Thursday, May 28, 2009

I'm back! He's out!

28 May, 2009.

Julien Coupat (pictured above) walked out of the Santé prison today [actually he was driven out in the trunk of a car--ndlr], for the time being a free man. Anyone who might chance to be reading this blog might also know why this is front-page news in France (though unworthy so far of a mention in the Times): Coupat has been held without charges for more than six months on suspicion of 'terrorism' in conjunction with a minor act of sabotage or vandalism--opinions differ--against the SNCF, the French railroad company. As the damage was slight, was claimed by another group operating out of Germany, and seems to have had no direct link to Coupat and his tiny band of anarchists, many in France have wondered just what this tenacious imprisonment was all about. A best guess is that the authorities were 1) charged by their boss, Mme. Alliot-Marie, the Interior minister, and her boss, President Sarkkozy, with finding some plausible evidence of terrorism, preferably home-grown leftist stuff, on French territory, so as to justify the increasingly imposing security measures Mme. Alliot-Marie has been implementing, and 2) impressed by the implacable tone of the small revolutionary tract, titled L'insurrection qui vient, attributed  to 'The Invisible Committee' and thought by many to be Mr. Coupat's handiwork.

It is worth asking why this rather diminutive event has been causing such a stir in France. Guantanamo it isn't, though perhaps French citizens more than their American confreres are particularly sensitive to infringements on accepted liberties. For example, the liberty to print one's ideas, however subversive: when The Invisible Committee's publisher, Eric Hazan, was hauled into a police station and grilled for four hours the other day, a committee of many dozens of French editors signed a protest letter to the newspapers in support of Hazan and the freedom of thought he represents. Others resent the deployment of squads of heavily armed anti-terrorist shock troops against a small group of unarmed 'autonomists,' as they are referred to, while others fear that the dangerous example of Bush/Cheney's prolonged terror-alert is being imported into France by Sarko the American.

One irony here is that the sabotage incident and subsequent raid on the group in its farmhouse in the tiny hamlet of Tarnac took place just days after Obama's election. Since then the high-powered paranoia of Cheney et al. has been broadly discredited, and a new respect for procedural justice and constitutional propriety has become message of the day from imperial headquarters in Washington. Once again Sarko the American's timing is just a little off. It was Sarko after all who campaigned in 2007 with a pledge to bring American-style finance, sub-prime mortgages, credit default swaps and all, to the backward precincts of his native land.  
France's heavy-handed treatment of Coupat and the Tarnac 9 might come to be seen as an out-of-phase epiphenomenon of the Global War on Terror, just as the books close on that sorry chapter in US history.

On the other hand France, with its history of street protest and the recent uprisings in Guadeloupe and elsewhere, may be more vulnerable than the US to the sorts of challenge posed by radicals such as Coupat. One of the targets of my NPA activist comrades in Paris is the government initiative to mount surveillance cameras all over Paris, where controlling the streets has long been a tactical goal. As the economic crisis deepens, many fear a recurrence of the insurgencies in the suburban cités, especially in this climate of labor unrest. A recent government edict banning hooded participants from public events led numerous colleagues to wear hooded sweatshirts to this year's May 1st parades. In this ongoing skirmish between the forces of Liberty and Order Julien Coupat's small drama has taken on a larger significance. This anonymous author of a visionary anarchist tract has been airlifted from the obscurity of his rural commune and dropped onto page one, where his eventual impact is far from certain.