Tuesday 29 May 2007
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Worldwide: French intelligentsia ponders what should be done with killer


By Colin Randall in Paris
Last Updated: 6:51pm BST 13/08/2004

Once the cafes of the Boulevard St Germain-des-Pres were alive with the thoughts of Jean-Paul Sartre, philosopher-in-residence, on the "cleansing force" of revolutionary terror.

Half a century later, another generation of Parisian intellectuals is in a high state of indignation over plans to dispatch a reformed urban warrior to the Italian prison cell that has been awaiting him since 1985.

Not everyone in France is an intellectual, of course; the case of Cesare Battisti divides the country, with battles lines drawn between supporters hailing his achievements as a crime novelist and opponents unwilling to overlook his previous career.

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Strictly speaking, the fevered debate concerns only the question of how the 50-year-old Italian should spend the coming years: writing books and pottering around as a concierge in the ninth arrondissement, or making a belated start to his life sentence.But the attention devoted to l'affaire Battisti also highlights the fascination of the French intelligentsia with violent activists, especially those of other countries.

Before the extradition battles of the urban terrorists, there was the seductive allure of Irish republicanism. Only this week, the Left-wing French daily Liberation devoted an entire page to a gushing tribute by one of its founders, Sorj Chalandon, to Bobby Sands, the IRA bomber who died on hunger strike in 1981.

Kicking off a new Liberation series, "To Each His Hero", Chalandon insisted that Sands was not forgotten. He could have cited the numerous town halls that have tried to ensure this by naming streets Rue Bobby Sands.

In Battisti's case, it is the detail that places him on his weakest ground. He was convicted in absentia of three murders, and complicity in a fourth, arising from his membership of Armed Proletarians for Communism (PAC). But it is as well to record his strongest ground: he settled in France, and brought up two children born there, because a French president effectively invited him.

Battisti was one of several Italian terrorists who took advantage of the sanctuary offered by President Chirac's socialist predecessor, Franois Mitterrand, in return for renouncing violence. This cut no ice with the French court that approved his extradition, saying it could not be bound by political promises made 20 years ago. But it is what drives much of the sympathy for Battisti.

Among his champions is Bernard-Henri Levy, France's most colourful and mercurial philosopher. He argues that France's position should be dictated by the peculiarity of Italian law that requires anyone sentenced in absentia to be consigned, once caught, "directly to prison without possibility of a new trial".

For Bruno Deniel-Laurent, the editor-in-chief of the cultural review Cancer!, the choice is between amnesty and vendetta. "In welcoming Italian activists in return for them abandoning terrorism," he wrote, "France remained faithful to her noblest traditions."

French commentators hostile to Battisti point out that while he denies ever killing anyone, it was his choice to stay in hiding rather than defend himself at his trial.

Others are pointing to another inconsistency. Much less fuss is made on behalf of those suspected of committing or planning atrocities on French soil, from Chechens selecting Paris as a stage for their grievances to the more ruthless of the Breton and Corsican separatists.

The 10th anniversary of the capture of the international terrorist Carlos, serving life for two of the 13 killings he is suspected of carrying out in France, passed quietly this week, and there is no deafening clamour for the release of four French Muslims repatriated from Guantanamo Bay but held on suspicion of associating with terrorists.

If the chattering classes are selective, what of la France profonde? A communist deputy mayor who once defended the choice of a Bobby Sands Street in Le Mans would have been horrified had she known how hard it was to find. After encountering endless shrugs I at last met someone able to give elaborate but confident directions. To Rue George Sand.

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