If the French marauders known as The Deflated waged their brand of urban subversion in Southern California, the mecca of the sport utility vehicle, by now they would probably have been jailed, beaten, shot or at least sued.
But five weeks after the clandestine crew of environmentalists launched a low-intensity war on SUVs in Paris, there are no casualties to report. Except, of course, for dozens of deflated gas-guzzling vehicles, said Sous-Adjudant Marrant (Sub-Warrant Officer Joker), the mysterious, masked leader of Les Degonfles.
Under cover of night, Marrant’s troops target Jeep Cherokees, Porsche Cayennes and other four-wheel-drive vehicles parked on the tree-lined avenues and cobblestoned lanes of wealthy neighborhoods. The eco-guerrillas deflate tires without damaging them, smear doors with mud and paste handbills on windshields proclaiming that the vehicles are dangerous, polluting behemoths that do not belong in the city.
“We use the mud to say that if the owners will not take the four-wheel-drives to the countryside, we will bring the countryside to the four-wheel-drives,” said Marrant, 28, who uses an alias because angry drivers deluge his website, https://degonfle.blogg.org with e-mails threatening mayhem and questioning his manhood.
Although his nom de guerre was inspired by Subcommander Marcos, the masked Mexican guerrilla revered by leftists, Marrant insists he is not violent or even particularly serious. “Deflated” is a self-deprecating name that also means “coward” in French. The group wants to send a mischievous message while avoiding damage to the vehicles, injury and prosecution, the thin, mop-haired activist said during an interview in a corner cafe on the Seine’s left bank, longtime turf of radicals and revolutionaries.
“We emphasize the comic, the burlesque side,” Marrant said with the earnest, wide-eyed look of a prankster trying to keep a straight face. “It would be hard to take us to court. We don’t slash tires, we deflate them. Air doesn’t cost anything. As for getting cars dirty, that’s nothing. I would plead guilty to that. Our rules are to never run from the police. And always run from the owners.”
The rise of anti-SUV activism in France shows that one man’s vandal can be another man’s avenger. The deflators are on the fringe of a movement that has considerable support at City Hall, which is governed by an alliance of the Socialist and Green parties.
Christophe Delabre, the president of a French association of SUV owners, has appeared in a television debate with Marrant, who wore sunglasses, a baseball cap and a bandanna to conceal his identity. Delabre does not find his adversary amusing.
“It’s comparable to extremism, to discrimination, to inciting hate,” Delabre said. “You can’t stigmatize a category of the population with impunity under the pretext that they drive a kind of vehicle.... [The Deflated] put others’ lives in danger, and that’s unacceptable. It’s out of the question that this kind of action is tolerated in France. I don’t understand how the police can arrest deflators and let them go a few hours later.”
Although city leaders don’t condone vandalism, officials have gone as far as proposing that Paris ban sport utility vehicles. Deputy Mayor Denis Baupin, who oversees transportation programs, has called the SUV “a caricature of a car.”
Baupin spoke during a recent rally of about 200 activists at a Jeep dealership where the manager had agreed to shut down early for the day. The decision drew cheers from children wearing cow and buffalo masks, cyclists hoisting bikes triumphantly aloft.
“An SUV is totally useless for Paris,” Baupin said in his speech, blaming the recent devastating hurricanes in the U.S. on climate change caused by pollution. “The situation is striking: The country that refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol suffered from a climatic catastrophe.... We all feel sorry for the dead in New Orleans. But now maybe the United States should start considering that their development pattern is not to be repeated worldwide and that it causes environmental problems.”
In the United States, sport utility vehicles account for one of every four automobiles sold, but in France, SUVs represent only about 5% of the market. The prices are high for middle-class families, but sales jumped about 20% last year.
Overt official hostility has encouraged antisocial attacks masquerading as activism, Delabre charged.
“This reflects the impact of the statements made during the last two years by Mr. Baupin,” he said. “He has told anyone listening, and the media helped him a lot, that four-wheel-drives should be banned. I criticized him because that kind of talk surprised me coming from an elected representative.”
Like other historic European capitals, Paris struggles with overwhelming traffic that challenges even the smallest cars and steeliest drivers. Double-parked delivery trucks block narrow streets. Swarms of motorcyclists zoom the wrong way on congested boulevards. Parking garages, impossibly small, seem designed by sadists.
Spurred by the take-back-the-streets attitude of the Greens, City Hall is trying to discourage cars in favor of mass transit, biking and walking. In addition, the national government has imposed a new tax on high-polluting vehicles that works out to about $300 per owner, but varies depending on emission levels.
And the Deflated are stepping up their stealthy fight. Marrant is writing a children’s song as an anthem for the cause. He also hopes to record a dance-mix version before Saturday, when activists plan an international wave of anti-SUV operations -- by daylight, this time -- in France, Britain, Canada and Australia.
“The point is to focus on consumers,” he said, spewing smoke from a Gaulois cigarette into the haze shrouding the crowded cafe. “We have to get past the idea that there’s always a single, identifiable villain: the president, the corporation, the chief executive. Our campaign has to be very marketing, shocking, provocative. I want to make it fashionable to be anti-4X4.”
Marrant is unemployed, though he has dabbled in journalism. His brother works for a major European corporation. His group numbers about 20, he said. They come from a mix of middle- and working-class backgrounds and anti-globalization and environmental groups.
The Deflated have made contact with like-minded activists in the United States. Marrant is familiar with the U.S. television advertising campaign that equated buying an SUV with financing Islamic terrorism. But he finds it too gloomy.
He says the French public supports his group’s approach. People send e-mails asking to participate or suggesting tactics, such as a special tool the activists now use for lightning-fast deflations.
“It’s a kind of key that deflates a tire very fast and completely, in two seconds,” he said. “A mechanic sent an e-mail telling us about it. He said, ‘You can do better than you have been doing.’ ”
Delabre, meanwhile, fears an eventual confrontation.
“I put myself in the place of an owner of a four-wheel-drive who sees people messing up his vehicle,” he said. “I worry that things will get out of control. We can’t accept that in our fine democracy. People have died for the freedom we have today.”
Claire Rocher and Achrene Sicakyuz in The Times’ Paris Bureau contributed to this report.