Two French trade unionists accused of spying in Iran

On May 11, the last day of a visit by EU envoy Enrique Mora, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry announced that two more Europeans had been arrested, accusing them of fomenting and participating in strikes by teachers in that year.

Later it emerged that the detainees were two French nationals, Cécile Kohler, 37, and her husband Jacques Paris, 69. They had arrived in Iran on tourist visas on April 28 and were arrested as they were about to board their flight home. Kohler, 37, is a member of the National Federation of Education, Culture and Vocational Training (FNEC-FP FO) and Chuck Paris, 69, was previously secretary general of the colleges and high schools division (SNFOLC) .

Now, a week later, Iranian state-controlled media reports that these two “spies” have set up an “organized and coordinated” channel to incite trade unionists to expand their activities.

On May 12, the French Foreign Ministry confirmed and condemned the arrests, calling the charges against the couple “baseless.” Officials demanded their release and summoned the charge d’affaires of the Iranian embassy. He has since confirmed that negotiations to secure the couple’s release are underway.

The case under construction

A Fars news agency video shown on Iranian state television claimed to detail the “espionage” allegedly undertaken by Kohler and Paris. It opens with a night scene at Khomeini International Airport and ends with another at the same location. The couple, according to a voiceover, planned to leave for Turkey next. It then shows them alongside a number of activists and educators, including Reza Shahabi, Rasoul Bodaghi, Masoud Nikkhah, Shaaban Mohammadi and Eskandar Lotfi, seated variously in their homes, restaurants or other public spaces. One of the photos also shows labor rights activist Anisha Asadollahi who was arrested last week along with her husband Keyvan Mohtadi.

The voiceover claims that Kohler and Paris had been under surveillance by the Ministry of Intelligence since their arrival in Iran. Their passports are also shown in the film, but not footage of them at the airport. Nor is there any evidence presented to show that they participated in protests.

Later in the video, we hear (but don’t see) a man recording and a woman speaking in English. You can hear them say “It’s a battle…to get the majority of the union” and “To conclude, we’ll see what we can do, first we keep in touch” and “I would say that I am a revolutionary type. These innocuous statements, exactly as trade unionists are supposed to tell each other, were brandished by Fars as if they were proof of a destabilizing “plot”.

Disbelief in France

Iran is among the countries the French government has coded red for travel warnings, meaning it advises its nationals not to travel to the country whenever possible. “The French government condemns these baseless arrests,” a statement said last week, adding that the staff would remain “fully mobilized” until their release.

IranWire understands that despite the efforts of the French Embassy in Tehran, diplomats in the Iranian capital have not yet been able to meet the two detainees.

Cécile Kohler is a staff member of the French education union FNEC FP-FO. Federal Secretary Christophe Lalande confirmed that she was on vacation with her husband and had not returned. French media also visited the high school where she worked; the students said, “He is an ordinary person. She’s a teacher” and another, more shocking, “I didn’t know that Iran had taken our teacher hostage”.

IranWire has asked a number of Iranian and French human rights activists, lawyers and trade unionists for further information, but they all reserved comment pending negotiations. They too are awaiting an official response from the CEPN FP-FO. It is not known if the couple have legal representation.

Obvious hostage-taking

Recently, the Islamic Republic’s practice of holding dual nationals and citizens of other countries hostage has come to the fore again. Earlier in May, the judiciary announced plans to execute Ahmad Reza Jalali, an Iranian-Swedish doctor specializing in disaster medicine. On the same day in Stockholm, the prosecution presented its final arguments for the life sentence of Hamid Nouri. A few days later, the accomplices of Iranian diplomat Asadollah Asadi saw their prison sentences for terrorist conspiracy confirmed in Antwerp.

On Thursday, Amnesty International confirmed that it considered Dr Jalali a hostage and that his detention was a crime under international law. Behrouz Farahani, a member of the French campaign group Socialist Solidarity with Iranian Workers, said he believed the same could be said of Cécile Kohler and Jacques Paris.

“Ms. Kohler’s husband had been to Iran several times before,” he said. “They used this holiday to meet and chat with their Iranian colleagues. to commit illegal acts meets his co-conspirators in the middle of a city to have lunch and take pictures together?These were public and friendly meetings.

There is no law prohibiting trade unionists from meeting, he said: “According to the rules of the International Labor Organisation, whose membership includes not only trade unions but the Islamic Republic itself , the exchange of views and solidarity between workers of different countries are an inviolable right. He also points out that Iranian activists have joined meetings organized by French unions, and have never made a secret of it.

Domestic political exploitation

Iranian educators have been staging strikes and rallies for nearly 12 months now over a broken promise to address unequal and inadequate pay, as well as the imprisonment of their colleagues. The May Day rally came amid a fresh wave of arrests, including of Mohammad Habibi, the union’s main spokesman.

According to figures released by Iran’s state media, some 4,122 separate worker strikes and protests took place across Iran last year, unprecedented in the modern world. IranWire repeatedly reported last year on what a week of protests looked like; they have hosted auto factory workers, delivery drivers, hospital staff, oil and gas workers, retirees and more.

“When protest movements reach such a level,” said Behrouz Farahani, “repression no longer works. So they try to link the protests to incitement from other countries,” he says. “It was the same during the last years of the monarchy as well. They used the secret police, Savak, to repress people, and when Savak was no longer able to repress them, they said that elements from Palestine and the Arab countries or the KGB from the Soviet Union had come in Iran. They wanted to show that it was the strangers who caused the problems. This is what dictatorships do when they do not engage in dialogue and their methods of repression prove ineffective. The Islamic Republic is now at the same impasse.

Why French nationals?

The most common reason for hostage-taking by the Islamic Republic is that of a future prisoner exchange. In other cases, it was about money or trying to achieve a particular result in political relations. In this case, the objective could be the nuclear talks – France is part of the P5+1, the countries that are part of the negotiations – or an exchange, or the executive has not yet decided.

France, Farahani speculates, also has veto power in the UN Security Council. The Islamic Republic has also had rocky economic relations with French companies, including oil company Total and automakers Peugeot and Renaud, all of which pulled out of the country in 2018 and 2019.

However, there is another possibility. “This hostage-taking is a gesture against France, Europe’s second power,” Farahani said. “I must stress that over the past decade, French trade unions have paid particular attention to the labor movement in Iran.

“Since the real representatives of the Iranian labor movement are absent from the international arena, and the Islamic Republic still sends intelligence and security agents to the session of the International Labor Organization in Geneva, the French have become the door -speech of Iranian workers at international rallies.

“Therefore, the Islamic Republic has a serious grudge against the French trade union organizations. There is no doubt that with the arrest of these two French trade union activists, the Islamic Republic sees an opportunity to teach a “lesson” to the French government and the French labor movement.

Solidarity naturally gives activists on both sides more power to achieve their demands. But in addition, says Farahani, there is a particular reason for the European unionists’ particular attention to Iranian causes: “The Iranian revolution was the greatest mass revolution of the late 20th century. Then it failed, aggravated by the domination of the clergy and by the growth of Islamism and jihadism.

“For years, civil rights movements in other countries have paid attention to Iran. And the Islamic Republic’s practice of sending its security agents to pose as civilian militants has become well known. Therefore, the French unions have tried to present our true militants to the rest of the world. They have played an important role in letting the world know that Iranian workers are not alone, that they are not voiceless. So, despite the multi-level repression in Iran, their voices and demands are still heard. Now, he says, it is the duty of Iranians to return the favor: “We must defend these two imprisoned French nationals and be their voice as much as we defend our own prisoners.