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Politics of anti-terrorism loom over train sabotage trial in France

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Investigators in Tarnac on 11 November 2008, as part of the investigation into sabotage of high-speed train lines.. AFP/Thierry Zoccolan

The trial of eight political activists accused of accused of sabotaging high-speed trains ten years ago opened in Paris on Tuesday. Investigators initially pursued and then dropped controversial terrorism charges, and the trial maintains an air of political intrigue.


In November 2008, somebody placed steel rods on catenaries of four on France’s high-speed train lines, immobilised the trains and causing delays for some 20,000 people, though without risk of bodily harm.

Three days later, a group of activists living in and around the town of Tarnac in the Corrèze department of central France were arrested before TV cameras and charged with belonging to a terrorist group.

Public officials at the time warned of a resurgence of violent underground groups, with the then-Interior Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie said the group was an “anarcho-autonomous cell” who state prosecutor Jean-Claude Marin said were motived by “armed struggle”.

But as the shock of the arrests wore off, a different profile of the alleged terrorists emerged, as it was learned they were involved in activism against corporate globalisation and had settled in Tarnac to reopen the general store and run organic farms.

It also emerged that anti-terror police had been following the group for months, and - crucially for the trial to come - knew the activists were aware they were being followed.

The ensuing investigation was also marked by irregularities, and critics accused the government under the then-president Nicolas Sarkozy of manipulating the legal system for political ends.

Political motives to be questioned at trial

Investigators dropped the terror charges in January 2017, meaning the trial is on the basis of common-law charges including conspiracy, fraud and failing to submit to DNA tests.

However, the defendants will be looking to base their case on the methods used in the investigation.

“The defendants are in a courtroom because for many years, they were monitored and recorded in the name of anti-terrorism,” says David Dufresne, a journalist and author of a book on what is known in France as the Tarnac affair.

“Today they’re told that they have to respond to the evidence produced by that investigation, but they cannot question the methods, because they’re no longer accused of terrorism. The good news for them is that not being accused of terrorism relieves a lot of pressure in terms of prison sentences, but at the same time, it’s also a clever way to try to depoliticise the debate.”

In this way, Dufresne argues, the case raises questions about the motivations of terrorism charges and anti-terrorist investigations around the world.

“It’s not a matter of common law offenses, like break-ins, thefts, and so on,” he says. “It’s a question of people who carry out acts in the name of their political convictions. And anti-terrorist police forces are eminently political police forces. The Tarnac affair raises questions relevant around the world, because the world today lives under the terrorist threat and under the anti-terrorist response.”