Guardian: Rural idyll or terrorist hub?
Nine deny anarchist plot, saying they were just seeking the simple life
Guardian, Saturday 3 January 2009
Angelique Chrisafis in Tarnac, France
High on a bleak mountain plateau in central France, the tiny village of Tarnac is fiercely proud of its grocer’s shop. A smiling lady with a perm stands behind the old-fashioned till amid shelves stocked with everything from fly-swats and fairy lights to socks and soya milk. Elderly villagers boast that thanks to the shop, they don’t have to leave their cottages to travel miles for bread in this vast, depopulated rural wilderness of central France known as “the desert”. Posters advertise tea dances and cinema club screenings of Billy the Kid.
But the French government claims that Tarnac and its small shop are the headquarters of a dangerous cell of anarchist terrorists plotting to overthrow the state. Images of balaclava-clad police swooping to arrest suspects in Tarnac were compared by bewildered villagers to a strange, rural action movie. The government hinted that locals were too gormless to have noticed the terrorist activity in their midst. But after weeks of controversy, supporters are rising up to defend the young people of the village.
Known as the Tarnac Nine, four men and five women aged 22 to 34 are being investigated over far-left terrorism following dawn raids by police in November that targeted several addresses, including a farm with a few goats, chickens and vegetables. Those arrested include a Swiss sitcom actor, a distinguished clarinettist, a student nurse and Benjamin Rosoux, an Edinburgh University graduate who runs the grocer’s shop and its adjoining bar-restaurant.
The alleged ringleader, Julien Coupat, 34, is still being held in prison despite a judge’s ruling that he be released. A former business and sociology student from an affluent Parisian suburb, Coupat moved to Tarnac in search of a non-consumerist lifestyle, saying he wanted to live frugally. The poor village of 350 people is home to a growing number of young people who have escaped the city for a simple life and sense of community. Together, the newcomers ran the shop, a mobile delivery service, the restaurant, a cinema club and an informal library.
Police said Coupat and his archaeologist girlfriend had been under surveillance for months. The arrests followed six incidents of vandalism on France’s high-speed railway lines, which caused delays for thousands of travellers but no casualties. Coupat and his girlfriend had allegedly been seen by police near a train line that was later vandalised.
The couple had come to the attention of the FBI months earlier when they took part in a protest outside an army recruitment centre in New York. They and acquaintances are said to have often travelled to protests and demonstrations such as a recent protest at a European summit on immigration at Vichy.
French police say Coupat was the author of an anonymous tract against capitalism and modern society, The Coming Insurrection. The Paris prosecutor said the group was intent on armed struggle and used the farm in Tarnac as a “meeting point and place of indoctrination” for “violent action”. But France’s Human Rights League, opposition politicians and intellectuals criticised the arrests as an attack on civil liberties and an abuse of France’s draconian anti-terrorist laws. Defence lawyers say there is no evidence for terrorist charges.
Inspired by the indignant villagers of Tarnac, support committees for the Tarnac Nine have sprung up across France and in the US, Spain and Greece. In Moscow, supporters demonstrated outside the French embassy. A national protest is planned in Paris this month. The interior minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, has been challenged in parliament over the case but insists there are “concrete elements” to support terrorism charges.
In the bar adjoining Tarnac’s grocery store, as farmers tucked into their lunch, Jérôme, 28, who moved from the city seeking an alternative lifestyle in Tarnac, said he knew those who had been arrested and had stayed at their farm. “The portrayal of this place has been absurd. The farm is a very collective place and the village has a convivial atmosphere, doors are always open. They say we lived a secretive existence hidden away in the woods. That’s not true – the farm is beside the road. They talk of a ‘group’ when there is no group. They say there was a ringleader … but there is no boss here, that’s an absurdity. It’s against our whole thinking.”
He said the government was trying to create an idea of an “enemy within”, branding all forms of leftwing demonstrations and activism as terrorism.
The government said those arrested did not have mobile phones in order to avoid being detected. Their supporters said there was poor network coverage in the area and they shunned mobile phones as consumerist.
Tarnac sits on the plateau of Millevaches in the northern corner of Corrèze, in rural Limousin, famous for its cattle, poverty and emigration. The surrounding countryside was used by the resistance during the second world war and the village, which for decades had a communist mayor, has long been leftwing.
Across the hill from the farm where Coupat was arrested, Thierry Letellier, the independent mayor of the neighbouring village, tended his sheep farm. He said: “They were my neighbours, helping me on the farm and selling my meat at the shop. They were kind, intelligent and spoke several languages. They were politicised, on the left and clearly anti-capitalist like lots of people here, but they were people active in community life who wanted to change society at a local level first. To say that they were the descendants of Baader-Meinhof or the Red Brigades with no proof, I’m completely against that.”
He dismissed the interior minister’s claims that it was easy for “terrorists” to move into a remote village where people were not very bright and wouldn’t notice. “It’s true that members of Eta [the Basque terrorist group] have been found in the area, but they were hidden, they had no support, no one knew them. These people were a key part of our community.”
Coupat’s well-connected doctor father said the government was using the case to “intimidate youth”.
One man, drinking in Tarnac’s bar, said: “Did they do something silly or not? It’s on the news every night but we’re no closer to the truth. I feel we’re being manipulated.”
Chopping wood outside his house, André Filippin, 65, said: “It’s ridiculous. I see them at the shop every day of the year, I help them with their drains, they help me. They are people who came to Corrèze to change their lives, to help people. We don’t view them as terrorists here.”
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