New Internationalist

Tarnac and the Echoes

Issue 428

L’affaire Tarnac is a story little-followed outside of France. Horatio Morpurgo tracks down the collective – whose members have been accused by the police of terrorist activity – and explains why we should all be paying more attention.

When you want to shoot the dog, you say it bit somebody – French proverb

Or, in this case, you say there is compelling evidence, which unfortunately you cannot make public, that the dog was just about to start thinking about biting somebody. The ‘Tarnac Affair’ has just celebrated its first birthday. This is, for now, largely un débat franco-français, a story followed little outside the French-speaking world. It is likely for several reasons to start attracting a wider audience.

This may not sound like very terroristic behaviour, but do not be deceived. The French State wasn’t. Some 700 hectares around the village were sealed off by local police at dawn on the day of the arrests, before 150 armed, door-smashing and balaclava-wearing specialists went in after the dangerous criminals

The first reason relates to the case itself. Of the nine young people arrested under anti-terror legislation in November 2008, five were then imprisoned. The last of them was released six months later but all are still awaiting trial. They are charged with ‘criminal association for the purposes of terrorist activity’, specifically with an attempted sabotage of the high-speed rail network in eastern France.

The suspects belong to a loose grouping which settled in and around a small village in the Limousin region of central France, called Tarnac. They collectively run a small farm there and when the owners of the last shop in the village announced their retirement these young people took it over, together with the attached bar and restaurant. They fixed up a projector in the bar to show films. They deliver groceries by van to the surrounding hamlets and farmsteads. Their children have saved the village school from threatened closure.

This may not sound like very terroristic behaviour, but do not be deceived. The French State wasn’t. Some 700 hectares around the village were sealed off by local police at dawn on the day of the arrests, before 150 armed, door-smashing and balaclava-wearing specialists went in after the dangerous criminals. The military style of the operation extended to its timing as well: this was the morning of 11 November 2008. The dead of two world wars are remembered all over Europe on that morning, and the ceremonies which mark the occasion in every village in this part of France have a very particular significance.

Early resistance

The thickly wooded plateau in which Tarnac is situated was at the very centre of the earliest resistance to Nazi occupation. The area is also home to a long-standing rural communist tradition, from which that resistance movement initially arose. This is a fact which lay for many years uneasily on the conscience of the consumer-democracy installed in France after the war, and in the Limousin at least it is still not forgotten. The resistance here began by reorganizing agricultural production and was of course labelled a ‘terrorist organization’ by the occupiers for its pains. We will perish if the echo of their voices dies away, as one poet put it. Goons in bovver-boots and balaclavas are well advised to do a little reading before they start sealing off villages and rounding up ‘terrorists’ in a place like this.

You begin to see perhaps what is being played out symbolically in this remote village, and why the French media has been so transfixed by it. The story marked its first birthday by taking an even more shivery turn: a respected magazine, Le Nouvel Observateur, has openly suggested, along with lawyers and politicians, that the main piece of evidence against these people was fabricated by the police, and that the witness ‘X’ who testified against them was manipulated. The police for their part marked the anniversary by breaking down yet another door at 6.30 am and holding a distraught four year old at gun-point while his father was arrested on the same terror charges as his mother had been the year before. Both sides are still raising the stakes.

Echoes of the past

So much for the Tarnac Affair and its continuing twists and turns. There are other reasons for paying attention to it. The ‘echoes’ it has put back in circulation are actually many and various. The writings of Guy Debord and the ‘situationists’ of 1968 have been invoked as a key influence on this rural co-operative. And just as there are policemen who specialize in breaking down unlocked doors, so there are their political and journalistic colleagues who specialize in name-calling. These bar-staff, shop-keepers and small-holders have, accordingly, found themselves described as ‘ultra-leftists’ or ‘autonomous anarchists’ or connected to the violent Action Directe movement of the 1970s and 1980s. For those I spoke to, it was not at all clear what these terms might mean as applied to them. Others see a link with the rioting of disaffected youth in the suburbs of Paris and other cities in 2005.

The affair has been connected in the public mind with a book, too, of which the English translation, The Coming Insurrection, appeared in July 2009. Written by a self-styled ‘Invisible Committee’, the people I spoke to in Tarnac had mostly read it – as have many young French people – but denied having written it. All had criticisms of it. Different criticisms, I might add. The book itself speaks of having been written ‘by’ the present situation, economic and political. Its anonymity is above all a gesture of defiance towards that inane star system which now characterizes every aspect of western culture, the media in particular.

Just as there are policemen who specialize in breaking down unlocked doors, so there are their political and journalistic colleagues who specialize in name-calling

This system was already, for Guy Debord and the situationists, a symptom of late capitalist nihilism. In his Society of the Spectacle (1967) the plethora of images, personalities and ‘news’ to which we are now subjected forms only part of a wider hollowing out of any culture subjected to the full rigour of the market. This spectacle ‘takes on an independent existence’ and becomes ‘the ruling order’s defence’, a reign of appearances under which no ‘central question’ can any longer be openly and honestly posed. To those who dissent from it ‘the spectacular system reacts… with incomprehension or attempts to misrepresent them’.

And they have had journalists up to here at Tarnac. The experience of being interviewed, then finding what you said totally absent from what you later read or hear, has only confirmed suspicions about the extent to which the media now refers to anything beyond itself. The welcome I received, nonetheless, was a generous, if at first a guarded, one.

Where is the group-think?

I saw people working together but I heard, if anything, rather less group-think than I hear, say, in my home town. Arriving here from elsewhere, with a variety of motives, some conflicting, trying a commune at first, finding it difficult, improvising new arrangements which seem to work better… It seemed to me they are trying above all to ask joined-up questions about the way we live now and answer them in a joined-up way, too, with the whole of their lives. Talk climate catastrophe less, find a place you want to live and work in more, with a history you identify with. Rummage about in the past for examples that still have some mileage in them, look clearly at the world around you for clues as to where it might be headed.

It seemed to me they are trying above all to ask joined-up questions about the way we live now and answer them in a joined-up way, too, with the whole of their lives

So far as I could tell, their crime is to be attempting to live co-operatively in a culture which now regards such attempts as inherently suspicious. Why would middle-class kids with education (some of them), a bit of money (some of them) choose to live in the middle of nowhere, make their own entertainment and fix their own electrics? Why don’t they want to be millionaires or celebrities or astronauts, like normal people? There must be something else going on.

That said, I heard objections as much to the way they are sentimentalized by those in ‘sympathy’ with them, as to the distortions of those hostile to them. It’s as if their experiment has unwittingly hit some funny-bone in our present condition, such that the legal and media representations of them cannot help becoming parodies of themselves. One of their number, Julien Coupat, is either vilified as the sinister ring-leader or hailed as a kind of intellectual pin-up, depending on whether you are ‘for’ or ‘against’. Both views, as both he and others have insisted, are derived from a misreading of their intentions that is ‘spectacular’ in both senses.

This fiasco is instructive, I think, well beyond its immediate context. Try to join up what you really think with the way you live if you like. But do so, now, in the knowledge that the attempt will provoke at best an abstract support, bafflement more likely, at worst hysteria. The Tarnac experiment suggests that these are all any of us can expect until we each agree to install the machinery of permitted consumption at the centre of our lives. Until we think, that is, and want, and do, whatever the billboards and the television tell us to.

Merci à Monsieur Plazanet pour ‘le bon proverbe français’.

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