Members of a far-right group went on trial in Paris on Tuesday, accused of plotting to assassinate Emmanuel Macron as part of an attempted coup.
Prosecutors say members of a group called Les Barjols planned to attack the president with a knife during an official visit to north-east France in November 2018.
Detectives, who bugged telephone conversations during the four-year investigation, claim there were also plans to kill migrants and attack mosques as well as evidence of antisemitism, but none of the alleged plots was carried out.
Defence lawyers say the group’s threats were just talk and there was no concrete or imminent threat to Macron.
The absence of any criminal actions led prosecutors to downgrade the charges against those on trial – 12 men and a woman aged between 26 and 66 – to conspiring to commit a terrorist act. The defendants, who face a maximum 10-year jail term if found guilty, have denied any wrongdoing.
Lucile Collot, a defence lawyer, said the prosecution’s case was based “on the fiction that a violent act was going to happen”.
Les Barjols, a nationalist and anti-immigration group using the nickname locals in Mali gave soldiers taking part in France’s 2013-14 Serval military operation, was formed on Facebook around the beginning of 2017.
Arrests followed a tipoff to France’s interior security services suggesting a far-right activist based in the Alps region was planning to attack Macron in November 2018 during a first world war Armistice Day commemoration at Verdun in north-east France. Its presumed leader, Denis Collinet, an unemployed man in his 60s and a former activist for the far-right Front National, now the Rassemblement National (RN – National Rally), was arrested in 2020.
Prosecutors claimed the group, which had 5,000 members at one point, also conspired to kidnap members of parliament and overthrow the government. Some meetings included paramilitary-style shooting practice and training in first aid.
The woman in the dock, who has not been named, is a 53-year-old former military secretary from the Dordogne, who held one Les Barjols meeting at her home.
During raids on members’ property, officers say they found firearms, including an M16 assault rifle and instructions on how to make explosives. Police allegedly found a knife in the home of Les Barjols member Jean-Pierre Bouyer, 66, when they arrested him days before Macron’s visit. However, during questioning Bouyer insisted it was all just angry talk.
“He admits there were discussions but they never went any further,” Bouyer’s lawyer, Olivia Ronen, told Agence France-Presse. She accused the prosecution of failing to place his hostile remarks towards Macron “in the context of the time”, when there was widespread anger in France over rising fuel prices that led to the emergence of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement.
“What was presented to us as a planned attack on the president of the Republic is in fact the beginnings of the yellow vests”, Ronen added.
One group member held “dissenting views on government” and made comments that were “sometimes extreme”, the defence lawyer, Gabriel Dumenil, said. “But does that mean that they meant to take action, and make an attempt on the life of the head of state? The answer is no.”
Prosecutors will argue the group’s plans were “entirely aimed at seriously disrupting public order through intimidation and terror” and that it existed well before the yellow vests.
The trial will run until 3 February.