French Anarchists Charged With Rail Sabotage

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A TGV train on a high speed line between the French southern cities of Perpignan and Narbonne.

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 stranded.

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 lines.

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."

See pictures of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

See a pictorial history of the land speed record.