Police seize Bové in airborne raid for destroying GM crops

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The French small farmers' leader and anti-globalisation campaigner, José Bové, was starting a 10-month jail sentence last night for destroying genetically modified crops, his third spell in prison in four years. M. Bové had been hoping for a pardon from President Jacques Chirac but gendarmes broke open the door of his farmhouse in the southern Auvergne early yesterday and bundled him into a helicopter.

His supporters and his lawyer protested at the melodramatic arrest. They accused the right-wing French government of persecuting him because of his popularity as one of the leaders of the international movement against the globalisation of trade. M. Bové's lawyer, François Roux, said: "They forced his door and dragged him away like a criminal. He didn't have time to gather personal possessions, not even a toothbrush."

A group of his supporters lit a bonfire yesterday outside the gendarmerie headquarters in Millau, the nearest town to his sheep farm on the Larzac plateau. M. Bové is a far-left politician-turned farmer, turned small-farmers' leader, who rocketed to media stardom when he led a violent attack on a McDonald's restaurant at Millau, 60 miles north of Montpellier, in 1999.

Although there is no doubt about his guilt - he led two attacks on experimental GM crops, in a field and in a laboratory - M. Bové says unions representing large French farms have got away with much greater political vandalism for decades. He claims he has been victimised because he represents a union of small farmers and the fight against globalisation.

A petition calling on M. Chirac to pardon him has been signed by 800,000 people from all over the world. There were strong hints from the government yesterday that M. Bové may be freed when M. Chirac announces his annual list of pardons for the 14 July national holiday.