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The Story of the Tarnac 9

I. The Case*

On 11 November 2008, twenty French youths are arrested simultaneously in Paris, Rouen, and in the small village of Tarnac (located in the district of Corrèze, in France's relatively impoverished Massif Central region). The Tarnac operation involves helicopters, one hundred and fifty balaclava-clad anti-terrorist policemen and studiously prearranged media coverage. The youths are accused of having participated in a number of sabotage attacks against the high-speed TGV train routes, involving the obstruction of the train's power cables with horseshoe-shaped iron bars, causing material damage and a series of delays affecting some 160 trains. Eleven of the suspects are promptly freed. Those who remain in custody are soon termed the 'Tarnac Nine', after the village where a number of them had purchased a small farmhouse, reorganised the local grocery store as a cooperative, and taken up a number of civic activities from the running of a film club to the delivery of food to the elderly. In their parents' words, 'they planted carrots without bosses or leaders. They think that life, intelligence and decisions are more joyous when they are collective'.[1]

Almost immediately, the Minister of the Interior, Michèle Alliot-Marie, brushing aside Republican legal niceties, intervenes to strongly underline the presumption of guilt and to classify the whole affair under the rubric of terrorism, linking it to the supposed rise of an insurrectionist 'ultra-left' (ultra-gauche), or 'anarcho-autonomist tendency' (mouvance anarcho-autonome), filling in the vacuum left by the collapse of the institutional Left (the PCF). Invoking anti-terrorist legislation, the nine are interrogated and detained for 96 hours; four are subsequently released. The official accusation is that of 'association of wrongdoers in relation to a terrorist undertaking', a charge that can carry up to 20 years in jail; what's more, the accused might be detained for as long as two years before their case goes to trial. On December 2, three more of the Tarnac Nine are released under judiciary control, leaving two in jail, at the time of writing (early January 2009): Julien Coupat and Yldune Lévy.

Giorgio Agamben and Luc Boltanski, among others, write editorials decrying the disproportion and hysteria of this repressive operation.[2] A petition is circulated by Eric Hazan, radical publisher and friend of Coupat, signed by Badiou, Bensaïd, Butler, Rancière, Žižek and several others.[3] In Tarnac (a village proud of its role in the Resistance, and represented by a communist mayor for four decades) a combative committee of support is set up, conveying a virtually unanimous show of solidarity of the villagers with the arrested; other committees and protests emerge in Bruxelles, New York, Moscow, and elsewhere.

In what has been called 'the greatest operation of intoxication of opinion carried out by a [French] government in decades',[4] the attention of the media focuses on Coupat, personally charged with 'directing a terrorist group'. The time-honoured reactionary motif is that of the child of the bourgeoisie who betrays his class and drifts into violent idealism. Some journalists refer to him as the égaré de l'ESSEC, after the elite business school where Coupat obtained his first degree. Readers of the press are soon apprised of Coupat's DEA dissertation on Guy Debord at the EHESS, where he worked closely with Luc Boltanski (the latter thanks him in The New Spirit of Capitalism), of his involvement in the journal and collective Tiqqun, and of his alleged authorship of the book L'insurrection qui vient (The Coming Insurrection) signed by the 'Comité Invisible'.[5] This tract (on which more below) - which Hazan, its publisher at La Fabrique, refuses to ascribe to him[6] - turns out to be one of the main planks in the aspersions and accusations with which Alliot-Marie and various elements of the French state saturate the media. She even avows that the aim of this operation is to send a 'message', dissuading those who might be tempted to take the path of Coupat and his comrades. In rather flagrant contradiction with both the tenor of L'insurrection and what may be surmised about the modus operandi of the Tarnac commune, he is painted as the charismatic ring-leader.

As the media feeding frenzy progresses, some of the ideological and investigative background surfaces in the press (the intelligence agency which reports directly to the Ministry of the Interior, the Direction centrale du renseignement intérieur [DCRI], the 'French FBI' which replaced the famous Renseignements géneraux [RG] in July 2008, seems rather prone to leaks, managed or otherwise). It appears that Coupat had long been an object of observation by the section of the RG tasked with monitoring the left. One of their reports, which notes Coupat's work in Tiqqun and participation at Actuel Marx's third Marx International conference in 1998, in a panel with a number of Bourdieusian sociologists, even describes him as a 'critical metaphysician'[7] - one of several ironic indications in this whole affair of the passing acquaintance of French spooks with the world of philosophy and political theory. Increasingly, he is tagged as a leading light in an ominous and diffuse political agitation, vaguely designated as 'anarcho-autonomist', which eschews the domains of organisation, political representation and regulated conflict for the sake of direct action and irrecuperable opposition to capitalism. Unsurprisingly, for a case steeped - however 'tragicomically', to borrow Agamben's apt adjective - in the new language of security and the 'war on terror', the Tarnac affair has a trans-Atlantic component: the FBI had contacted their French counterparts to signal an allegedly illegal crossing from Canada into the US by Coupat and his companion Lévy, and the discovery, in a rucksack left at the border, of a picture of the recruiting office in New York's Times Square which would later be the object of a small bomb attack, together with written documents from North American anarchists.[8] The broader context of the whole operation is the theorem, dear to Alliot-Marie and the security apparatus of the Sarkozy government, of the mounting threat of an anti-capitalist, anti-statist and anti-systemic radicalization of youth in France and across Europe which cannot be contained in the usual avenues of social conflict. The revealing title of a report on this putative phenomenon by the DCRI is accordingly: 'From the anti-CPE conflict to the constitution of a pre-terrorist network: Perspectives on the French and European ultra-left'.[9]

The 2006 protests against the law on job contracts for the young (Contrat de première embauche), following hard upon the autumn 2005 revolts in the marginalised banlieues, played a defining role in the rise to prominence and eventual victory of Sarkozy, whose swaggering, bullying performance as a Minister of the Interior during the riots - when he declared his intention to hose down (karchériser) those neighbourhoods and to face down the riotous scum (racaille) - became a trademark of sorts. The Sarkozy presidency began under the sign of a deep anxiety, a reactionary rage for order whose other side was the obsessive scrutinizing of the future for signs of social turmoil and radical novelty - in this instance, one might very well agree with the Comité Invisible that 'governing has never been anything but pushing back by a thousand subterfuges the moment when the crowd will hang you'.[10] Given the political peculiarities of France, this fear of the future (and its masses) took the form of an exorcising of the past - as in Sarkozy's campaign ultimatum: 'In this election, we're going to find out if the heritage of May 68 is going to be perpetuated or if it will be liquidated once and forever'. The compulsive reference to the rebellious past, which is simultaneously imagined as a future - as in Sarkozy's recent statement to his cabinet, in view of the possible spread of the 'Greek syndrome', that 'We can't have a May '68 for Christmas'[11] - provides the current French administration with its libidinal content, a much needed supplement for its grim vapidity at the level of its programme.

The very notion of 'preterrorism' is deeply symptomatic: it makes patent the link between the obsessive identification of 'dangerous individuals' and the imagination of future revolts that call for repressive pre-emption. As Boltanski and Claverie have noted, there is an echo of Minority Report and its 'precogs'. The context of the world economic crisis and the not unrelated upsurge of the '600 euro generation' in Greece serve as a backdrop. Indeed, as an anti-terrorist magistrate recently confessed: 'There is a temptation during a time of crisis to consider any illegal manifestation of political expression to be of a terrorist nature'.[12] Reading the extracts from the RG and DCRI service reports, the radical minded pessimist might be heartened to see such confidence in the possibility of radical revolt being shown by the state and its agencies. Alternatively, she might muse that the logic of immunising oneself against 'terrorism' by nipping pre-terrorism in the bud - with all of its hackneyed references to Baader-Meinhof or Action Directe ('they too started out by writing pamphlets and living in communes ') - is more likely to accelerate and intensify a process of so-called radicalization, fashioning the state and the legal system into enemies with whom one cannot negotiate. Whatever it may say about the prospects for radical politics and its attendant suppression, this 'affair' illustrates the metastasis of a transnational politics of securitisation, which is now being applied to any form of activity that importunes the established order - from hacking to separatism, from anti-war demonstrations to environmental activism. The looseness of anti-terrorism legislation recalls Walter Benjamin's characterisation of the police in his 'Critique of Violence': 'Its power is formless, like its nowhere-tangible, all-pervasive, ghostly presence in the life of civilized states' - a situation enhanced by the development of what the parents of the accused pointedly refer to as 'reality-police', as one might speak of 'reality-TV'.

Julien Coupat's father, Gérard, turned by his son's ordeal into an eloquent and intransigent advocate for civil liberties, recently put the stakes of this police campaign in stark terms: 'They are turning my son into a scapegoat for a generation who have started to think for themselves about capitalism and its wrongs and to demonstrate against the government.   The government is keeping my son in prison because a man of the left with the courage to demonstrate is the last thing they want now, with the economic situation getting worse and worse. Nothing like this has happened in France since the war. It is very serious'.[13] Like many others, Coupat senior has underscored the ominous prospect of a form of government so politically illiterate and monolithic in its reactions that it cannot distinguish sabotage - a practice that has always accompanied social and workers' movements - from 'terrorism', a term that is indiscriminately albeit deliberately used to cover everything from mass murder to train delays.  

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