• World

France’s Wine Terrorists

4 minute read
Bruce Crumley / Paris

Too much wine, it is known, can cause violent behavior. But few have gone as far as the grape growers of France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region, the world’s biggest wine-growing area by volume. Hurting from overproduction and cheap imports and punished lately by the rising cost of gas, a small group of local winegrowers has resorted to “wine terrorism” in a violent attempt to shock the French government into helping them.

On July 26, police arrested a vineyard farmer from the region for production and possession of illegal explosives. Apprehended in a hospital where he was being treated for injuries suffered when those explosives unexpectedly detonated, 34-year-old Jérôme Soulère confessed to police that he’d been responsible for the July 2006 bombing of a tax-collection office in a neighboring village. He also admitted, police say, to authoring the failed bombing last year of a site the Tour de France was set to pass the following day.

Those incidents are just two of many in a series of violent and destructive acts by local grape growers over the past three years that has targeted public and private buildings, supermarkets, tanker trucks hauling cheap imported wine, and businesses accused of gouging growers with ever shrinking prices. Claiming responsibility: a clandestine group known as the CRAV, or Regional Committe of Viticulture Action.

CRAV’s commando operations began with the 2005 bombing of a state agricultural building. CRAV members, or independent sympathizers, have since repeatedly carried out bombings and other acts of vandalism, including three acts of property destruction in a 10-day span in May. In mid-July, CRAV logos were discovered spray-painted at a Narbonne agriculture collective whose vandalized vats had drained nearly 132,000 gallons of wine to the ground — an estimated loss of around $450,000. Last year, it sent a video to newly elected President Nicolas Sarkozy demanding assistance to the region’s grape growers or else “blood will flow.”

Quixotic as it may seem to outsiders, the group — and many Languedoc-Roussillon growers who support its aims while condemning the violence used to achieve them — want the French government to protect them from a rapidly globalizing market. Foreign wine from cheaper producers such as Italy, Spain, Australia, the U.S. and South America — where costs can be one-fifth those in France — has saturated the market and driven down demand for locally grown grapes. That has depressed the price Languedoc-Roussillon growers get for their crops up to 50% in recent years.

With revenues plummeting and production costs on the rise, owing in part to escalating gas prices, local farmers are demanding financial aid from Paris. But European Union rules limit how much help the French government can extend; Brussels has repeatedly urged growers to cut costs by letting nearly 500,000 acres of land lie fallow and by swapping plonk production for more expensive, higher-quality wine.

That doesn’t impress locals. “Many of these vineyard owners are committed to production and investment plans spanning 20 or 30 years,” says a member of the regional wine sector, who asked not to be named due to the “vivid tension” the situation has created. “These aren’t operations that can change strategy or cut production overnight.”

Jérôme Soulère’s lawyer, Jean-Marie Bourland, doesn’t justify his client’s avowed acts of destruction but sympathizes with his client’s predicament. “We’re in a country where, alas, our leaders don’t pay attention to well-behaved and listen to those who leave them no choice,” says Bourland. “Many of these people are agonizing and dying a slow death,” he says. “For some, I suppose, posing a bomb is their attempt to pose a question.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com