates, said in an interview.
Under French law, magistrates decide what charges, if any, to take to trial. Thiel said a decision on whether to use the police’s initial terrorist-law charges is months away.
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a European Parliament member and a leader of the 1968 student anti-government protests in Paris, accused the police of “pushing people who criticize society to the brink,” the Liberation reported on Nov. 28.
France’s terrorism law was criticized in a July report by New York-based Human Rights Watch. The report said the law requires a “low standard of proof” to arrest suspects only tangentially associated with terrorist groups.
Government officials say the suspects are dangerous. Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie described them on Nov. 11 as “ultra-leftists” who share a “total rejection of any democratic expression of political opinion, and an extremely violent tone.”
The suspects are mostly graduate students from middle class families, aged between 22 and 34. One of the two suspects still in custody, Julien Coupat, 34, is being charged with “directing a terrorist group,” said Isabelle Montagne, a spokeswoman for the Paris Prosecutor’s office.
She said the police believe he is the anonymous author of a 2007 book entitled “The Coming Insurrection,” which mixes an anarchist political philosophy with instructions on disrupting state symbols, such as railroads.
The book’s implicit threats prompted police to begin monitoring Coupat’s group in mid-2007, said Xavier Raufer, a professor of the Paris-based Institute of Criminology.
Montagne said various objects, such as heavy cable cutters, climbing gear, screw cutters and left-wing literature were found during the searches of the farmhouse at Tarnac.
Police say the nine suspects sabotaged France’s TGV high- speed rail lines on the night of Nov. 7, just before the long Armistice Day weekend.
“To take on the railroads, particularly on a holiday weekend, is a sure way to impress public opinion,” said Guillaume Pepy, the head of SNCF, the national railway, in a Nov. 10 interview with the French daily Le Parisien.
Never before had France’s railroads, with 2 million passengers a day, been targeted in such a systematic way, said Boulet, the SNCF spokesman.
The last time France dealt with home-grown anarchists, they were of a more violent variety. In the 1970s and 1980s, Action Directe — the French version of Germany’s Baader- Meinhof group, or Italy’s Red Brigades — carried out commando- type actions, including bank robberies and assassinations. Among those slain was Georges Besse, carmaker Renault SA’s chief executive officer, in 1986.
Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on extremist groups at the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Relations, said the authorities’ concern about the train saboteurs is understandable.
“When a group of people goes from theorizing about violence against state institutions to taking action, that is the moment for the police to do something,” said Camus. The police reaction “was designed to be dissuasive.”
Thiel, the magistrate, said the current economic climate could give rise to potentially violent fringe groups.
“The more tensions there are in society, and God knows we are in a period of economic and financial crisis which only make inequalities all the more obvious, it is certain that some young people will be easily manipulated,” he said.
In Tarnac, where a 160-year-old oak in the main square is named the “Liberty Tree,” residents are aghast at the use of the terrorism law in this case. Several locals called the suspects “fine young people” who lived a communal farm life and ran a grocery store and a local café.
“Guilty, not guilty, that’s not the issue,” said Manu, a 28-year-old forest worker who declined to give his last name because he didn’t want to be associated with the case. “The problem is the word terrorism.”