On May 11, the final 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 taking part in this year’s teachers’ strikes.
Later, it emerged that the detainees were two French nationals, Cecile Kohler, 37, and her husband Jacques Paris, 69. They had arrived in Iran on tourist visas on April 28 and were detained as they were about to board their return flight. Kohler, 37, is a member of France’s National Federation of Education, Culture and Vocational Training (FNEC-FP FO) and Paris, 69, was formerly secretary general of the colleges and high schools division (SNFOLC).
Now, a week later, Iranian state-controlled media outlets report that these two “spies” had established an "organized and coordinated" channel to provoke unionists into expanding their activities.
On May 12, the French Foreign Ministry confirmed and condemned the arrests, calling charges against the pair “baseless”. Officials demanded their release and summoned the chargé d’affaires of the Iranian embassy. It has since confirmed negotiations to secure the pair’s release are under way.
The Case Being Built
A video by Fars News Agency shown on Iranian state TV purported to detail the “spying” supposedly undertaken by Kohler and Paris. It opens with a night-time scene at Khomeini International Airport, and ends with another in the same location. The pair, a voiceover claims, were planning 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, sitting variously at home, in restaurant or in other public spaces. One of the pictures also shows the labor rights activist Anisha Asadollahi who was arrested just last week with her husband Keyvan Mohtadi.
The voiceover claims Kohler and Paris had been under surveillance by the Intelligence Ministry from the moment they arrived in Iran. Their passports are also shown in the film, but not images of them at the airport. There is also no evidence presented to show they took part in protests.
Later on in the video, we hear (but do not see) a recording man and a woman speaking in English. They can be heard saying “It is a battle… to get the majority of the union” and “To conclude, we’ll see what we can do, first of all we keep in touch” and “I would say I’m a revolutionary type”. These innocuous statements, of exactly the type trade unionists would be expected to say to one another, were held up by Fars as though they were evidence 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 this country as far as possible. "The French government condemns these baseless arrests," a statement said last week, adding staff would remain “fully mobilised” until their release.
IranWire undetrstands that despite efforts by the French embassy in Tehran, diplomats in the Iranian capital have not yet been able to meet with the two detainees.
Cecile Kohler is a staffer at France's FNEC FP-FO education union. Federal secretary Christophe Lalande confirmed she had been on holiday with her husband and failed to return. French media also visited the high school where she workd; students reported “She’s an ordinary person. She’s a teacher” and one, more jarringly, “I didn’t know Iran had taken our teacher hostage”.
IranWire asked a number human rights activists, lawyers and Iranian and French union activists for further information but they all reserved comments pending the negotiations. They, too, await an official response from the FNEC FP-FO. Whether the couple have legal representation is, at this point, not known.
Recently the Islamic Republic’s practice of taking dual nationals and the citizens of other countries hostage has come to the fore again. Earlier in May the judiciary said it planned to execute Ahmad Reza Jalali, an Iranian-Swedish disaster medicine doctor. On the same day in Stockholm, the prosecution presented its final arguments for the life-sentencing of Hamid Nouri. A few days later, the accomplices of Iranian diplomat Asadollah Asadi had their prison sentences for a terror plot confirmed in Antwerp.
On Thursday Amnesty International confirmed that it considers Dr. Jalali to be a hostage, and his detention a crime under international law. Behrouz Farahani, a member of the French campaign group Socialist Solidarity with Iranian Workers, said in his view the same could be said of Cecile Kohler and Jacques Paris.
“Ms. Kohler’s husband had visited Iran several times before,” he said. “They took the opportunity of this holiday to meet and talk with their Iranian colleagues. Where in the world someone conspiring to commit illegal acts meet their co-conspirators in the middle of a city for lunch and take pictures together? These were public, friendly meetings.”
There is no law against people who happen to be trade unionists meeting one another, he said: “According to the regulations of the International Labor Organization, whose members include not only the unions but the Islamic Republic itself, the exchange of views and solidarity between workers in different countries are an inviolable right.” He also points out that Iranian activists have joined meetings hosted by French unions, and have never made a secret of it.
Domestic Political Exploitation
Iranian educators have been staging strikes and rallies for the best part of 12 months now over an unmet promise to address unequal and inadequate salaries, as well as the imprisonment of their colleagues. The May Day rally took place amid a fresh wave of arrests including of Mohammad Habibi, the main union’s spokesman.
According to figures published by official Iranian media, some 4,122 separate strikes and workers’ protests took place across Iran last year, unprecedented in the modern world. IranWire reported on what a week’s worth of protests looked like on several occasions last year; they took in car factory workers, delivery drivers, hospital staff, oil and gas workers, pensioners and more.
“When protest movements reach such a level,” Behrouz Farahani said, “suppression 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 crack down on people, and when Savak was no longer capable of suppressing them, they said elements from Palestine and Arab countries or from the Soviet Union’s KGB had come to Iran. They wanted to show it was the foreigners who were making trouble. This is what dictatorships do when they fail to engage in dialogue and their methods of suppression 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 for the purposes of a future prisoner exchange. In some other cases it has been money, or to try to secure a particular outcome in political dealings. In this case, the purpose could be the nuclear talks – France is part of the P5+1, the countries that are party to the negotiations – or an exchange, or it might be that the executive has yet to decide.
France, Farahani speculates, also has the power of veto on the UN Security Council. The Islamic Republic has also had stormy economic dealings with French firms, including the oil company Total and automakers Peugeot and Renaud, all of which pulled out of the country in 2018 and 2019.
There is another possibility, however. “This hostage taking is a gesture against France, the second biggest power in Europe,” Farahani says. “I must point out that in the last decade, French labor unions have paid special attention to labor movement in Iran.
“Since true representatives of the Iranian labor movement are absent from the international arena, and the Islamic Republic always sends intelligence and security agents to the International Labor Organization’s session in Geneva, the French have become spokespeople for Iranian workers at international gatherings.
“Therefore, the Islamic Republic has a serious grudge against French labor organizations. There can be no doubt that with the arrests of these two French union activists, the Islamic Republic sees an opportunity to teach the government of France and the French labor movement a ‘lesson’.”
Solidarity naturally gives activists on both sides more power to realize their demands. But in addition, Farahani says, there is a special reason for European unionists’ special attentiveness to Iranian causes: “The Iranian revolution was the greatest mass revolution of the late twentieth century. Then it failed, made worse by the dominion of the clergy and by the growth of Islamism and jihadism.
“For years now, civil rights movements in other countries have been paying attention to Iran. And the Islamic Republic’s practice of sending its security agents posing as civil activists has become well known. Therefore, French labor unions have been trying to present our true activists to the rest of the world. They have played a significant role in letting the world know that Iranian workers are not alone, that they are not without a voice. So, despite the multi-layered crackdowns in Iran, their voice and their demands are still heard.” Now, he says, it is Iranians’ duty to return the favor: “We must defend these two jailed French nationals and be their voice as much as we defend our own prisoners.”