French Anarchists Charged With Rail Sabotage


Thursday, November 13, 2008

Nov. 11, 2008 Time Magazine

Don’t look now, but here comes Europe’s violent extreme-left again. Two decades after French police busted the radical group Action Directe, which waged a bloody urban guerrilla war during the 1970s and 1980s against French business and military interests, French authorities on Tuesday nabbed a group of anarchists suspected of having sabotaged the nation’s high-speed rail system over the last several weeks. The arrests aim not only to put an
end to the spate of vandalism that had wreaked havoc and panic among French travelers for the past two weeks; they may also derail any violent plans French anarchists might have been preparing with like-minded extremists with whom authorities say they were in contact in Germany, Belgium, and the U.K. (See Today in Pictures.)

The police raids took place early Tuesday morning in Paris and in four other
sites in France. A total of 20 people were arrested, and by mid-day 10 of
those had been officially placed under investigation for participating in
the spree of potentially deadly sabotage. In most of those incidents, hooked
metal bars had been attached to high-voltage electricity lines that power
high-speed trains; when the bars were snagged by passing locomotives, they
plowed a path of destruction through high-voltage power lines. A
total of six incidents of sabotage were recorded since Oct. 26, including a
coordinated operation Nov. 8 that targeted four different rail lines in
northern France and caused delays of nearly 160 high-speed TGV trains — including Eurostar service to London — leaving thousands of passengers

The sudden spate of sabotage capped nearly two years of sporadic
vandalism to French rail lines that successive inquiries attributed to
isolated, disgruntled trouble-makers. But the recent incidents showed
more skill, and their perpetrators seemed able to act at will without
detection. For that reason, French rail users were already rattled even
before the coordinated attacks of Nov. 8. The saboteurs struck in
virtually all corners of the nation without warning, and applied a high
degree of knowledge and technical ability in putting the destructive
metal hooks in place without being killed by the 25,000-volt power

After a further act of sabotage was reported Monday in southwestern France,
a decision was made to group individual investigations under the direction
of France’s centralized counter-terror operation in Paris, which collated
all the information police and intelligence services had related to the
inquiries. Within 24 hours, officials had narrowed their scope down to a
group of “autonomous anarchists” whose radical positions and increasingly
restless activity — including protesting during a G8 summit in Poland
last year — had led French intelligence services to place some of its
members under surveillance.

“They speak a very radical language, and have ties to groups abroad,” said
French Interior Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie in announcing the arrests
Tuesday. “Since becoming minister, I’ve noted the risks of the resurgence of
a violent radical left (given) the radicalization we’ve observed in it over
the past three or four years.”

French terrorism expert Roland Jacquard thinks Alliot-Marie is right to be
concerned — especially given similarities between the accused anarchist
group and Action Directe, which carried out the unit’s robberies,
assassinations, and machine gunning attacks. “Like Action Directe, these
anarchists set themselves up in out-of-the-way, rural communities where no
one would suspect them of anything more troubling than perhaps a general
ecologist lifestyle,” Jacquard says. “Like Action Directe, these anarchists
used that cover for their plots, and fled back under cover once operations
were over. But like Action Directe, that escalation of activity — and its
success — raised the potential of it sooner or later evolving into more
violent strikes targeting individuals or groups of people.” (See pictures of riots in France.)

Guillaume Pepy, chairman of France’s state-owned SNCF rail company, didn’t
go so far as to speculate about what else the group might have done had it
not been arrested. But he did say the “central role of rail travel as a
collective means of travel that France has made a priority” was also what
made it an inviting target for saboteurs seeking “to strike a blow at a
well-functioning French society.”

If so, France’s counter-terrorism organizations may not have seen the last
of belligerent behavior by extreme leftist groups that have largely been
dormant since Action Directe was smashed in 1987. “The economic and
financial crisis the world is now experiencing is a dream come true to the
extreme-left, especially with mainstream leftist political parties unable to
mount any real opposition to ruling conservatives,” Jacquard notes. “That
brings the possibility of social unrest radical leftists may seek to exploit
— or even provoke through violence of their own.”

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