Members of an alleged anarchist organisation have gone on trial accused of attempting to sabotage part of France’s high-speed rail network a decade ago.
Investigators say the Tarnac group deliberately placed steel rods on overhead power cables on three TGV lines to sabotage the routes.
The eight accused, who deny the charge, claim national politicians manipulated the police and legal system to portray them as dangerous, ultra-left anarchists with terrorist links.
Though high profile in 2008, the prosecution’s case has slowly receded over the last 10 years from a reported lack of evidence. On Tuesday, the most serious offence that group members faced was of damaging public property and lesser charges of violent protests and refusing to give a DNA sample.
Defence lawyers claim politicians put pressure on investigators, some of whom allegedly infiltrated the group, to come up with information confirming it was terrorist-linked, in order to show they were being tough on crime. It was, they say, a “political, police, legal and media fiction”.
The prosecution says reports from undercover agents inside the Tarnac group suggested it had crossed the line from ideas of anarchy to actual sabotage.
The group, named after the village of the same name in the Corrèze in south west France where it was formed, was made up of mostly well-educated youngsters from comfortable backgrounds who held leftwing views. A dozen of them set up a rural commune to live a simpler life under the guidance of Julien Coupat, a far-left intellectual from a wealthy family, now 43 and working as a theatre troupe director.
French authorities had a different view; claiming the group shunned consumerism and mobile phones to avoid being traced by the authorities, and suggesting the charismatic Coupat was the group’s guru.
The Tarnac group hit the headlines in November 2008, when dramatic news footage showed 150 hooded and armed police descending on the small commune to arrest 12 people.
A few days previously, steel rods had been placed on overhead power cables on three TGV lines, one in the north of France, a second in the centre and a third in the Paris region, forcing the cancellation of more than 100 trains and leaving around 20,000 passengers stranded.
Michèle Alliot-Marie, then the interior minister in President Nicolas Sarkozy’s centre-right government, praised the security operation and said those arrested were part of an “ultra left, anarchist-autonomist movement linked to sabotage”. The state prosecutor described the group as an “invisible cell” bent on “armed struggle”.
It was later claimed that a British police spy had infiltrated the group, but Coupat described him as “insignificant”.
The accused, who face up to 10 years in jail if convicted, say there is no evidence against them and that police have faked reports. The trial is expected to last three weeks.