Far-right militants go on trial for Macron attack plot

A dozen people with links to a French far-right group went on trial on Tuesday, accused of plotting to assassinate President Emmanuel Macron and commit a string of other attacks.

Prosecutors say the 13 members of the Barjols group conspired to engineer a putsch, which involved a plan for an attack on Macron during a public appearance in 2018.

The defendants are 11 men and two women, aged between 26 and 66.

Citing evidence collected online, from telephone conversations and meetings, prosecutors say the suspects also planned to kill migrants and attack mosques.

None of the plots allegedly prepared by the suspects ever came to anything.

As a result, prosecutors downgraded some of the initial charges over the course of their four-year investigation.

The main remaining accusation is a charge of conspiring to commit a terrorist act, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

A lawyer for the defence, Lucile Collot, said the prosecution's case was based "on the fiction that a violent act was going to happen".

She said the accusation of a planned terrorist act was "misplaced".

In 2018, France's domestic intelligence services received a tip-off saying that a far-right militant based in the French Alps was planning to attack Macron during a World War I commemoration in November of that year.

French anti-terror prosecutors began investigating on October 31, against a backdrop of boiling social anger in France over rising fuel prices, which was later to result in the creation of the Yellow Vest protest movement.

- 'Sometimes extreme' -

On November 6, police arrested the far-right militant -- Jean-Pierre Bouyer, then 62 -- and three others suspected of far-right links in the eastern Moselle region.

Searching Bouyer's car, they found a commando-style fighting knife and an army vest. In his home, they discovered firearms and ammunition.

Police went on to arrest other members of the Barjols movement, an extreme-right nationalist and anti-immigration group that formed on Facebook in 2017 and held secret meetings.

Its presumed leader, Denis Collinet, was arrested in 2020.

Shortly after the trial opened on Tuesday, Bouyer refused to state his name, simply saying: "There are things I don't understand."

According to prosecutors, a meeting held in the Moselle region marked the beginning of the conspiracy.

Members made plans to blow up mosques and kill Macron, as well as kidnap members of parliament and overthrow the government, they said.

During some meetings, group members allegedly conducted target practice and trained in first aid techniques.

In posts on Facebook, Bouyer urged his followers to "eliminate those who want to harm you" and called Macron "a little hysterical dictator".

During his detention, Bouyer told police that he had wanted to "kill Macron".

He hinted that one of his co-accused had hoped to approach the president during a meet-and-greet in a crowd and stab him with a ceramic-bladed knife.

But he later said the remarks had been just talk.

"He admits that there were such discussions but they never went any further," his lawyer Olivia Ronen told AFP.

The prosecution, she said, had failed to place her client's hostile remarks towards Macron "in the context of the time".

But investigating magistrates submitting their findings to the court said it was "an established fact" that the group's plans "were entirely aimed at seriously disrupting the public order by intimidation and terror".

The accused held "dissenting views on government" and made comments that were "sometimes extreme", one defence lawyer, Gabriel Dumenil, acknowledged.

"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," he said.

The trial is set to end on February 3.

jt/jh/sjw