Europe 1 with AFP 10:41 a.m., November 29, 2023

Eight months after violent clashes between environmental activists and the police, six to 12 months in prison were requested on Tuesday against the alleged organizers of banned demonstrations in Sainte-Soline (Deux-Sèvres) against the "basins".

"Freedom of expression" or "climate of terror"? Six to twelve months in prison with a suspended sentence were requested on Tuesday against the alleged organizers of banned demonstrations in Sainte-Soline (Deux-Sèvres) against the "basins", irrigation reserves whose merits have monopolized the debates.

A hearing lasting nearly 14 hours

Eight months after the violent clashes between environmental activists and the police near the Sainte-Soline "basin" site, the Niort criminal court has reserved its decision on the nine defendants until 17 January. This marathon hearing of nearly 14 hours allowed the parties to unfold their arguments, between the right to protest and the "trauma" of farmers targeted by degradation, between support for irrigation and concern for the imminence of "climate hell".

Prosecutor Julien Wattebled asked the court to "find a balance between freedom of expression and maintaining social cohesion", while describing a department where "fear has reigned for too long". "Our role is to say stop, because since this summer we have had announcements of bidding wars that tell you that it will be even stronger," he said, while the next anti-"basin" mobilization is announced next July in Poitou, just before the Paris Olympics.

He described Julien Le Guet, spokesman for the collective "Bassines non merci" which is calling for a moratorium on these agricultural reserves, as being "at the heart of the organisation", asking for a 12-month suspended prison sentence, a fine of 2,100 euros and a ban on approaching the reserves of Sainte-Soline and Mauzé-sur-le-Mignon.

The prosecutor's office, castigating a "climate of terror", also asked for an eight-month suspended sentence against Joan Monga, alias Basile Dutertre, and six months against Nicolas Garrigues, alias Benoît Feuillu, two activists of the Earth Uprisings, a collective whose dissolution requested by the Ministry of the Interior was annulled at the beginning of November by the Council of State. Fines and various prohibitions were requested against the other six defendants.

A 'political trial'

In front of the court, dozens of demonstrators came to support the defendants, who had denied in September that they had been the organizers of the rallies in Sainte-Soline. About a hundred people then gathered at the "basin" of Oulmes (Vendée), according to the gendarmerie, which did not note any damage. "Obviously, this is a political trial," pleaded Marie Dosé, lawyer for Mr. Le Guet and Mr. Monga, castigating an "investigation that was a skin of sorrow" and asking for his acquittal.

Balthazar Lévy, lawyer for Nicolas Girod (Confédération paysanne), asked the court to "dismiss the pressure of the executive power". "We need people to put the brakes on this car that is hurtling towards climate hell," he said, referring to a "fundamental right".

The hearing, suspended on 8 September "for the serenity of the debates" in an overheated atmosphere, was dominated by the question of the appropriateness of the "basins". These "replacement reserves", which aim to store water drawn from the aquifers in winter in order to irrigate crops in summer, are for their supporters a crop insurance essential to their survival in the face of repeated droughts.

Conversely, opponents describe a "grabbing" of water by agribusiness. They welcome the cancellation by the administrative court at the beginning of October of two projects concerning the creation of 15 water reservoirs in Poitou-Charentes, for their inadequacy to the effects of climate change.

Farmers' 'trauma' in the face of violence

At the helm, irrigating farmers came to express their dismay and Thierry Boudaud, president of the Coop de l'eau, a farmers' group that is leading the project of 16 disputed reserves, described the "trauma" in the face of the violence. Sébastien Rey, lawyer for the Coop de l'eau, said the trial should make it possible to define "what is acceptable or not in terms of freedom of expression". He claimed nearly 950,000 euros for material damage in terms of security of the Sainte-Soline basin (barriers, guarding, etc.).

After initial violence during the October 2022 demonstration in Sainte-Soline, the demonstration last March quickly degenerated into clashes with the gendarmes, leaving many injured. Two protesters spent several weeks in a coma.

In a report, the Human Rights League denounced the "disproportionate use" of weapons (tear gas grenades, LBDs) by the security forces. A parliamentary commission of inquiry concluded in mid-November that the "crushing responsibility of the three organizers" of Sainte-Soline was "overwhelmingly responsible."