Why does the trial of Sainte-Soline activists threaten the right to demonstrate according to the unions?

Nine activists are being tried this Friday, September 8 in Deux-Sèvres, in Niort, as part of the fight against mega-basins.

Why does the trial of Sainte-Soline activists threaten the right to demonstrate according to the unions?

Nine activists are being tried this Friday, September 8 in Deux-Sèvres, in Niort, as part of the fight against mega-basins. They are being tried for having organized and participated in a banned demonstration in the spring.

Justice is bringing nine anti-basin activists to court this Friday, September 8, in Niort in Deux-Sèvres. Environmental activists are suspected of having organized and participated in an unauthorized demonstration in March in Sainte-Soline. This mobilization gave rise to rare violence, leaving several dozen injured among demonstrators and law enforcement officers. Out of several thousand people present that day (6,000 according to the police, 20 to 30,000 according to the organizers) the injured are estimated at more than 200 on the side of the activists, including three in absolute emergency, and 48 on the side of the gendarmes. The demonstrators were faced with a particularly heavy police force: "twenty squadrons of armed mobile gendarmes, some traveling aboard quads, nine helicopters, four water cannons, and four armored vehicles", lists France 3 Nouvelle-Aquitaine.

Among the defendants in this trial, we find Julien Le Guet, spokesperson for the collective “Bassines Non Merci!”, Basile Dutertre and Benoît Feuillu, active members of the Uprisings of the Earth. But also the representatives of the Peasant Confederation Benoît Jaunet and Nicolas Girod. The nine men face six months in prison and a fine of 7,500 euros.

A demonstration of support for those tried in Niort was declared, but the prefecture made arrangements to supervise the expected crowd. Thus, any “gathering” is prohibited near the court and drones are used by the police to monitor the gathering. According to the unions defending the nine defendants, this trial threatens the right to demonstrate. "The prosecutor has chosen to prosecute the spokespersons. (…) We have the impression that these prosecutions are intended to deter the movement opposing the construction of these basins", declared Me Alice Becker, l lawyer for a CGT unionist who is due to appear this Friday.

Sophie Binet, general secretary of the CGT, Marine Tondelier, national secretary of EELV and Mathilde Panot, head of the LFI group at the National Assembly, are notably expected on site.

The ban on demonstrating near the court is not insignificant, since the Deux-Sèvres prefecture accuses the nine defendants of the trial of their involvement in "the organization of prohibited demonstrations on the public highway", their "participation in a group in for the preparation of violence against persons or the destruction or damage of property" and the "damage or deterioration of the property of others", among others.

These gatherings, which had been banned by the authorities, took place in Sainte-Soline, where a project to build water reservoirs dedicated to agricultural irrigation is very controversial. Nearly 30,000 people showed up on March 25, 2023 near the Sainte-Soline site. The clashes between the demonstrators and the police had been marked by great violence. Two people spent long weeks in a coma and the injuries numbered in the hundreds. More than 5,000 grenades had been fired by the police.

The defendants denounce a “political trial”. Their lawyers believe that the procedure aims to deter the organization of social movements. “This trial is an attack on the right to demonstrate,” Pierre Huriet, lawyer for Solidaires, told AFP. “Its objective is to discourage social movements,” he added. Alice Becker, council of CGT trade unionists, shares this point of view. “It is an obstacle to the freedom of demonstration, of opinion, but also of unions,” she declared. She denounced “a desire to intimidate individuals and create fear”.

The defense questions the reasons for prosecuting individuals, rather than the organizations they represent. “It is not because we are spokespersons for a movement that we are an organizer,” declared Marie Dosé, lawyer for Julien Le Guet and Basile Dutertre.

The lawyers of the Peasant Confederation, Chirine Heydari-Malayeri, Inès Giacometti and Balthazar Lévy, denounce “a criminalization of political and union action”. “It is all the more unacceptable since the agricultural union is warning about the preservation of water and equal access to this essential common good,” they declared.

The general secretary of the CGT, Sophie Binet, estimated on Franceinfo that the “scenario” of the trial was “written in advance” by the government. “The government wants to place responsibility for the serious violence that took place in Sainte-Soline on our long-standing, well-known, peaceful organizations,” she declared.