Top figures in French far-right identity group get prison

International

In this photo taken on March 17, 2017, sympathizers of the extreme right group Generation Identity speak in Lyon, central France. A court in southeastern France on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019 sentenced the president of the far-right anti-migrant group Generation Identity, its spokesman and a third person to six months in prison for a spectacle-like expedition in the Alps to stop migrants. (AP Photo/Elaine Ganley)

PARIS (AP) — A court in southeastern France on Thursday sentenced the president of the far-right anti-migrant group Generation Identity, its spokesman and a third person to six months in prison for a spectacle-like expedition in the Alps to stop migrants.

Generation Identity president Clement Gandelin, spokesman Romain Espino and Damien Lefevre, who helped organize last-year’s expedition, also were deprived of their civic rights, notably not being able to vote in elections, for five years.

All three will appeal, their lawyer, Pierre-Vincent Lambert, said, denouncing in a telephone interview what he called a ruling made under “political, moral, and media pressure” and a “court that didn’t have the courage” to resist.

The sentences are nevertheless a blow to the identitarian group known for high-profile stunts to promote its anti-migrant and anti-Islam agenda with an ultimate mission of preserving its notion of French civilization. French far-right activists have been at the forefront of Europe’s growing identitarian movement, and Generation Identity has seeded offspring around France and across the continent.

Anti-racism advocates in France have demanded a ban on the group, long on the government’s radar. The guilty verdicts may make it easier for authorities to find a legal basis to act against the group, which favors shock tactics, not violence.

The sentences match the recommendation of prosecutor Rapahael Ballant. The court handed a fine of 75,000 euros ($83,000) to Generation Identity, in line with the prosecutor’s demand. It also added a penalty, demanding the three pay 2,000-euro fines each.

Gandelin, who goes by the name Clement Galant on social media, tweeted the sentence for himself and the spokesman.

Lefevre, who goes by the name of Rieu on social media, tweeted that the ruling was “an honor.”

Lefevre — who has worked with far-right politicians — was convicted due to his organizational role in the 2018 Alpine expedition to a mountain pass used by migrants to cross from Italy to France. The stunt included a helicopter and small plane and flashy video.

“This political decision is an honor, a medal, but shows the determination to suppress those who defend France,” Lefevre tweeted under his social media handle. He said the sentences amount to state “persecution of youth who dare to prove symbolically and peacefully that defending our borders is possible.”

The three were handed the unusual charge of “exercising activities in conditions that could create confusion with a public function.” Prosecutors alleged their 2018 Alpine expedition into a mountain pass could have been mistaken for a police maneuver.

Earlier this year, France banned an ultra-right group, Bastion Social, which grew out of the violent GUD movement and shared the same neighborhood in Lyon’s old city as Generation Identity.

Generation Identity’s most recent bid to enflame anti-migrant sentiment occurred on March 19, when its members occupied the roof of a building in suburban Paris devoted to family subsidies and unfurled a banner down the side of the locale reading “Money for the French, Not for Foreigners.”

A junior minister, Christelle Dubos, denounced what she called the “hostage-taking of a public service” and vowed to get the group banned.

Militants using the Defend Europe slogan used in the Alps scoured the Mediterranean Sea two years ago in a rented boat searching for migrants making the treacherous crossing from Libya to Italy.

Generation Identity’s flashy propaganda caught the attention of the suspect in the New Zealand mosque massacre of 51 Muslims, who sent a 1,500-euro ($1,662) donation to Martin Sellner, the head of group’s Austrian counterpart. The French group was also sent a donation by the Christchurch shooting suspect, but it has said the funds went into the wrong bank account and weren’t received. All deny any previous contact with the suspect.

The movement, meanwhile, has leaked into politics.

A well-known member of the identity movement in Nice, Philippe Vardon, now has a choice spot in the apparatus of the far-right National Rally party of Marine Le Pen. In a sign of the pull of the identity movement, the far-right group in the newly elected European Parliament took the name Identity and Democracy.

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Nicolas Vaux-Montagny in Lyon contributed to this report.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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