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Among the believers of Tarnac

Last word Aaron Lake Smith visits the tiny town of Tarnac, home to France's most famous alleged enemies of the state.

Aaron Lake Smith visits the tiny town of Tarnac, home to France's most famous alleged enemies of the state. On the morning of November 11, 2008, 150 masked French police descended on the tiny, bucolic French village of Tarnac and arrested nine young people, charging them with acts of sabotage that had blocked high-speed train lines for several hours a few days earlier. The suspects, who have come to be known as the Tarnac Nine, belong to a group of about 50 squatters who left Paris starting in the early 2000s to live in closer concordance with their anti-capitalist beliefs. Upon their arrival in Tarnac, members of the group took over the depopulated town's failing bar and general store, which they now run as volunteer collectives. They also started a farm in a nearby village, where they raise livestock and grow their own food.

What made the arrest and detainment of the Tarnac Nine news in France was the Interior Ministry's decision to label the young radicals "terrorists" - calling their group an "association of wrongdoers in relation to a terrorist undertaking" - rather than classifying them as saboteurs. Though condemned by union leaders, sabotage is a relatively common tactic in French labour disputes: an investigation published by the newspaper Le Figaro found that the French rail system had faced 27,000 acts of such vandalism and sabotage in 2007 alone.

As it became clear that the actions the Tarnac Nine are accused of - hanging horseshoe-shaped iron rods over power lines on four train tracks - could not possibly have caused a train to derail, the French public and intellectuals like Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou sided with the group. The consensus was that they had been singled out for their alternative way of life; indeed, one government document specifically infers the group's criminality from the fact that many of its members don't own mobile phones. Support committees have been formed across the country, and there have been continuous demonstrations against their trial and detainment. In advance of their trial, the Nine have not declared themselves innocent of the sabotage in question, but have vigorously rejected the accusation that they are terrorists.

To further complicate things, members of the Tarnac Nine are suspected of being the authors behind a series of anonymous, incendiary books credited to "The Invisible Committee" that have been republished by La Fabrique in France and MIT Press in the US, and have found popularity with the post-1968 Left in both countries. The best-known title is called The Coming Insurrection, and it urges a new kind of renegade communism - lower-case "c" - that sheds the ideology's associations with the Soviet Union and Marxism. Though the Tarnac Nine defend the practice of anonymous authorship, they expressly deny writing "those books", as they call them.

Getting to Tarnac is not easy. The village is deep in the mountains of a heavily wooded area accessible only by two small roads. The closest train station is 30 miles away, in the small village of Eymoutiers. My train ratcheted through the snow; ice-crystal rivers, treacherous-looking peaks, and centuries-old stone houses passed outside my window. At the end of the line, Eymoutiers twinkled with pale Christmas lights, and I walked up an icy staircase into the empty public square. I attempted to hitchhike for a while, but it was already dark, and cars blew past me in the frigid twilight, throwing up grey slush from the road. While standing around figuring out what to do next, I met an archaeology student from Limoges named Matthieu who was home for the holidays. He agreed to give me a lift up to Tarnac in his truck. What followed can only be described as the most terrifying automotive experience of my life. Matthieu smoked, veering around the hairpin turns of the slushy one-lane road bounded only by a precipitous cliff. The night's blackness was total except for a thin little sliver of flaming orange that lingered near the horizon.

Matthieu was familiar with what had happened in Tarnac. "A lot of people around here support them, and feel like they were singled out," he said. When I asked him if anyone he knew felt threatened by the group, Matthieu shook his head. "No one feels that strongly about them except a handful of right-wing students." Matthieu bade me farewell in front of a well-lit pub, the only thing open in the barren, shuttered little town. Inside I found a relatively tranquil scene: leathery old Frenchmen sat at the wood-panelled bar, nursing pints of beer. Most of the young people were partnered off in man-woman couples - like a caricature of the back-to-the-land movement, the men were bearded and wore wool sweaters, and the women were plain and severe-looking. Babies wandered around in the haze of tobacco smoke, everyone in the bar doing their part to help take care of them.

As compared with much of the West, where most far-left gathering spaces have an eclectic grassroots aesthetic and proudly wear their ideologies on their sleeves, the pub in Tarnac was utterly normal, devoid of any clandestine sexiness. A young bartender wearily cut pieces off a smoked sausage and passed them out. I assumed I was in the wrong place and approached a girl with crinkly black hair and steely eyes who looked authoritative. "Is this the ... err.... communist bar?" I asked.

She gave me a look of utter derision. "This is the only bar. Are you a cop? The police are always watching us." "The paranoia is part of it," a guy at the bar chimed in. "When the police kidnap 10 of your friends and start calling them terrorists, people get paranoid." As I soon discovered, the accusation of terrorism lingers just below the surface of any conversation in Tarnac, as does the feeling that anyone who broaches the topic does so at the risk of becoming a social pariah.

I spent the rest of the evening drinking and talking with the inscrutable villagers. Many of them told a similar story: they had been squatters in Paris but had grown tired of the precariousness of their lifestyle: one day you have a home, the next day you're evicted. The group had come to Tarnac to, in their words, "build something new". I met a slight blond woman in her thirties named Mariella who had lived in Paris until she was 26. She expressed no regrets about moving to the tiny, lonely village: "Even when I lived fully in the city, I didn't like it: going to bars, going to concerts, getting drunk."

I was visiting at what many villagers described as an "odd" time. A week before, masked secret police had once again descended on Tarnac, this time arresting a young man named Christophe, making it the Tarnac 10. Meanwhile, the rest of the Tarnac Nine had gone on the offensive and written an indignant letter to their judge protesting the strict terms of the pretrial probation, under which they were not allowed to travel freely, live where they chose, or communicate with each other. Amazingly, the letter - published in Le Monde and titled "Why We Will No Longer Respect the Judicial Restraints Placed Upon Us" - actually worked: the judge announced that the Nine were free to move about until their trial. Most of them instinctively returned to Tarnac. When I arrived they were hanging around the bar like everyone else, looking dazed and glassy eyed, trying to reacclimate themselves to the syrupy pace of their old home after a gruelling year of prison and probation. They were for the most part friendly, but distant. The commune had deteriorated in their absence, they said: the farm had gone to pot, and they needed a new, more resilient organisational structure to keep things moving forward.

It was arranged for me to stay with a guy named Antoine who lived around the corner. Antoine's roommates had left Tarnac and moved back to Paris, so he had an empty bedroom. We walked across the empty public square in silence. Inside, his house was lonely-feeling and spartan, like the temporary dwelling of a divorcee. I asked Antoine why he came to Tarnac. He shrugged. "It is difficult to build things in the city. I certainly don't want to be isolated. But this is what I'm trying ..."

Aaron Lake Smith, a writer from North Carolina, is a Nation Institute grant recipient. His work can be found at oldwaysways.com

Published: January 28, 2010 04:00 AM

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