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France’s Littlest Victims: Stolen Garden Gnomes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Someone in France is again stealing garden gnomes, those cheery and fuzzy-cheeked symbols of smug suburban contentment.

In an after-hours raid on a Paris park where 2,000 of the elfin figures had been assembled for an exhibition, members of a group calling itself the Garden Gnome Liberation Front swiped a score of the sculptures last weekend.

The unknown thieves, in a statement, demanded the “immediate closing of this odious exhibit, as well as the unconditional liberation of the garden gnomes still detained.” Act now, they warned Paris authorities, or we will strike again.

Is this for real? Patrick Boumard, professor of anthropology at the University of Rennes and author of a study on the French relationship with the decorative sculptures, believes that gnome-napping, which first surfaced here in the mid-'90s, started out as a simple student prank but struck some profound chord in French life.

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The garden gnome, the anthropologist says, is a totem of the times we live in and is fraught with all sorts of symbolism--economic, cultural, emotional.

In the 1997 film comedy “The Full Monty,” the gnome plays a significant part in highlighting Britain’s stark class differences. When the unemployed working-class heroes of the movie want to mock an uppity, bootlicking comrade, they abduct the gnomes from his front yard and use the figures to ridicule him.

“For my paper, I went out and talked to people who have gnomes in their garden or on their lawn,” Boumard said. “I often found surprisingly strong affective connections. Some owners, for instance, wash their gnome every day. Others take their gnome in for the night and put him to bed. Many people talk to their gnome as if it were their favorite child. These objects allow a regression into childhood without a visit to the psychiatrist. I call them the ‘Freud of the poor.’ ”

To proprietors in France or other countries, the gnome is a badge of middle-class ease. Is it an accident, inquires Boumard, that the gnome in its current state, with pointed red hat and wooden clogs, first appeared in 15th century Germany, along with the nascent European bourgeoisie?

These days, an estimated 30 million of the small figures stand guard in the yards and gardens of Western Europeans, yet another example of homogenizing European taste.

For high priests of artistic taste, the sculptures--made in the likeness of one of Walt Disney’s Seven Dwarfs, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Tom Thumb, a Nordic troll or any of countless other models--are the epitome of pure kitsch. This may be another reason for their owners’ fondness.

In the summer of 1996, masked commando bands operating around the city of Alencon in Normandy staged nightly raids to “liberate” gnomes by taking the terra cotta, ceramic or plastic figurines from people’s yards and setting them loose in the forest, their supposed natural environment.

There were copycat incidents in Alsace, in Brittany and along the Mediterranean coast. Some homeowners, who had paid up to $100 apiece for their gnomes, failed to see any humor in the thefts and lodged complaints with police. Others took their sculptures into the house at night, for safety’s sake. Incidents of gnome abduction spread to Switzerland, Britain and other countries.

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In one bizarre ritual, the garden statuary was made to symbolize the discontents of modern civilization. Eleven gnomes were hanged by the neck off a bridge in eastern France, and a mock suicide note was left that said, “When you read these few words, we will no longer be part of your selfish world, where we serve merely as pretty decoration.”

In 1997, French police and courts struck a heavy blow against the self-styled gnome liberators in the northern city of Bethune. Three young men, ages 18 to 21, were convicted of stealing 182 gnomes as well as two statues of Snow White. They were given suspended prison sentences of one to two months.

The opponents of gnome captivity eventually broke into two groups, the Liberation Front and the more “pacifist” Garden Gnome Emancipation Movement, which is trying to create the world’s biggest Web site on gnomes at www.menj.com.

The removal of some of the figures from the show at the Bagatelle Gardens in Paris was the first action claimed on the Liberation Front’s behalf in three years. City officials were unruffled and said the exhibition will run as scheduled until July 23 despite the group’s demands. Meanwhile, Boumard announced that the University of Rennes will hold a three-day conference in June to further explore the complex relationship between the French and garden gnomes.

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