On 4 March 1976 at Montredon-des-Corbières, close to Narbonne, winegrower Emile Pouytès and CRS officer Commander Joel Le Goff were shot and killed, during the course of a demonstration which turned into a violent stand-off. Another 17 people were hospitalised with injuries from the disastrous fire-fight. The confluence of blood and wine drew a significant reaction from the French political mainstream, which vilified the terroristic acts of regional extremists. Amongst winegrowers, however, the fallen were martyrs of a struggle which was over a century old and part of a regional inheritance of resistance to ‘internal colonialism’.
These ideas loom large in my upcoming book Terror and Terroir: The winegrowers of the Languedoc and Modern France (Manchester University Press, 2016), and in this post I wanted to introduce the topic to a wider audience on the 40th anniversary of the gunfight.
Prelude to a Gunfight
This gunfight was not a bolt from the blue, but the culmination of a steadily worsening relationship between winegrowers and the forces of order. Throughout the 1970s, the militant winegrowers’ group, the Comité Régional d’Action Viticole (CRAV) seemed to be in open revolt against the government, driven to furious violence in their sense of the injustice they faced. Montpellier Cathedral was occupied in 1971 and the port of Sète blockaded in 1975, with countless incidents in between.
Tensions were undeniably rising in the run-up to the shoot-out, as confrontations with the CRS escalated. One of the CRAV leaders, André Cases, described how, eight months before the drama at Montredon, they came close to open war in the village of Thézans. A group of CRS allegedly set about four young men with clubs, one of whom had his Achilles tendon torn by the blows. Later that night, hundreds of angry winegrowers gathered in their cars, determined to make the CRS pay. Cases claims this was the first time that he saw winegrowers carrying rifles in anger.
Two winegrowers had been arrested on 3 March 1976, accused of taking part in a strike against Ramel, a merchant they suspected of fraudulently importing cheap Italian wines and blending them with French wines. The CRAV were outraged by the arrests. There was only one criminal here, they felt, and it was not either of the honest winegrowers snatched up by the state. Sensing the tension, prosecutors moved the prisoners to Lyon to try and avoid a flashpoint. Too late. Protesters blocked roads and train lines, and set fire to cargo vehicles between Toulouse and Narbonne, gathering on the bridge at Montredon to show a unified presence.
That gathering was for a confrontation with the CRS, and a show of force against the state. It was also a tragedy in the making.
A Confluence of Causes
Much of the impetus that animated the CRAV came from veterans of military service in Algeria. These young men, in the summer of 1961 and onwards, brought new types of protest to a situation which seemed to have settled into a pattern of raucous but largely peaceful displays. Explicitly referencing the tactics of the fellagha they had fought in North Africa, they chopped down telephone poles, started burning barricades, and brought a new intensity to protest. Angry young veterans retooled the weapons of decolonising peoples to fight the self-same French state.
This experience of France’s colonial past met another legacy, Algerian wine imports bound into the negotiations at the end of empire. Winegrowers raged against these wines, declaring them fraudulent, both in terms of dodgy winemaking technique, and in terms of tax-dodging and speculation. More than this, however, it seemed to show the winegrowers of the Languedoc that Paris was more willing to pander to lost colonies than the south.
The birth of a Common Wine Policy in early 1970 had raised the visibility of imports from Italy, and these were seen as direct competition for the easy-drinking cheap reds of the Midi. This had fuelled a series of Languedocien protests against the Common Market, and Brussels (in part) replaced the traditional enemy of Paris. These external influences showed how the local, the national, and the global all inflected southern responses to wine crises, and perhaps hint at why that response was so violent.
The Memory Remains
Three weeks after the Montredon shoot-out, a winegrower called Albert Teisseyre was arrested, with sketchy photographic evidence suggesting that it was he that fired the fatal shot. This rumbled through the courts for ages, spanning the 5th anniversary of the shootings as legal complications arose. Teysseire was finally fully acquitted in July 1985, a verdict his lawyer described as “historic”. This protracted trial revealed the scars that Montredon had left.
Memorials were erected and remain places of pilgrimage for the winegrowers movement and for the police. Regional newspapers marked each anniversary and each memorial service held by winegrowers and the CRS. In one of the largest services in 2002, the CRAV led between 700 to 1,000 winegrowers to Montredon to lay wreaths at the monument to the fallen.
This poignant intersection of blood and wine reminds us of the reality behind this long running mythology. The centenary of the grand protest movement of 1907 ushered in a lot of violence, and as recently as July 2013, radical winegrowers launched explosives into the local Socialist Party headquarters in Carcassonne. Likewise, there has been a lot of anger recently at the decision by Tour de France organisers to opt for a Chilean wine as their official partner.
Problems, then, remain. Though when people gather today at the monuments to commemorate the fallen, we also gain sight of the failures of political representation that drove winegrowers into a cycle of radicalisation and the actions that created monsters and martyrs of ordinary men.
 The difficulty lay in determining whether Teisseyre was involved in a political act or a criminal one, with the Peyreffite law of 1981 allowing him to be tried for a criminal charge despite his predating conviction in 1976. This in turn posed serious questions about the CRAV and their role – political or criminal?
This blog was also posted on the UCL History Department Blog