The first of several trials targeting the activists opened Tuesday in the eastern town of Bourg-en-Bresse. Some 300 activists showed up to support the six defendants, chanting "We're all portrait removers!"
The six are accused of "group theft by deceit" and face potential prison terms and substantial fines for taking down Macron's official presidential portrait from town halls around the country. They should escape jail time, however. Prosecutor Eric Sandjivy has requested fines of 2,000 euros ($2,240) against five of them for charges of theft and refusal to provide DNA samples. The other one, charged with theft, faces a 1,000 euro ($1,120) fine. The verdict from Tuesday's trial will be announced June 12.
Greenpeace France President Jean Francois Julliard defended the activists, saying that the civil disobedience was a way to "to make a mark." He said that the activists only resorted to their actions after other tactics failed.
The portrait-removal campaign has called attention to Macron's pro-business strategy, notably as young people are increasingly taking to the streets to demand more planet-friendly policies and after France's Greens party saw its support jump in the European Parliament election this week.
Internationally, Macron is a vocal champion of fighting climate change. He sees himself as the guarantor of the U.N.'s 2015 Paris climate accord, and has challenged U.S. President Donald Trump on the issue — notably inviting U.S. scientists to do their research in France under his "Make our Planet Great Again" program.
At home in France, however, activists accuse him of lagging on promises to wean France from fossil fuels. Nine other trials are scheduled against 36 people accused of taking down 40 Macron portraits. "I'm convinced of a climate emergency, and floored by the fact that nothing is happening in France," said Anne-Sophie Trujillo Gauchez, 46, one of the defendants in Bourg-en-Bresse, told The Associated Press. "My action was legitimate. Taking down Macron, that makes sense."
Activists complained about the heavy potential sentences. "While we're conscious of the risks, we are only taking symbolic action," said defendant Helene Lacroix-Baudrion. Trujillo Gauchez, Lacroix-Baudrion and four others took down the portrait from the town hall in Jassans-Riottier in what they called an act of civil disobedience. All six had clean police records, until now.
Their association, ANV-COP 21, wants to turn Tuesday's trial into a political tribune and invited top French climate scientists to testify. The threat of prison isn't deterring the activists. More than 100 portrait removal actions are scheduled in the coming months, notably in the lead-up to the G-7 summit in the southwest city of Biarritz in August.
Greenpeace and other activist groups are trying to send the French state to court to force it to respect environmental commitments. Macron tried to raise fuel taxes last year to reduce emissions, but the yellow vest protests erupted, complaining that ordinary French workers were being hit too hard by taxes. Macron later backed down, delaying the tax rise.
France greenhouse gas emissions had been decreasing continuously since 1990, started to increase in 2015, 2016 and 2017, then decreased again in 2018. According to Eurostat, France is behind on its European commitments in terms of renewable energy, and ranks at the next-to-bottom place compared to other EU countries. Macron's government delayed the goal of reducing the share of nuclear in its energy mix from 71% now to 50% to 2035, instead of 2025 previously.
Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed.