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Gnomes freed to breed in woods

From Normandy to Alsace, from the outskirts of Paris to the Cote d'Azur, a spectre hangs over the French bourgeoisie: the spectre of suburban terrorism.

For more than a year a mysterious and ruthless gang - or gangs - have been invading lawns and rockeries at the dead of night and kidnapping garden gnomes. The group goes under the name Front de Liberation de Nains de Jardin (the Garden Gnome Liberation Front).

The latest outrages have been in Burgundy. On the lawn of a gendarmerie near Dijon this weekend, 22 garden gnomes form a disconsolate identity parade. Scores have been reported missing locally - 35 vanished in one weekend - but the owners have not identified their loved ones in the line-up at Arc-sur-Tille.

The gnomes were found by a mushroom-hunter in a local forest. They were standing in a straight line. No one has claimed responsibility, but circumstantial evidence suggests the Gnome Liberation Front is to blame.

The Front has stated that its aim is to free gnomes from ridicule and bondage in suburban gardens and return them to their woodland habitat. One pamphlet, signed by the Southern Section of the Hysterical Wing of the Gnome Liberation Front, said that "recent research" showed that garden gnomes could not breed in captivity. It said that their so-called "owners", however well-intentioned, were conspiring in an act of genocide.

The Front's threat to the suburban way of life is being taken seriously. Maybe.

Two counter-terrorist organiations have been formed. In Strasbourg, one set of gnome-loving vigilantes call themselves "Nainportequoi". In Rouen, there is the Association for the Defence of Suburban Kitsch. A spokesman accused the French government of underestimating the threat. The Front's real aim, he said, was to "seize power" in France.

The forces of order wonder whether the same people might not be behind both the gnome attackers and gnome defenders.