Having Your Day in Court: Judicial Opportunity and Tactical Choice in Anti-GMO
Campaigns in France and the United Kingdom
School of Politics, International Relations & Philosophy, Keele University, UK
GRAEME HAYES (corresponding author)
School of Languages & Social Sciences, Aston University, UK / CNRS, Centre de recherche sur
l’action politique en Europe, Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Rennes, 104 bd de la Duchesse Anne,
35700 Rennes, France. Tel (+33) 2 99 84 39 27; Fax (+33) 2 99 84 39 02
Investigating the recent direct action campaigns against genetically-modified crops in
France and the UK, we set out to understand how contrasting judicial systems and
cultures affect the way that activists choose to commit ostensibly illegal actions, and
how they negotiate the trade-offs between effectiveness and public accountability. We
find evidence that prosecution outcomes across different judicial systems are
consistent and relatively predictable, and consequently argue that the concept of a
‘judicial opportunity structure’ is useful for developing our understanding of social
movement trajectories. We also find that these differential judicial opportunities
cannot adequately account for the tactical choices made by activists with respect to
the staging of covert or overt direct action; rather, explanations of tactical choice are
better accounted for by movement ideas, cultures, and traditions.
Keywords: Social movements; prosecution; judicial systems; tactical choice; GMOs.
This article examines an empirical puzzle that arises from differences between campaigns of
sabotage against genetically-modified organisms (henceforth: GMOs) in the United Kingdom
and France, since 1997. In France, most activists committed open, public, mass ‘civic
disobedience’ against GM crops, in broad daylight, as part of a nationally coordinated
citizens’ campaign. But in the UK, activists were split between accountable, public, and
symbolic actions, and covert, anonymous, usually nocturnal, destruction. Most ‘crop-
trashing’ in the UK was covert, and most activists preferred to avoid arrest and trial; most
crop-trashing in France has been overt, with most activists accepting arrest and trial as a
necessary cost of their action. How can we account for these tactical divergences? Given the
similar strategic aims of crop-trashing, we aim to do so by looking at one highly relevant area
of systemic difference between France and the UK: the structure and operation of the
criminal justice system. We thus investigate how an external structure (the judicial system)
interacts with internal ideological debates to explain differences in the tactical choices made
Why accord such importance to the criminal justice system? Clearly, it will be of relatively
minor (though, clearly also, not nil) significance for collective actors not engaged in direct
action. However, for policy-oriented campaigns of deliberate law breaking, the criminal
justice system provides a crucial site of intermediation between state and movement; it is
logical to assume that where actors are (i) involved in illegal activity with the goal of
achieving policy change and (ii) seeking to minimise the costs and maximise the advantages
of their action, the operative judicial system will be a key factor in (a) the decisions made by
movement actors to undertake illegal action, (b) the design of the action, and (c) the
consequent positions adopted by movement actors with respect to judicial proceedings. We
might thus expect that given the nature of the campaigns against GM crops, activists who
have chosen a strategy based on direct action (and thus which is likely to lead to arrest) will
choose tactics likely to maximise their success chances in relation to the judicial system. But
we expect also that collective identity – ‘the shared definition of a group that derives from its
members’ common interests and solidarity’ (Taylor, 1989, p.771) – is likely to be crucial to
the way that movements negotiate their choices within these structural contexts (Polletta &
Jasper, 2001; Armstrong & Bernstein, 2008; Taylor, 2010). Movements, after all, often differ
internally over both strategy and tactics, and these differences suggest that ideas play a role in
determining what actors see as appropriate forms of action (Smithey, 2009). As Johnston
most scholars would probably agree that a complete analysis of social movement
mobilization requires some mix of elements focusing on perception/interpretation […]
as well as those elements that capture the compelling and constraining qualities of
‘hard’ institutional arrangements – meaning opportunities that compel action
straightforwardly and threats that constrain automatically – both requiring little
interpretative creativity. The question is how to sort out the appropriate mix. (2011,
In practice, efforts to do this are very rare, probably because it is very difficult to do with any
clarity: a mix of institutional determination and contingent interpretation militates against
clear causal analysis. We seek to overcome this difficulty through a close comparison of
crop-trashing in the UK and France, testing two rival hypotheses: that (i) external (judicial)
institutions and (ii) movement ideas are the decisive factors in explaining the tactical choices
of activists. We proceed therefore by the method of paired comparison. As a comparative
method, this has some advantages over both single case studies and large n comparisons
(Tarrow, 2010, pp.243-6); first, because it allows for more intimate analysis based on deeper
background knowledge than is available in the latter method; second, because it enables the
assessment of the impact of a single variable or mechanism (in this case, judicial institutions)
across systems, which the single national case study is unable to achieve. Our comparison is
therefore based on a ‘most different cases’ research design.
In section I, therefore, we briefly discuss the importance of criminal justice systems to the
institutional contexts of social movements, before setting out the key differences between the
organization and operation of the judicial systems in the UK and France. The British and
French judicial regimes are each is the mother lode of a distinct legal tradition: civil law in
France, and common law in England (and Wales). Balas et al (2009) underline that
substantive and procedural legal rules and regulations differ systematically between countries
that have adopted these traditions; systemic differences include approaches to collecting
evidence, the importance of trial, the selection and function of judges, the degree of
procedural formalisation, the importance of case law, and the role of juries (see also David &
Jauffret-Spinosi, 2002, pp.10-11). Moreover, comparing British and French anti-GMO
activism in English and French judicial settings provides us with a third, ‘control’ case,
because Scotland’s judicial system is a ‘mixed jurisdiction’, combining elements of both
legal traditions. We set out our hypotheses at the end of section I.
In section II, we test these hypotheses, drawing the contours of the anti-GM crop campaigns
in France and the UK, discussing the staging of direct action, and subsequent prosecutions. In
section III we discuss movement debates about attitudes towards arrest and trial, paying
particular attention to debates over public accountability in each movement. Our data is
drawn from over ten years of study of environmental protest in the UK and France, including
interviews with movement activists, observations of activist meetings and criminal trials,
supplemented by reports drawn from the activist and mass media (for our previous work on
these and related movements, see Doherty, 1999; 2003; 2007; Hayes, 2002; 2006; 2007;
Doherty & Hayes, 2011). Data for the UK draws on material from a research project on UK
environmental direct action, which involved a close reading of activist newsletters, and
interviews with fifteen activists; data for France is derived from similar sources and
processes, including eleven interviews with key informants.1 Following the completion of the
research we carried out follow-up interviews, and an extensive survey of newspaper reports
in the British and French press. All the written sources we cite are publicly available, but
interviewees’ names have been anonymized, except for publicly recognised figures.
I Structuring Difference: Criminal Justice Systems, Legal and Judicial Opportunity
The literature on political opportunity structures counts the independence of the judicial
system as a key variable in its determination of state capacity (Tarrow, 1998; Meyer &
Minkoff, 2004); states which have an independent judiciary and where there is extensive
legal codification offer greater checks and balances on executive power. Consequently – and
bearing in mind that this is but one variable within a complex series – challenging groups
may enjoy greater opportunities for effective opposition to governmental policies, projects, or
programmes, and may further be reasonably expected to adopt more moderate forms of
protest. However, where states do not have a fully independent judiciary or extensive legal
codification, opposition movements have fewer systemic means for opposition or redress.
Where effective opportunities are lacking, social movements can be expected to adopt more
conflictual forms of protest and develop dissent on specific issues into more general critiques
of the political system (Kriesi et al, 1992; Duyvendak, 1995).
The judiciary is thus typically associated in political opportunity analyses with the strength or
effectiveness of policy implementation (Kitschelt, 1986, pp.63-5). Discussion of potential
systemic openness and exclusion focuses on the legal instruments available to either the state
(such as injunctions) or to protesters (such as the codification of rights, or the development
of, say, environmental law; see, for example, Dryzek et al, 2003, pp.30-4, pp.50-4). Legal
and judicial systems are thus important to our conception of movement mobilization,
although they have received relatively little sustained attention in this context.
Where analysis has examined the relationships between social movements and the law, the
predominant focus has been on ‘legal mobilization’, where ‘law provides both normative
principles and strategic resources for the conduct of social struggle [and] is mobilized when a
desire or want is translated into an assertion of right or lawful claim’ (McCann, 2004, p.508).
A series of collections brought together by Sarat and Scheingold (1998, 2005a, 2006) has
examined the role of cause lawyers in such mobilizations, stressing not only their advocacy
but also their ideological contribution, helping movements ‘define the realm of the possible’
(Sarat & Scheingold, 2005b, p.10). Stressing a bottom-up, ‘support-structure explanation’ for
the ‘rights revolution’ of increased judicial attention to and support for individual rights that
has taken place in the USA over the past fifty years, Epp (1998) also underlines the key role
played by rights-advocacy lawyers in bringing this about, in conjunction with the
development of movement organizations articulating rights claims.
Within this tradition of legal mobilization, a number of commentators have recently argued
that the concept of legal opportunity structure should be seen as distinct from political
opportunity structure, and can provide a more thorough understanding of the role of legal
strategies in protest (Hilson, 2002; 2009). For Andersen, legal and political opportunity are
differentiated by framing operations: movements engaged in litigation are constrained in their
interpretive schema, such that they ‘must articulate their claims so that they fall within the
categories previously established by an amalgam of constitutional, statutory, administrative,
common, and case law’ which in turn ‘shape the progress and outcome of movement claims
in important ways’ (2006, p.12).
The contributions of the legal mobilization literature to our understanding of the interplay
between social movements and the law are important ones. However, the predominant focus
here is on litigation as an offensive tactic. Analyses typically focus on the furtherance of
rights-based claims making, particularly in the context of judicial review and constitutional
courts (e.g. Smith, 2005; Andersen, 2006; Wilson & Cordero, 2006; Barclay et al, 2009;
Vanhala, 2009a; Vanhala, 2009b); there is a focus on North America. Explicitly cross-
national comparative analysis is rare (Epp 1998 being an exception). Explanations of activist
tactics within contrasting judicial traditions and systems has been curiously overlooked, with
systemic differences typically situated at the macro-level, such as between liberal and
authoritarian regimes (e.g. Sarat & Scheingold, 1998).
Our paper proposes two developments of this literature, therefore: we compare movement
activism in the specific context of contrasting judicial systems; and we focus on cases where
social movement actors come before the courts not for reasons of litigation, but rather for
those of prosecution, for their involvement in direct action. This question seems to us to be
all the more important because, as Barkan points out (2006, p.183), the prosecutions and
trials of political activists are ‘normal events in the life cycle of many protest movements’.
Yet – Barkan aside – prosecutions for collective action have rarely been investigated within
the social movement literature, whilst the tactical, discursive and ethical problems and
possibilities posed by defences against prosecution entail a different set of opportunities from
those of ‘legal opportunity’, for two reasons.
First, this is because prosecution and litigation bring movement actors into different cultural
and legal arenas. Second, this is because it is important to separate judicial from legal
opportunities in movement terms. Vanhala includes acts of civil disobedience in her
discussion of litigation strategies (‘reactive litigation’), but also recognises the division of
labour within social movement campaigns, with some groups adopting direct action and
others lobbying or litigation strategies (2009a, p.741, p.752). As the argument we develop
here will suggest, it is important not to reduce direct action a priori to a form of civil
disobedience, a concern with rights, or a desire to force a change in the law. It is also
important to underline that direct action and litigation imply different skillsets, mobilising
frameworks, resources, and institutional relationships. Indeed, as Ollitrault (2008) underlines
with respect to the French environmental movement, the development of legal strategies by
social movement actors implies both their progressive institutionalisation and the existence of
a membership with specialized resources. In contrast, actions which result in prosecution in
the courts require (at least a priori) few specialised resources, and are open to mass collective
participation. To borrow Zirakzadeh’s phrase (2006, p.5), participants involved in disruptive
action walk on a different side of the legal fence from those involved in litigation.
Comparing France and the UK is thus intriguing given the very different judicial systems and
cultures which prevail in these two countries. Of course, there are some similarities between
the English and French systems which are particularly relevant to direct action: in both
countries, activists arrested for the same offence are tried collectively, and have the option of
mounting a ‘lawful excuse’ defence (under the 1971 Criminal Damage Act in England and
Wales, or by invoking an état de nécessité under article 122-7 of the penal code in France).
Activists can therefore argue (as crop-trashers have in both countries) that a given act of law
breaking was committed in order to stop a greater one; they may also call witnesses to
contextualise and substantiate their defence. Beyond these important commonalities,
however, there are significant structural differences between the two systems.
The first relates to the operation of juries. The common law tradition asserts individual
freedoms over state prerogatives: the principle of jury trial delegates control over
adjudication to the ‘lay judges’ of juries (La Porta et al, 2002, p.8). In England, this option is
open to activists brought before Crown Courts, though not for minor criminal offences, which
are heard without a jury in Magistrates’ Courts (where criminal damage is involved, the
figure of £5000 acts as a threshold; jury trials are only possible only where damage is
estimated to be above this figure). In France, juries only operate in the assize courts (cours
d’assises), which deal with major criminal cases (‘crimes’, defined by prospective sentences
of at least ten years in prison). Less serious offences (‘délits’) are held in tribunaux
correctionnels before a magistrate, normally accompanied by two assessors. For anti-GMO
activists prosecuted in France, therefore, there is effectively no option of a jury trial; verdicts
are handed down by magistrates. A second important distinction concerns the importance of
precedent. Case law, or the body of law as derived from the decisions and practices of the
courts, is the cornerstone of the English common law system (Simpson, 1973, p.94; Wesley-
Smith, 1994, p.8), which thus grants considerable discretion and independence to judges
(though in routine criminal cases, English courts are bound by precedent from higher courts).
In contrast, the civil law tradition conceives law as a system of rules, the imposition of statute
(La Porta et al, 2002, p.9). As a result, jurisprudential reasoning plays a minor role only in
French civil law; formally, French judges enjoy neither significant levels of freedom from
political interference nor flexibility and power to shape the law through their decisions.
Judicial independence in France remains frequently compromised by explicit government
intervention in the terms of prosecution and the application of sentences (there is, indeed,
substantial evidence of direct ministerial intervention in both policing and judicial decisions
on anti-GMO activists, for example).
Scotland provides an intermediate case. It has a mixed legal system: its post-Renaissance
foundations are based, like the French civil law tradition, on Roman law; but, in contrast to
the Napoleonic codification of civil law at the heart of the French tradition, Scottish law
remains uncodified and, following the 1707 Act of Union with England and the Napoleonic
wars a century later, its subsequent development has been highly influenced by the English
legal tradition (Tetley, 1999; Walker, 2001). For our purposes, the mixed nature of the
Scottish system provides a control for our investigation of the influence of criminal justice
systems and activist ideas on tactical choice. Whilst anti-GMO activists in Scotland belonged
to the same networks as those in England and Wales and are thus part of the same national
anti-GMO movement, the court procedure in criminal cases differs in Scotland from that in
England and Wales, and in key respects is structurally similar to the French procedure: jury
trials are only available in Scotland for serious crimes (‘solemn procedure’), whilst less
serious crimes (those for which the maximum penalties are twelve months in prison and a
£10,000 fine) such as crop-trashing are judged either by a magistrate or justice of the peace
sitting alone, or by three justices of the peace sitting together (‘summary procedure’).
Comparison with the tactical choices of Scottish activists should therefore enable us to
control our findings from the English and French cases.
What then can we expect the effect of these structural and operational differences to be on the
conduct of illegal direct action against GMOs in Scotland, France, and England? We suggest
that it produces a first set of two hypotheses concerning what we might term a judicial
P1.the structural differences between criminal justice systems will have a
significant impact on the prosecution outcomes of activists tried for non-violent
P2. In seeking to undertake an effective direct action campaign, activists will
make tactical choices which reflect these differential success chances.
II Comparing Anti-GMO Movements
Crop-trashing has taken place in several European countries, but to date by far the most
sustained campaigns have been in the UK and France. Since 1997 in both countries, activists
have carried out numerous actions against open field trials of GM crops, authorised on a
pluri-annual basis by the respective bio-scientific regulatory authorities of each state, and
managed by public research institutes and/or bio-technology multi-nationals (such as Aventis
(later Bayer), Monsanto, Pioneer, BASF, Limagrain, Syngenta). In France, activists have also
targeted plantations of Monsanto MON810 corn, as commercial cultivation – previously
negligible – increased dramatically between 2005-7. Since the end of the main crop trials in
the UK in 2003 and an effective moratorium on GM crops in France since 2008, there has
only been sporadic action, as the cultivation of GM crops has been in abeyance in both
countries (though there is considerable direct action in France against some sunflower strains
considered by activists to be ‘second-generation’ GMOs).
Direct action against GM crops in the UK and France was only one part of a broader
campaign in which NGOs, independent scientists, and consumer groups lobbied government,
biotech corporations, and food producers, and engaged in public information campaigns. This
broad anti-GMO movement developed apace within the EU once GM soy beans began to
arrive in European ports in 1996 (Ansell et al, 2006; Schurman & Munro, 2009). Greenpeace
was a leading and early actor in the anti-GMO campaigns across Europe, organising
blockades at ports including Liverpool and Saint Nazaire in 1996, and co-ordinating
transnational action at EU level (Purdue, 2000; Ansell et al, 2006). Greenpeace UK carried
out a high-profile crop-trash at Lyng in Norfolk in 1999, which along with the subsequent
acquittal of the 28 participants by juries in two trials, gained more coverage than any other
single crop-trash in the UK. But this was a one-off, media-oriented action, and although
Greenpeace remained a vital part of national and European lobby-based campaigns, in the
UK and France other groups emerged which acted independently of it, using sabotage
(including crop-trashing) as a principal tactic. It is these groups that are the subject of this
In France, the leading role has been played by the leftist peasant farmers’ union La
Confédération paysanne (CP) which has undertaken direct action against GM crops since
1997, and whose leading activists have become the public face of the campaign (particularly
José Bové, now a Europe-Ecologie MEP). In 2003, faced with the end of a five-year EU
moratorium on GM crops, the CP helped launch the Faucheurs volontaires (FV) ‘civic
disobedience’ campaign of overt, public crop-trashing, alongside a series of citizens’,
agricultural, and environmental organizations – including Greenpeace France, France Nature
Environnement, organic farmers’ union the Fédération nationale d’agriculture biologique,
alter-globalisation organization ATTAC, and Les Amis de la Terre (Friends of the Earth);
some 7000 individual activists have formally registered as Faucheurs, signing a written
undertaking (discussed in more detail in section III). Organizationally, although mindful of
local autonomy and eschewing an overtly pyramidal structure, the FV campaign provides
recognised national leaders, a coordinated national structure and disciplined modus
operandum for activism, effective legal support for arrested activists, and mediation (with
activists, organizations, police, court officials, print and broadcast media, political parties,
state bureaucracy, government) (Hayes, 2007). The FV campaign was, in Bové’s words,
explicitly devised so that ‘it wasn’t just peasant farmers who undertook actions’, following
the initial period where the CP ‘essentially acted as a syndicalized organization’.2 It was also
explicitly devised as a public campaign rather than an organization, in order to protect its
member organizations financially; it is not registered, for example, as an association under
French law. Prior to the FV campaign, organizations initiating actions were legally liable for
compensation claims; the CP in particular was vulnerable to bankruptcy. In the FV campaign,
however, activists could now only be individually liable, given the FV’s lack of legal status.
In the UK, the organization of direct action against GM crops was much less co-ordinated
than in France, with no national membership organization and no publicly identifiable
leaders. Crop-trashing was principally carried out by informal locally-based groups of radical
environmental activists who had developed direct action techniques in campaigns against the
Conservative government’s roads and airport expansion programmes in the mid-1990s (Wall,
2000; Thomas, 2001). By the time that GM crops became a significant issue around 1998,
they already had substantial experience of occupying sites, damaging property, and
committing illegal action (Seel et al, 2000; Plows et al, 2004; Doherty, 2007). The relative
success of these actions reinforced their belief that illegal and disruptive protest action could
be effective and win significant public support. These activists were linked through a loose
network of local groups known as Earth First! (EF!). EF! had no formal membership, no
bureaucratic structure or office-holders, held only occasional national strategy gatherings
and, in contrast to the FV, had no charter defining legitimate actions. Nominally distinct
groups such as Reclaim the Streets, Corporate Watch, and genetiX snowball (gXs)
overlapped with EF! (Wall, 2000) as part of the same ‘movement community’ (Meyer &
Staggenborg, 2007); activists from all of these groups took part in the same protests and
meetings, acting as individuals rather than as representatives of separate groups. They carried
out both public and covert crop-trashing and other actions against bio-tech corporations and
the food industry, including office occupations, and disruptive protests inside supermarkets
and against their distribution networks. In public actions they would often be acting alongside
a broader range of actors, including activists from more mainstream green NGOs, local
residents, and farmers campaigning against a particular GM crop trial site.
There are a number of differences therefore in the organizations and movement traditions
underpinning each campaign. Most significantly for our study, there were also fundamental
differences in how the courts dealt with those arrested and charged for crop-trashing. The
much publicised Greenpeace UK acquittals were part of a broader pattern in England where
over the previous ten years, ‘prosecutions of protesters against new roads and nuclear,
chemical and arms trade companies collapsed after defendants argued that they had lawful
excuse, had acted according to their consciences and that they were trying to prevent a
greater crime’.3 In 2000-01 the Crown Prosecution Service lost three major trials against
crop-trashers, and this trend has carried on since the scaling-down of anti-GMO activism:
juries have acquitted Greenpeace climate change activists at Maidstone crown court in 2008
(for trespass at E.On’s Kingsnorth coal power station), peace campaigners at Bristol crown
court in 2007 (for damaging B-52 bombers at Fairford airbase prior to the Iraq war) and at
Brighton crown court in 2010 (for breaking into and damaging the premises of EDO, a
defence equipment manufacturer that had supplied the Israeli army).
Only one jury trial of crop-trashers produced a conviction (in 2003, for an action in 2001);
the two activists found guilty received fines. This contrasts both with the Greenpeace case
discussed above, and the acquittal of two activists at Worcester in November 2001 as the jury
accepted their lawful excuse defence.4 But even where defendants were found guilty, they
received lenient sentences. In December 2000, five activists were found guilty of pulling up
GM oilseed rape at a research farm in County Durham, in a non-jury trial; the judge
pronounced a conditional discharge, and the activists were not ordered to pay compensation
to either the biotech company (Aventis CropScience) or the farmer. In a written judgment,
Judge Firth praised their motives, saying that any reasonable person would have pulled up
more trial sites, and sooner.5 In June 2001, charges of aggravated trespass were dropped
against seven activists who had destroyed GM crops near Sherborne in Dorset; the same
month, on procedural grounds, a district judge acquitted 11 activists of criminal damage for
the destruction of an Aventis farm-scale trial near Wivenhoe in Essex.6 In addition, gXs
activists successfully appealed against conviction for a crop-trash in Cambridge, with the
judge deciding that it had been wrong to charge them with aggravated trespass (a public order
offence tried before magistrates), which would have meant that they had no right to make a
public interest defence.7 In several further cases, charges were dropped, even when the
evidence of crop trashing was clear (Thomas, 2001, pp.342-3). As an activist newsletter
reported, ‘The Crown became somewhat reluctant to press for damages of over £5000
because this gives activists the right to ask for a trial by jury rather than a magistrate’.8
Prosecutors would claim that there had been hardly any damage; campaigners would claim
that they had in fact caused plenty, in order to try to get a jury trial.
In France, the story is somewhat different. Between the first trial at Agen in February 1998
and the most recent, at Colmar in September 2011, courts in a further 21 different towns have
heard a further 26 prosecutions for crop destruction, with twelve verdicts taken to appeal.
Activists have consistently pleaded a ‘necessity’ defence, arguing that their action was
designed to stop a greater harm, and (since September 2005 in particular) calling expert
witnesses, such as molecular biologists Jacques Testart and Christian Vélot, to challenge the
government-industry position on the safety of GM crops. ‘Since we cannot have a public
debate, we’ll transform the courts into a debating chamber on GMOs’, argued Bové.9 In trials
at Orléans in December 2005 and Versailles in January 2006, where the presiding magistrates
were (according to molecular biologist Claude Seureau, who acted as an expert witness for
the defence in these and two other trials) particularly interested in encouraging scientific
debate within the courtroom, magistrates acquitted activists on similar grounds to those put
forward in English jury verdicts, agreeing that the actions of the defendants were ‘urgent and
necessary’, citing the risk of cross-contamination.10 For the Faucheurs’ campaign, these
verdicts constituted ‘a right to destroy for each citizen, and an obligation to prohibit for the
State’.11 In June 2008, at Chartres, 58 activists were acquitted, the court again agreeing with
the defendants that they had acted legitimately out of necessity.
Yet these have proven to be exceptional cases. All three of these verdicts were overturned on
appeal: 48 of the 49 defendants acquitted at Orléans subsequently received suspended prison
sentences of two months, with the 49th sentenced to two months in gaol; the nine activists
acquitted at Versailles, all members of the CP, were sentenced to three months, suspended;
all 58 acquitted at Chartres received three month suspended sentences plus fines of €1000,
with the fine increased for the five who were recidivists. More fundamentally, acquittals were
the exception rather than the rule: activists have otherwise consistently received short
suspended prison sentences and relatively small fines, and sometimes been ordered to pay
substantial damages (such as the €100,000 imposed by the Toulouse criminal court in
November 2005 on eight movement leaders). The range of sentences imposed on 41 activists
at Toulouse in September 2008 is perhaps typical: heavy fines for five recidivist activists
(including Bové), and suspended sentences of one or two months for the remaining activists.
A clear pattern therefore emerges from the trial records. Activists have repeatedly been
convicted in France, and repeatedly been acquitted, or had charges dropped, in England. In
France, compensation claims from biotechnology companies have sometimes resulted in the
award of substantial damages, to be paid by activists; on no occasion has this been the case in
England, where judges have conspicuously rejected such claims on several occasions. In
France, even if sentences have frequently been more lenient than demanded by state
prosecutors, they have also been consistently heavier than on the rare occasions where
activists have been found guilty in England.
What about the Scottish cases? The activists prosecuted in Scotland belonged to the same
groups as in England, and carried out their actions in much the same ways – a mix of covert
action by EF! and related groups, while other groups of local campaigners (typically working
with experienced green activists) took public actions that often led to arrest. As noted, the
criminal justice system in Scotland does not allow activists the same opportunities for jury
trial as in England; in Scotland, magistrates have thus always tried crop-trashers. Between
July 2002 and March 2003, separate groups of Scottish activists were convicted of anti-GMO
crop-trashing on six occasions.12 Though fines have been small in Scotland, the evidence here
seems to bear out the hypothesis that there are structural differences in outcomes between
criminal justice systems. Indeed, one married couple experienced these differences first-hand
when they undertook separate actions in Scotland and England: though her husband had been
acquitted for his avowed participation in the Greenpeace action in Norfolk, Helena Beveridge
was convicted by Aberdeen Sheriff’s court in May 2002 for causing an estimated £4000
worth of damage to a GMO crop-trial one year before. As she commented: ‘I think it is
bizarre that my husband, Alastair, can do the exact same thing with Greenpeace activists in
Norwich and be acquitted, yet I am guilty’.13 An activist website made the point: ‘yes, but
Alistair had a jury!’.14
What then of our hypotheses about a judicial opportunity structure? The evidence from our
comparison of direct action prosecutions in the UK and France tends to confirm the first of
our hypotheses, P1: the structural differences between criminal justice systems have a
significant impact on the prosecution outcomes of activists tried for non-violent direct action.
Yet what of the second hypothesis P2 – that activists will make tactical choices which reflect
these differential success chances? Here, the evidence is intriguing. We might expect to see
three related dynamics: first, that we would find similar tactics in France and Scotland;
second, that these would be markedly different from those we would find in England; third,
that – given the likelihood of conviction in France and Scotland, and acquittal in England –
activists in England would adopt more open and public tactics, and activists in Scotland and
France more covert tactics. However, when we compare the tactical choices of the British
and French direct action campaigns against GMOs, hypothesis P2 is not supported. In fact,
we discover something far more interesting than a purely structural reading based on
comparing judicial systems would provide:
(i) in France, anti-GMO activists enacted crop-trashing as a form of public civic
disobedience, accepting arrest and the right of the state to try them, despite the fact
that they were very likely to be convicted and receive financial penalties and
suspended prison sentences (thus raising the costs of future participation in direct
(ii) in England, most activists chose to pursue crop-trashing covertly, despite the fact that
they were very likely to be acquitted, and have the charges minimised, or dropped,
when arrested for public actions;
(iii) there was no discernible difference between the tactics adopted by activists in
Scotland and England, despite the fact that the criminal justice systems in these
countries produced consistently and predictably different prosecution outcomes.
Crucially, then, the difference in judicial systems in different parts of the UK has not
produced difference in tactical choice, whilst the broad similarity of these institutional
arrangements in France and Scotland has not produced similarity of tactical choice. The
systemic properties of the judicial system do not seem to influence the likelihood that
activists will undertake covert action: whether in favourable or unfavourable systems, British
activists behave in the same way; unfavourable systems (France, Scotland) produce divergent
(and counter-intuitive) activist tactical choices. How might we explain this? For an
explanation, we turn to the ideas of activists, as reflected in and through their internal
III Constructing Accountability
In each movement, arguments over effectiveness and accountability are fundamental and
revealing. As we shall see, not all those involved in the direct action networks in either
country agreed on the tactics adopted. In Britain, there was a heated argument between those
who favoured covert nocturnal sabotage with the aim of destroying as much of the crop as
possible, and those committed to what they called ‘accountable actions’ involving symbolic
amounts of destruction. This latter tactic was associated with genetiX snowball, formed in
1998; some of its founders had been active in campaigns against nuclear weapons and the
arms trade since the 1980s, and later became involved in Earth First! campaigns in the 1990s
(Wall, 2000). One prominent activist, Angie Zelter, was also one of the four women who had
stood trial for ‘disarming’ a Hawk jet aircraft with hammers at BAe’s Warton factory in
January 1996; at Liverpool crown court, they explained their action as necessary because this
type of aircraft had been sold to the Indonesian Air Force and used to kill civilians in East
Timor. The jury, accepting that this constituted ‘reasonable grounds’, acquitted them by
There was significant overlap between 1990s environmental direct action networks and peace
and anti-militarist activists, for whom the highpoint of ‘non-violent direct action’ had been
the peace camps and protests against the deployment of Cruise missiles across western
Europe in 1983. Like most western European countries (but unlike France), there was a mass
peace movement in Britain which regularly mobilized hundreds of thousands of activists
between 1980-87. gXs revived a peace movement repertoire of the mid-1980s, where
hundreds of activists were arrested in a ‘snowball’ of protests that grew progressively larger;
gXs aimed to encourage enough people to commit to taking action against GM crop trials to
make the government institute a five-year moratorium on all testing and cultivation. The
methods chosen were non-confrontational and public: protesters informed the farmers and
police in advance that they would be taking action (although not necessarily when), were
limited to damaging 100 plants each, acted only in daylight, and were prepared to be arrested
(genetiX snowball 1999 5.6). One of the gXs founders, Rowan Tilly, described this form of
action as ‘accountable’:
Accountability is about pro-actively and deliberately telling people about yourself,
what action you have taken and why you have done it. Being accountable means
taking action and then explaining what has already happened and your part in it.
Accountability was thus defined as the moral accountability of an individual to their
conscience. It therefore did not entail an acceptance of the legitimacy of the state or legal
system, or of the right of the police and courts to arrest and punish them, as its founders
made clear in debates with others from the Earth First! movement, who accused them of
being reformist (Leeds Earth First!, 1998).
In France, the Faucheurs volontaires campaign is also premised on accountability. However,
this is a very different, collective, Republican construction of accountability, and explicitly
accepts the right of the state to judge activists for their actions. The March 2004 Charte des
Faucheurs volontaires emphasizes the ‘democratic’, ‘responsible’, and ‘collective’ nature of
‘citizen action’, actively discouraging individual and covert action, or the use of cutting
tools; it is recommended that local collectives ‘present themselves publicly in order to affirm
the citizen character of this legitimate resistance and to attract other volunteers and support’.
Activists should carry an identity card in case of arrest (Faucheurs Volontaires 2004).
Actions are signalled in advance to the media, carried out in broad daylight, à visage
découvert (unmasked and openly); faced with the choices of state prosecutors to prosecute
only a handful of activists (often movement leaders), activists have frequently denounced
themselves to the gendarmerie, provided lists of those involved, developed tactics under
arrest to bring about collective prosecution and, when all else fails, declared themselves
comparants volontaires (voluntary defendants). In July 2004, when nine activists were
arrested for crop destruction at Menville, a further 222 formally declared themselves equally
responsible, whilst after the arrest of six activists at Marsat the following month, 167 more
turned themselves in. Though self-denunciation was formally rejected by the instruction of
justice minister Dominique Perben (Hayes, 2006; 2007), the tactics have generally been
successful: providing lists of participants has produced numerous mass trials, including
(alongside the 58 activists tried in Chartres in June 2008, mentioned above) 86 activists in
Marmande in October 2010 and 60 activists in Colmar in September 2011. It is notable that
gXs, the British group that seems tactically closest to the FV, explicitly rejected the idea of
self-denunciation because while they did not seek to evade arrest, neither was arrest the aim
of the action.
For the FV, accountability before the law has an ethical dimension: submission to arrest is a
demonstration of the campaign’s commitment to the primacy of the public order. In order to
join the campaign, activists must sign a document accepting formal responsibility for their
actions. For Bové,
Even if we don’t know each participant in our civil disobedience actions individually,
those who are there have undertaken in writing to accept full responsibility for their
action. I place great belief in this written engagement, which we require of everyone.
It is a sort of citizen’s oath, a charter which creates a respect for the collective. It
produces a great sense of responsibility.15
The illegality of crop destruction is contrasted with the government’s alleged denial of
democratic consultation and the insufficiency of the national and European regulatory
frameworks. To accept formal accountability for illegal actions is thus an instrumental as
well as ethical act, ensuring continued mediatization, public visibility, and political pressure,
and opening an institutional space to challenge public policy. But it is also a symbolic
mobilization of the national-cultural repertoire of contention: public action, arrest, trial, and
sanction create a public space for the enactment of democratic entitlement, and demonstrate
the Republican nature of the campaign’s citizens’ engagement. The invocation of Republican
action is explicit: for example, former CP spokesman Jean-Émile Sanchez, on trial in Orléans
in May 2006, justified his action in the following terms:
Faucheurs oppose the patenting of living beings by multinational companies, that’s
all. As far as concerns the supposed violence of the action, let’s not forget that our
Constitution is the result of collective violence committed at the Bastille on 14 July
Specifically French, these discourses found no echo in Britain. In contrast, for both gXs and
the wider crop-trashing networks, the question of the legitimacy of the court was left to the
activist to decide, with no effort to establish a collective view. Sanction had a purely tactical
value: gXs argued that by accepting arrest they could exploit the courts as a public arena to
challenge injustice. This meant being prepared to engage in legal battles, which seemed a
distraction to others. For instance, following the first gXs crop-trash in July 1998, Monsanto
took out an injunction against gXs to prevent it damaging further crop trials; an activist
critical of gXs commented:
Anyway at the end of the day Snowball did some small actions, and more and more
people got injuncted, and they weren’t the kinds of people who need to get injuncted,
get their houses taken off them - it’s different for us. They got embroiled in these
court cases, they only pulled up a very small number of crops, they scared off the
people they were trying to get involved, and it took maybe 10 activists over a year of
very focused work to pull up a couple of hundred crops whereas covertly doing it the
same number of activists could have pulled up thousands of crops.17
gXs only undertook actions in 1998-99, disbanding in 2001, once its final court case was
complete. Nevertheless, its activists continued crop-trashing as individuals, joining several
local anti-GMO groups in ‘accountable’ actions broadly in line with the guidelines suggested
in the gXs handbook (genetiX snowball, 1999). But both the ‘accountable’ tactics of gXs and
the idea of an organization with rules were rejected by most of those who had been most
active in environmental direct action against roads. The vast majority of crop-trashes reported
in the newsletter GenetiX Update were from anonymous groups. Covert methods were
favoured because the very low risk of arrest allowed those who could not risk charges to take
part more easily, a point stressed in a field manual for covert crop-trashers (Anon n.d.).
Insofar as the measures of success were preventing the crop from cross-pollinating and
undermining the crop trials, it was argued that covert action was simply more effective
because more plants could be destroyed (see the quotation above). These activists also argued
that gXs was elitist, because only the able-bodied and those without mortgages and families
would be prepared to accept arrest and trial (Leeds Earth First!, 1998). Importantly, gXs was
also challenged on ideological grounds:
Covert action questions the legitimacy of the legal system’s handing out punishment
— surely a necessary question to ask of an institution which has proved time and time
again that its priorities are not to end injustice nor to stop ecological degradation.
While the odds are stacked against us and the system does not share our interests,
covert action has a part to play in an effective strategy.18
This critique was also voiced in activist debates over tactics, such as at the Earth First!
Gathering in 1998,19 and in interviews:
if we’re gonna do criminal damage to my mind there are times and places to be
and I don’t think being accountable to corporations is the right way to go about things
[...] I think you have to be very careful of working with the media and working
assuming that the judicial system, if you’re honest and doing the right thing, will back
In France, too, the campaign’s emphasis on ‘civic disobedience’ has not been without
challenge from within activist networks. First, there are significant differences in the
conceptualisation of direct action between the FV campaign and Greenpeace France, which
(at an organizational level) rejects mass collective crop destruction in favour of
professionalised and media-oriented actions. Second, the FV campaign itself was subsequent
to divergences between two of the initial leaders, Bové and René Riesel, who split bitterly in
1999 over the legitimacy of the state to take public policy decisions over biotechnology.
Riesel, perhaps best described politically as an anarcho-situationist, remains highly critical of
‘citizen’ politics, arguing that organizations such as the CP are still wedded to a concept of an
all-encompassing state that has little to say about the alienating effects of ‘the system’.21 He
thus rejects the FV campaign’s acceptance of the use of GMOs in medical research in the
laboratory, and of any strategy which sees the state as a potential regulatory ally. At local
level, there were frequent covert actions at both the start of the decade, and in 2006-07 in
particular, as some activists became frustrated with the openness of the campaign (as activists
were regularly greeted at pre-announced crop-trashes by gendarmes and pro-GMO farmers).
One group published a nocturnal crop-trash charter in summer 2007,22 extolling autonomy
and anonymity and rejecting collective decision-making and submission to arrest, arguing
that covert action by a ‘self-managing collective’ is more effective than (what it perceived to
be) a ‘bureaucratic and hierarchical’ national organization.23
In both countries, therefore, there were divisions over tactics and the ideological principles
that justified them. Yet whilst in the UK, the argument essentially took place within an
anarchistic network about what forms of protest were consistent with their shared critique of
the state, in France the argument essentially took place amongst groups with contrasting
critiques of the state. In the UK, although public symbolic actions by Greenpeace, gXs and
others received considerable media coverage, the majority of actions were covert and
unclaimed; in France, the movement crystallised around public acts of civil disobedience.
What then does our evidence tell us? First, it tells us that systemic structural differences are
crucial to understanding the differential prosecution outcomes for social movement actors.
Moreover, systemic differences are stable, predictable, and consistent; we believe, therefore,
that the concept of a judicial opportunity structure can be a valid and useful one for
understanding the trajectories and outcomes of direct action campaigns in particular, and is
analytically distinct from the litigation-focused concept of ‘legal opportunity structure’.
Second, however, our evidence tells us that movement tactical choices cannot simply be read
off from these systemic properties; in the case of the anti-GMO campaigns in the three
countries studied, we see activist tactics which are themselves consistent, but are not
consistent with the expectations derived from the criminal justice systems.
There are three reasons why this might be: (i) activists are unaware of the organization of the
criminal justice system; (ii) they are aware of it, but misperceive how it operates; (iii) they
perceive it correctly, but their crop-trashing tactics are not pre-determined by it. As should be
evident from our discussion, we are reasonably confident that neither (i) nor (ii) are valid
here; indeed, at the FV annual meeting in 2011,24 there was sustained collective discussion of
the fine detail of arrest and trial, including discussion of the precise form of words best used
in custody to maximise the chances of producing a collective prosecution (thus recognising
how the criminal justice system operates) coupled with continued debate over the
effectiveness of prosecutions in achieving movement goals (thus relating outcomes to tactical
choice).25 The evidence from both our cases overwhelmingly supports (iii), and specifically
that debates over ideas within movements are decisive in explaining tactical choice. As we
have seen, most British activists spurned the openings potentially provided by acquittals and
the reluctance of judges to impose more than token penalties, whereas French activists
instrumentalized court cases as occasions to reinforce collective identity and maintain
political pressure. The reasons explaining tactical choice thus only become evident when
examining the internal debates within each movement.
We referred at the outset to the difficulty of sorting out the appropriate mix in the
determination of activist tactical choice (Johnston, 2011, p.49). No answer to that problem is
likely to apply to all cases, but we suggest in this case that activist ideas are fundamental to
their perception of whether the criminal justice system provides an opportunity or threat the
realisation of their political goals. To be sure, this does not mean that structures are not
important, or that ideas alone explain tactical choices. First, because the results of court cases
are central to our understanding of group mobilization: as noted above, movement actors are
cognisant of the likely outcomes of arrest and trial, and make tactical choices that are
informed by these consequences, and this is true irrespective of the counter-intuitive nature of
these choices. Second, because ideas are not negotiated outwith specific cultural contexts;
social movement actors in each country acted in ways that were consistent with particular
social movement traditions, which we can see as a useful ‘bridging concept’ between
structure and culture (see Doherty & Hayes, 2011).
As Polletta argues, cultural traditions, arrangements, codes and so on may be considered
structuring in that they are supraindividual; political structures and embedded ways of acting
are themselves a product of culturally specific development (1999, pp.67-9). Clearly, in our
cases, the political traditions of each state are different; a Republican narrative of active
citizenship may be considered to be structuring for contentious action in France (see, for
example, Hewlett, 1998, pp.11-35), and this is not available to activists in the UK. Moreover,
these ideas are negotiated within specific movement-organisational contexts: there is no
direct equivalent in the UK of the Confédération paysanne; there was no counterpart in
France of the 1980s British peace movement, for example. In France, the Faucheurs
Volontaires campaign sought regulatory intervention from the state; in the UK, most anti-
GMO activists and their precursors saw themselves as radicals, essentially different from the
rest of society, and viewed the state as an instrument of global capital and corporations. In
this sense their tactics might be construed as an instance of ‘path dependency’ (Pierson,
2000). But as we have shown in our discussion on effectiveness and accountability, there is
nothing inevitable about the positions adopted by either movement; in both cases, the
dominant ideological position was contested, and movement tactics were produced by a
process of challenge and negotiation.
It is possible that the example of the anti-GMO campaigns in the UK and France provides a
unique case. We rather doubt it, however. It is true that the FV campaign is distinctive in its
offensive use of the court as a venue for challenge, but there have been a number of other
cases in recent years in the UK and France in which those arrested for protests (against the
arms trade, on climate change, or in anti-advertising actions, for example) have sought to turn
criminal defence into political attack, using prosecution to establish the legitimacy of their
position and to mobilize wider support. In particular, the availability of jury trials appears to
increase the chances of success in the courthouse, demonstrating the importance of judicial
structures for the analysis of social movements, and the potential political outcomes of
deliberate collective law breaking. However, how social movement actors choose to exploit
these judicial opportunities is dependent not just on external structuring factors, but on the
negotiation of ideas – about identity, about the nature of accountability, about effectiveness –
within specific movement settings. We hope further work will address both how prosecution
affects mobilization, and how, comparatively, different systems affect similar mobilizations.
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Brian Doherty is Senior lecturer in the School of Politics, International Relations & Philosophy,
Keele University. He is joint editor of Social Movement Studies (Taylor & Francis), author of Ideas
and Action in the Green Movement (Routledge, 2002), and co-editor of Beyond Borders (Routledge,
2008, with Tim Doyle), Direct Action in British Environmentalism (Routledge, 2000, with Matthew
Paterson and Ben Seel) and Democracy and Green Political Thought (Routledge, 1996, with Marius
de Geus). He is currently working with Tim Doyle on a book on Friends of the Earth (Palgrave,
Graeme Hayes is Senior lecturer in the School of Languages and Social Sciences, Aston University,
and Marie Curie fellow, CNRS, in the Centre de recherche sur l’action politique en Europe (CRAPE)
at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Rennes, France. He is Editor in chief of Social Movement Studies
(Taylor & Francis), author of Environmental Protest and the State in France (Palgrave, 2002), and
co-editor of Cinéma et engagement (L’Harmattan, 2005, with Martin O’Shaughnessy) and Olympic
Games, Mega-Events, and Civil Societies: Globalisation, Environment, and Resistance (Palgrave,
2011, with John Karamichas). He is currently working with Sylvie Ollitrault on a book on La
Désobéissance civile (Presses de la FNSP, 2012, forthcoming).
1 Brian Doherty, UK Economic and Social Research Council award no L215252034 (‘Radical
Participation’); Graeme Hayes, European Commission Marie Curie Intra-European
Fellowship n° 251812 (‘Collective Action and Memory in the French Environmental
Movement’). We are grateful to Elizabeth Carter, Philip Catney, Rosemary O’Kane, Lisa
Vanhala, and the two anonymous reviewers for Comparative Political Studies for comments
on an earlier version of this paper.
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23 Présentation du collectif. http://www.gloups-news.info/ogm/index.php/Prsentation, posted
by ‘Nina’, 5 August 2007, accessed 8 August 2007.
24 Attended by Hayes.
25 AG des Faucheurs volontaires, Rablay-sur-Layon, 21-22 May 2011.