The year is 1973. A dark cloud has gathered over Europe. Troubled governments are scrambling to get to grips with revolutionary organisations across a continent riven with economic hardship and political conflict. Militant groups, like Germany’s Red Army Faction and the Irish Republican Army, are causing chaos with their murderous brand of radical activism. France is by no means immune to the violence and unrest. The taste of the 1968 general strike still lingers in the mouth and civil disobedience has become a permanent feature of the social landscape since General de Gaulle declared a state of emergency, fleeing the country until the violence had died down.
It is against this backdrop that a group of malcontents gather late one night in the kitchen of a dilapidated village house, high up in the Languedoc hills. The fog of Gauloises hangs heavy in the air, mingling with the heady scent of pastis and cheap red wine. The din of their voices would wake the neighbours, were there any neighbours to wake – this once thriving rural community has been reduced to a ramshackle collection of stone houses, most of them half empty since the village’s offspring moved to Paris or Lyon in search of work.
While the lived-in faces and ragged overalls of the assembled menfolk may give the impression of a peasant rabble, they are in fact a well organised activist group that mean business. These humble farmers and winemakers, bound together by financial hardship and a shared hatred of the Parisian elite, belong to the Comité Régional d’Action Viticole – known to most people as CRAV. They are serious enough to pose a genuine threat to the Languedoc’s political stability and serious enough that the visitors they have assembled to meet are envoys from one of the world’s most notorious dictators.
“They’re here”, announces the gruff figure stood next to the window, as hush descends over the room. Jean Vialade pulls himself up from his chair and makes his way towards the door, gesturing to his comrades to tidy away the empty glasses and bottles of liquor. The men fall into line behind him, forming an expectant welcome committee for their returning guests. This will be the last in a series of clandestine meetings between the two parties – meetings that began when Colonel Gaddafi of Libya sent two of his most trusted aides to offer CRAV whatever funding and weaponry they would require to overthrow the French government.
Although CRAV was born out of the socialist idealism and activism of the 1960s, it traces its roots back to the most turbulent period in modern Languedocian history – the Wine Revolt of 1907. In the early spring of that year, a man called Marcellin Albert persuaded his fellow vineyard owners in the village of Argelliers that enough was enough. They dusted off their banners, bugles and drums, congregated in the village square and marched to Narbonne in protest at deteriorating living conditions for the region’s grape growers and winemakers. As they stomped and sang their way from village to village, en route to the government building in Narbonne, they were cheered along by likeminded southern folk who shared in Albert’s anger. A heavy-handed tax regime was bankrupting the vignerons and fraudulent merchants were driving down prices by importing millions of litres of Algerian juice to adulterate the local production. Poverty and starvation were rife – in some areas, 90% of the population were unemployed and people everywhere were struggling to stay alive.
The government’s reaction to these early agitants was little more than a shrug of the shoulders, but the people felt differently and they began mobilising groups of protesters in villages and towns across the region. As summer approached, the frequency and size of the marches gathered apace. Soon there were thousands, then tens of thousands of people rallying to the cause and, by June 9th, 800,000 people swamped the Place de la Comedie in Montpellier to vent their anger at the authorities. This was no longer a cry for help from a few farmers – it had grown into an open rebellion supported by every strata of society. As the streets reverberated to shouts for regional separatism and revolution, the police and armed forces were sent in to quell the unrest, opening fire on the crowds and littering the streets with dead bodies. The carnage persuaded one unit of the Gendarmerie to defect and join the protesters, but this example of insubordination was not repeated and in the days and weeks that followed the government clamped down and reasserted their control.
Although Marcellin Albert and his comrades had failed to force the government to give in to their demands, their actions had received international attention and would give rise to copycat rioting around the country (most notably in Champagne during 1910 and 1911). It was no surprise that momentum for the protests died down during the omni-chaos caused by two world wars, but by the second half of the 20th century many of the vignerons’ problems were as acute they had ever been. Unrest was brewing again and by the mid 1960s CRAV had been born. Although they took inspiration from the class of 1907, this time they were better organised and had a clear message for the government in Paris: give us bigger subsidies and do something to curb imports of foreign wine, or the insurrection will start again.
No one knows when Gaddafi developed an interest in CRAV, but after he came to power via a bloodless coup in 1969 it immediately became Libyan state policy to support anarchist and terrorist groups all over the world. During the early ‘70s, CRAV’s struggle had crossed paths with numerous militant organisations at home and abroad, including the Languedoc’s Occitan separatist party, ETA and the Provisional IRA – all of which were receiving assistance from Libya. It was early in 1973 that the Libyans first made contact to set up a meeting and, during the course of that year, Gaddafi’s envoys made a number of visits to Southern France to sound out CRAV’s leadership on just how far they were prepared to go in their fight against the government.
Jean Vialade was, along with André Castera, André Cazes and Emmanuel Maffre-Beaugé, a founding father of CRAV, so when the Libyans decided to make an offer it was to Vialade that they went. One night, two emissaries arrived at his house without warning. As they sat around the kitchen table, Gaddafi’s men spelt out in no uncertain terms that the French government could be “easily reversed” – an opinion reinforced by the civil disobedience that had continued since the 1968 general strike. The Libyans told Vialade that they would give CRAV whatever funding and weaponry they required to forment a revolution. There would be conditions, and they would need to collaborate with other rebel organisations to make the plan work, but if they really wanted to bring the government to its knees the Libyans would provide everything that CRAV needed to do so. Vialade was stunned by the extent of the Libyan offer and told them that he would have to discuss the proposal with his comrades. Three months later they were back – and it was time for Vialade to give them CRAV’s answer.
Vialade prised open the stubborn wooden door just as the men were getting out of their car. The welcome was warm and the handshakes firm, but there was still an air of mistrust between the two parties – Vialade hadn’t seen them in this vehicle before (registered to a town in the Rhône Valley) and a third man, the driver, was unknown to him. As the group made their way towards the entrance of the house, Vialade thrust out an arm in front of the chauffeur and fixed him with an icy stare. The more senior of the two Libyans nodded his head and the driver backed away, retreating to the safety of his Citroen.
The men filed into the smoke-filled room, shuffling past the staring eyes of the farmers as Vialade gestured for them to take a seat at the table. The room fell silent and the men huddled in close to hear the Libyans reiterate their offer. General Gaddafi was deeply troubled by the iniquities the growers were suffering, they said, and he felt that it was time to redress the balance. Funding would be given, to the tune of 90,000,000 francs – the equivalent of €14 million back then, but somewhere in the region of €50 million when adjusted into today’s money. Training camps would be organised in the Libyan Sahara Desert and groups of CRAV members would be flown over to learn the finer points of guerrilla warfare. They detailed some of the terrorist operations that they had recently provided assistance to and suggested that work begin immediately on the planning and execution of similar attacks on French soil.
Eyes darted around the room and glances were shared between the more radical members of the group, some of whom murmured their approval at the suggestion of escalating the struggle. But those present already knew what the answer would be, even if they didn’t all agree. Vialade, Castera and the other senior figures had their own ideas about how to take the struggle forward and, despite the flattery that comes with a world famous despot offering vast sums of money and support, they were unwilling to involve a foreign power in their fight.
“We thank you for coming here” said Vialade, “and appreciate the solidarity you and your leader have shown us. But I’m afraid that I must decline your offer on behalf of the Action Committee.” He went on to explain that the two parties were not fighting the same fight – “We are struggling to change the policies of a government that is suffocating us, not to overthrow the republic.” The conversation continued, with the visitors doing their best to reverse the decision, but Vialade would not be swayed. Eventually the Libyans returned to their car and sped off into the night. The men opened more wine and toasted the memory of 1907 – the problems they faced may have been as stark as ever, but at least they remained masters of their own destiny.
CRAV is an organisation motivated by opposition to the economic forces that they feel are eroding their way of life. They want the government to offer them more protection and are prepared to go to considerable lengths to provoke the changes that they feel are needed – but revolution? In1973, that was a step too far, even for firebrands like Vialade.
Unfortunately for the ‘Commandos of the Vine’, tragedy was just around the corner. In 1976, a CRAV demonstration in the town of Montredon descended into violence and the police shot into the crowd, killing two men. One of the dead was Emile Pouytès, a popular winemaker and local activist whose passing was widely mourned – hundreds of people still gather in the town square every year to commemorate the anniversary of his death. Events at Montredon had two major consequences – first of all, it galvanised the organisation and persuaded them that even more militant tactics were required if they were going to make a difference. Prior to this, the use of explosives had been sporadic and relatively low-key, but from 1976 onwards CRAV resolved to fight fire with fire. The other change that it brought about was to drive the organisation increasingly underground. Until this point, the group had been on the fringes of the mainstream and enjoyed widespread support in the community (André Castera had even come close to being elected to parliament in the 1968 election), but this new, more violent approach would see CRAV shirk the spotlight and let their actions speak for themselves.
Over the next thirty years the noise emanating from CRAV was less about rhetoric and more about explosions. Rallies and protests were still a part of the routine, but now these were supplemented by acts of sabotage that were designed to intimidate their ‘enemies’. 2005 was a particularly busy year, beginning with a number of explosions targeting supermarkets and government offices throughout the south, including a dynamite attack on the Domaine de la Baume. Then, in April, a tanker full of Spanish wine was shot at by a group of men that then attempted to set the vehicle on fire (with the driver still in it). The blaze was subdued, but the following day a force of fifty policemen were sent back to rescue the same tanker, now being mobbed by a crowd and drained of its wine. In May, CRAV sabotaged the French rail system to the tune of €2 million, blowing up rail carriages and destroying miles of track, before a battalion of activists broke into a winery armed with sledgehammers, destroying thirteen tanks full of Chilean wine.
In the two years that followed there was no let-up, with further attacks and protests causing untold damage and disruption. When Nicolas Sarkozy was elected in 2007, CRAV invoked the centenary of the 1907 wine revolt to threaten even more violence unless their demands were met. A band of masked men filmed an Al Qaeda-esque video calling on local winemakers to join the fight and telling the new president that “blood will run in the streets” unless he promised to support the wine industry against the newest target of CRAV’s wrath – the European Union.
This constant need to find scapegoats reveals the essence of what CRAV are about. Whether it is the local or national government in France, the Eurocrats of Brussels, the merchants dealing with foreign wine or the French companies that operate globally – there is always someone else to blame for the winemakers perceived plight. Rather than taking advantage of the opportunities afforded to them by today’s global market (opportunities well taken by fellow locals Gerard Bertrand and Jean-Claude Mas), they prefer to make unrealistic demands for subsidies, handouts and protection from market forces. Winemakers in other French regions even come in for flak – the Bordelais were said to be “stuffing themselves and twirling their moustaches” whilst people in the Languedoc were ripping up vines and sending excess wine to be distilled.
But cracks are starting to appear in what was once a unified front. Not long after the Sarkozy video was aired on national television, CRAV struck again by carrying out massive explosions that destroyed co-operative wineries in Hérault and Narbonne. Those local targets had been selected because the staff at each site had refused to take part in a strike and demonstration against planned EU reforms. The attacks were widely condemned and led to talk that CRAV had become little more than a catch-all name for a disparate collection of radical groups, each with different agendas and grievances. Former CRAV member Jean Huillet (by then, unbelievably, President of the Union of Co-Operative Wineries) stated that genuine CRAV actions were more organised and involved a larger number of people. “A true CRAV action can be recognised in its quality – much like wine”, he said.
With more foreign money flowing in to the region and little chance of Paris or Brussels yielding to their outmoded demands, it seems unlikely that modern day CRAV will get what they want. With the continued march of globalisation and European integration, only time will tell what this new generation of activists have in store for future vintages.
Originally published in Noble Rot Magazine