The Tarnac 9 were once just nine individuals who had withdrawn from the capitalist paradigm to live a quiet, communal life in an isolated French mountain village. They grew their own food, opened a small grocery store and started a movie club where they screened films for their rural neighbors. The group, nearly all of whom hailed from affluent Paris suburbs, were highly educated and, by all accounts, friendly, helpful and generous. It was an idyllic existence, far from the consumer spectacle of modern urban existence.
But then someone – it has yet to be determined who – sabotaged railways in the surrounding countryside, injuring no one but delaying thousands of passengers for several hours.
Suddenly the commune became a cell. The isolated farmhouse became a base, the store became a front and the absence of mobile phones became evidence of an effort to avoid detection. Tarnac’s native population became unwitting accomplices to terrorism. Nine became 9.
In a terrifying show of force, French authorities raided the farmhouse in the predawn hours of November 11, 2008 and tore its sleeping inhabitants from their beds. The balaclava-clad police handled their wards not as alleged vandals or even saboteurs but as high-level enemies of the state: terrorists.
The ensuing investigation centered mainly around Julien Coupat, a 34-year-old activist who was described by French Interior Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie as the leader of the “anarcho-autonomist cell.” He had drawn the attention of the FBI for attending a protest outside an Army recruitment center in New York City which was later targeted in a bomb attack. French authorities were focused on his “ultra-leftist” activities, namely his communal lifestyle and alleged authorship of The Coming Insurrection.
Officially authored by “The Invisible Committee,” an anonymous group of activists and intellectuals, The Coming Insurrection is a slim manual that predicts the imminent collapse of capitalist culture and outlines a plan for the regeneration of collectivist values. Written in the wake of widespread riots that gripped French suburbs in 2005, the text is interpreted by some as an anarchist manifesto, a situationist-inspired call to arms. The French government sees it as a “manual for terrorism.” The move against Coupat and the rest of the Tarnac 9 was intended as a preemptive strike against the burgeoning anti-capitalist movement in France. While the others were released with relative speed, Coupat was held under “preventative arrest” until May of 2009 and labeled by the government as a “pre-terrorist.”
And there, buried within the idiom of conservative fear – leftist, anarcho, collectivist, commune – is the word that points to the real danger in this story: pre. Preemptive. Preventative. Pre-terrorist. The French government, fearing the societal upheaval that a mass rethink of capitalism would spawn, exercised the principles of preventive medicine as the doctrine of law. It suspected the presence of renegade cells, mutating into malignant tumors of dissent and threatening the health of the entire body politic, so the government acted preemptively by swiftly excising the tissue in question.
The one ray of hope shining down on this brave new world – in which people can be detained for transgressions they have yet to commit – is the massive show of solidarity that has grown around Coupat and the others. Groups have sprung up across France, Spain, the US and Greece. In Moscow, supporters marched in protest outside the French embassy. And in June an unauthorized reading of The Coming Insurrection at a Barnes & Noble in New York City sparked a spontaneous – albeit brief – insurgency that flowed through the streets and nearby shops. As the crowd pushed into a Union Square Starbucks, patrons closed their laptops and lowered their lattes. For a moment they were transfixed by the infidel who leapt onto a table and passionately recited passages from the book. As he assailed the very paradigm of which they were each implicitly a part, the customers – just for a moment – seemed to listen.
“I have no idea what’s going on,” said one. “But I like the excitement.”