In France, portrait theft sparks debate among judges

Activists are stealing presidential portraits to protest France's climate policies, but their trials have turned into debates on civil disobedience.

Emilio Morenatti/AP
Protestors hold up upside down portraits of French President Emmanuel Macron taken from town halls across France during a demonstration in Bayonne, France, Aug. 25, 2019. The protestors feel the president has not moved fast enough on policies to battle climate change.

Is stealing a presidential portrait a prison-worthy crime? Or a laudable act of civil disobedience?

Courts around France are grappling with this question in response to an unusual new environmental movement that's aiming to push French President Emmanuel Macron to do more to fight climate change.

One by one, environmental activists around France have removed Mr. Macron's official portraits from more than 130 town halls this year, from the foothills of the Alps to the Left Bank of Paris.

Their point: Even as Mr. Macron portrays himself on the global stage as Mr. Climate, the centrist, business-friendly president isn't acting boldly enough to change his own country's planet-damaging ways. They're notably angry that France has lagged on its international commitments to increase use of renewable energy and reduce emissions. France remains well behind its European neighbors in its use of renewable energy.

The portrait-removers have been facing trials around the country, with some fined, others acquitted. An appeals trial of the first court case was held last week in Lyon with the ruling still pending, and a new trial is scheduled later this month.

The protesters don't fit a single mold – one's a math teacher, another works for the SNCF national rail company, another's an organic vegetable farmer.

At last week's trial, defendant Helene Lacroix-Baudrion argued that the portrait removal was "an act aimed at taking care of life and our environment."

"We just want Macron, who holds himself up as a climate defender, to respect France's commitments under the COP21 [the 2015 U.N. climate agreement signed in Paris]," she told The Associated Press.

An expert working for the U.N. climate change agency testified as a defense witness at the trial, and climate activists gathered for a boisterous protest outside the courthouse.

The trials themselves have turned into public debates on civil disobedience, France's rich tradition of protest – and of course, the environment.

France is divided over how, and how fast, to cut emissions blamed for worsening climate change. Mr. Macron argues that he's doing more than most, and has stood up to U.S. President Donald Trump on the need for countries and corporations to cooperate to cut emissions.

However, Mr. Macron backed down on a fuel tax last year meant to help wean France off fossil fuels, because the tax triggered the yellow vest protest movement against economic injustice, which saw months of violent protests that devastated some major shopping streets in Paris.

So activists started targeting Mr. Macron's portraits, symbolically dethroning him to demand action.

Several brought stolen portraits to a march at the Group of Seven summit Mr. Macron hosted in Biarritz in August, to try to embarrass him at the global event. They brandished the pictures upside down, arguing that his climate policy is the opposite of what the planet needs.

French law says the acts can be considered "group theft," which can be punishable by several years in prison. No court seems willing to go as far as locking up the portrait-removers, but the verdicts have been mixed.

Six portrait-removers were convicted in the first trial, in Bourg-en-Bresse in June, but five were only given suspended fines. The sixth was fined $280 because he already had a criminal record.

The court ruling said it wasn't clear how removing the portraits would "save humanity from ecological disaster" and argued that "other avenues were open to the defendants to defend their cause."

The protesters themselves, from the Non-Violent Action COP21 activist group, accepted the ruling, but the prosecutor appealed, seeking tougher punishment.

In September, a Lyon court acquitted two activists, ruling that they had a "legitimate motive" and that "climate upheaval is a constant fact that seriously affects the future of humanity."

"Faced with the lack of respect by the state" for its climate commitments, the ruling reads, "the citizens' means of expression in a democratic country cannot be reduced to the votes cast in elections."

A few weeks later, a Paris court fined eight activists $560 each.

Nine more trials are scheduled in coming months, all over France.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP's Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.

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