TCS Daily

Fear the "Reapers"

By John Rosenthal - December 23, 2005 12:00 AM

In a judgment with potentially far-reaching consequences that has been mostly ignored by the English-language media, a French court earlier this month acquitted 49 anti-GMO activists of charges of having destroyed fields of genetically-modified corn. The crops were being cultivated for experimental purposes by the American company Monsanto. The accused did not contest the facts of the case. Indeed, as members of an organized movement calling itself the "Volunteer Reapers" collective that makes a point of publicizing its acts of vandalism as "civil disobedience", they could hardly have done so. "To act without masks and in plain day is our force and our form of democratic self-expression," states the "Charter" of the "Volunteer Reapers". Using a particularly obscure principle of French law, the defense argued that in vandalizing the Monsanto fields the "reapers" had responded to a "state of necessity", thereby, in effect, rendering their crime... legal! Astonishingly, the court in Orléans agreed.

Though evidently more metaphysical than legal in character, this notion of the "state of necessity" has a relatively long history in French jurisprudence and received positive codification in Article 122-7 of the "new" French Criminal Code of 1994. The article reads as follows:

A person who in face of a present or imminent danger to himself, someone else, or property, commits an act that is necessary for the protection of the person or property in question, is not criminally responsible, unless there is a disproportion between the gravity of the threat and the means employed.

In this formulation, the notion of the "state of necessity" is easily confused with that of legitimate defense. But in fact the "state of necessity" has been typically invoked in French jurisprudence in connection with situations of extreme personal distress. The classical reference is the 1898 "Ménard case", involving a destitute young mother who stole bread to feed her child. Even in such cases, where the "the present or imminent danger" is concrete and tangible - starvation, for instance, in "Ménard" type cases - a "state of necessity" has rarely been recognized by the courts as having been established.

The Orléans court, however, recognized it as established in the case of the purely hypothetical and unspecified "danger" supposed, according to the anti-GMO militants, to be represented by transgenic crops. This was despite the fact that the argument from "necessity" forms a standard part of the legal repertoire of the "reapers" and has hitherto always been rejected by the French courts. The "state of necessity", the court ruled, "results from the uncontrolled dissemination of modified genes that constitute an actual and imminent danger for another's property in the sense that it could be the source of an undesired contamination or pollution."

Note that the French Agriculture Ministry, in authorizing Monsanto's experimental planting under highly regulated conditions of a crop that is in any case not naturally present in France, had already assessed the "danger" of cross-fertilization - here tendentiously stylized into "contamination or pollution" - to which the court alludes. Note, furthermore, that what the court here calls a "danger" (a " the sense that") is obviously just what in more colloquial terms is know as a possibility. Whether or not cross-fertilization represents a "danger" in the more habitual sense used in other "state of necessity" cases depends, of course, on the further assumption that GMO crops are themselves "dangerous". Despite the fact that such an assumption is scientifically unfounded, on the basis of the infamously vague and malleable "principle of precaution", the court was prepared to grant it.

Up until now, the French courts, while formally condemning "volunteer reapers", have shown extraordinary indulgence toward them when it came to applying sentence. French law lays down punishments of up to five years' imprisonment for grave acts of organized vandalism such as those committed by the "reapers". Nonetheless, as the "reapers" collective pointedly notes on its website, in pitching for new "volunteers", thus far only two have served any jail time all.

In the most famous case to date, in 2003, José Bové - patron of the French "reapers" and poster boy of the "anti-globalization" movement worldwide - was sentenced to ten months' imprisonment without parole for his role in a 1999 "raid" on transgenic crops in Montpellier. The sequel to the Bové sentencing speaks volumes about the commitment of the French state to combating the lawlessness of the anti-GMO activists. Bové began serving his sentence on June 22. On July 14, Bastille Day, French President Jacques Chirac made use of his executive powers of clemency in order personally to reduce Bové's sentence by four months. Just three weeks later, he would be definitively set free on a court-ordered "work release" that did not require him to return to prison and permitted him to resume his trade-union activities as spokesperson of the French Peasant Confederation. Sentenced to ten months' imprisonment without parole, José Bové spent all of 43 days in jail.

Now, however, the Orléans court has gone a step further and, squaring a jurisprudential circle, in effect, legalized the vigilantism of the "reapers". Needless to say, the "reapers" and their supporters in the French Green Party and the Peasant Confederation have welcomed this development. "When 70 percent of the French reject GMOs," noted Jean-Marie Sanchez of the Peasant Federation in alluding to public opinion polls, "it would be incoherent to condemn us so violently." The widespread appeal of this style of reasoning among "Green" activists should give cause to pause about the nature of the political movement that they represent. After all, was it not the president of the dreaded Nazi "Popular Court", Roland Freisler, who famously elevated what he called the "healthy sensations of the people for what is right and what is wrong" over "mere" respect for the letter of the law?

Do the French courts agree? Both the prosecutor's office and Monsanto have announced that they will appeal the decision of the Orléans court.

John Rosenthal's writings on international politics have appeared in Policy Review, the Opinion Journal, Les Temps Modernes and Merkur. He is the editor of the Transatlantic Intelligencer (    

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