They are brilliant ex-students from bourgeois families who live in a farm commune in the green, empty, centre of France. To the delight of local people, they have revived the defunct village shop and bar. They are also, according to the French Interior Minister, "ultra-leftist-anarchist" subversives, members of an "invisible committee" plotting the violent downfall of capitalism.
Since nine of the alleged "terrorist grocers" were arrested one month ago, severe doubts have surfaced about the French government's allegations. Villagers at Tarnac in Corrèze in south-west France and parents of the suspects have campaigned for the investigation against the so-called "Tarnac Nine" to be dropped. The whole notion of an "ultra-left" terrorist threat is an absurdity, they say: the convenient fantasy of an "authoritarian", centre-right government.
But what of the explosives planted this week – a few days before Christmas – in Printemps, the Paris department store? All the evidence suggests that this bizarre incident was not the work of an Afghan group, as a rambling warning letter to the French news agency claimed. Investigators, and independent experts, said yesterday that the ageing, unfused, and therefore non-threatening sticks of dynamite found in a lavatory cistern were probably planted by a lone crank or by a would-be subversive group on the far left.
The French intelligence expert and former intelligence official Eric Dénécé believes that the evidence points leftwards. "[The ultra left] is a threat which should be taken seriously," he said yesterday. "There is a real resurgence of these movements, driven by groups in Germany, Britain and the United States.
"They attract relatively young people, who are often highly intelligent. They start off in eco-terrorism or in the most radical wings of the animal rights or anti-capitalist movements."
The evidence that the Printemps "toilet bomb" was planted by someone on the far left comes mostly from the language of the warning letter to Agence France-Presse. There were no religious references or Koranic texts. Instead, the letter spoke of "capitalist" stores and "revolutionary" movements – words never used by Islamist radicals.
Police sources indicated yesterday that the "Islamist" line of inquiry for the Printemps "bomb" had been more or less abandoned. They said that inquiries now concentrated on the possibility of a malicious stunt by someone with a grudge against the store or a "clumsy" attempt to spread fear by an extremist group, "probably on the left".
The evidence for an ultra left-wing Printemps plot is thin – so far. The evidence against the Tarnac Nine is equally thin – but intriguing. Seven of the "nine" have been placed under formal investigation by magistrates but released pending further inquiries. Two – the alleged ringleaders, a boyfriend and girlfriend, Julien Coupat and Yildune Levy, aged 34 and 25 – remain in custody, accused of "associating with wrong-doers with terrorist aims". Their parents have been refused permission to see them.
One month after the arrests, the only evidence assembled against the couple suggests that they were linked to a series of crude but effective attacks on the overhead power cables of railway lines.
In October and November, small, hooked, U-shaped pieces of metal were suspended on the 25,000 volts power supply of high-speed lines, bringing down the wires when a Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) passed. No one was hurt, or could possibly have been hurt in these escapades, except the attackers themselves. This was vandalism certainly and maybe politically motivated sabotage. The attacks caused enormous annoyance and heartache for thousands of passengers whose trains were blocked for several hours. But can such activities really be described as "terrorism"?
On 8 November, M. Coupat and Mme Levy were briefly questioned and released by police in the early hours of the morning on a small road east of Paris, 250 miles from their home in Corrèze. A couple of miles away, an hour or so later, a TGV ran into one of the U-shaped hooks on a high-speed line.
It was three days before investigators linked M. Coupat's name to a subversive book published last year, signed by the "Invisible Committee". The book describes acts of civil disobedience, including ways to block railway lines. A dawn police raid was made on 11 November on the commune where he lived in the pretty hill village of Tarnac. Co-ordinated raids were also made on the homes of Mme Levy and other friends of M. Coupat in the greater Paris area, in Rouen and in Lorraine.
Defence lawyers say that no evidence has yet been produced to link any of the other suspects to the TGV attacks. No direct evidence – other than their presence close to the scene of one incident – has been produced against M. Coupat and Mme Levy. Residents of the Tarnac commune – up to 20 young people and children at any one time – did not appear to be sinister or reclusive. All were on good terms with their, mostly well-heeled, parents. They were admired by their conservative, farming neighbours for their hard work and their resurrection of the village shop.
Leaks from the police investigation suggest, darkly, that they avoided mobile phones because they wished to remain "undetected". The commune members say that they shunned them as symbols of a consumerist society.
The case of the "Tarnac Nine" seemed initially to be an enormous coup for the French government and especially for the Interior Minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie. Ever since she took office last May, Mme Alliot-Marie has been warning, publicly and privately, that Europe faces a grave threat from a new generation of "ultra-leftist" terrorists, who hope to revive the 1970s activities of the German Baader-Meinhof gang, the Italian Red Brigades and the French "Action Directe".
On the afternoon of 11 November, Mme Alliot-Marie announced the arrest of the Tarnac Nine, amid great media fanfare. They were suspected, she said, of being part of a secret, well-organised movement of "ultra-left, anarchist, autonomists" with international links.
"These people wanted to attack the SNCF [the publicly owned French railway company] as a symbol of the state," she said.
Since then, the investigation has made little progress. Judges ordered the release of two suspects, then another three. Villagers in Tarnac have protested against what they see as an "absurd" attack on young people living a harmless, alternative lifestyle and providing useful local services. A few days ago, more than 150 people attended a support meeting in the Tarnac village hall, addressed by the parents of four of the suspects.
"In Tarnac, they planted carrots without bosses or leaders," said the mother of one suspect, who declined to be identified. "And these are the people that the police suspect of being super-organised."
Awkward questions have been asked in the French press and by opposition politicians and even within President Nicolas Sarkozy's centre-right government. There may be evidence against two of the "nine", but how can aggravated vandalism be described as "terrorism"? Why has so much been made by Mme Alliot-Marie of what may – at most – have been an act of priggish civil disobedience by a couple of brilliant young people with idealist-extremist ideas?
"Our freedom is under threat. We are living in a police state," said Jocelyne Coupat, the mother of the chief suspect. She and her husband, Gérard, both doctors, have campaigned tirelessly for their son's release and asserted his innocence. They live in a wealthy suburb west of Paris and have always voted for the centre-right.
Michel Levy, the father of Yildune, has a rather different background. He took part in the student protests of May 1968 and remains a friend of the leader of the protests, Daniel Cohn-Bendit. His daughter is an archaeologist with a first class degree. Her boyfriend, M. Coupat, attended prestigious business and economics colleges in the Paris area and speaks six languages. "They are trying to make them out to be Bonnie and Clyde. It's a load of old rubbish," said M. Levy.
Benjamin Rosoux, 30, the main "shopkeeper" at Tarnac, was among the seven people arrested and later released. He has since complained to the French press about the "surreal" questioning by police investigators. He said that they asked questions such as: "Do you have orgies in your commune?" or made accusations such as: "Your heads are full of rubbish because you have read too many books."
He confesses to left-wing "militant" views but rejects the accusation that the Tarnac commune was a kind of terrorist base camp.
By using the word "terrorist" as "a kind of badge of infamy", he said, the government was trying to undermine "anyone who opposes its policies, anyone who has a different vision of the world". Both investigations – the Printemps toilet bomb and the "terrorist" grocers of Corrèze – continue...