By Pierre Dujardin
In September 1998 eleven garden gnomes were found hanging by their necks under a bridge at Briey in eastern France.
An anonymous source for the Front de Liberation des Nains de Jardin (FLNJ), in an emotional interview at the scene was quoted as follows: “I regret and deplore the needless loss of life but this tragic incident is indicative of the deep despair that most garden gnomes feel concerning their many years of oppression by humans! Garden Gnomes are forced to maintain smiling faces, whilst being looked down upon by everyone, and condemned to stay outdoors in all weathers. The humiliation systematically inflicted on them by their owner’s dogs is too terrible to be openly discussed”
The FLNJ is a non-profit-making organisation set up to promote the liberation of garden gnomes by removing them from their owners’ gardens. The liberated gnomes are then examined by specialists, tested and, if they are in a healthy condition, transported to suitable places and released, for example, in the forest, where they can live independent lives free from tyranny and oppression.
This secret organisation was born in June 1996 at Alençon in the department of the Orne. The first group of the FLNJ stayed active until January 1997 when one of their members was prosecuted. Other groups have proliferated since then and it is claimed that there are currently about 1,700 members in this underground movement and that activists have liberated about 7,800 gnomes. Similar movements have appeared in Germany, Spain, Switzerland and Italy, as well as in the USA and Canada.
It is said by gnome-owning opponents of the FLNJ that they and their associates steal the gnomes, but according to the members of the FLNJ it is the act of assembling as a group, entering the gardens at night, taking the gnomes, running away and finally giving them their liberty which gives meaning and value to the shared experience and not the theft as such. In fact, some assert that the members of the FLNJ take care to put a note in the letter boxes of the owners of the gnomes explaining the aims of the group and informing them where their gnomes can be recovered. Others deny this, pointing out that it would be returning the gnomes to a life of oppression.
The liberation of garden gnomes continued sporadically in France during the first decade of the 21st century with gnome-freeing events reported in 2000, 2001, 2006 and 2008 (see below for links to these reports)
An act of mass liberation, which perhaps did not go fully to plan, was reported to the police on March 2, 2011, when 71 gnomes were found sheltering in a shed in Alençon.
An un-named spokesperson for the shadowy Counter-FLNJ National Task Force said at the time that since the gnomes seemed delighted to see them and showed no signs of attempting to escape, they had not been taken to a detention centre, as would normally be the case when “clandestins sans papiers” are discovered, but were helping the police with their enquiries. The latter however progressed so slowly that the media soon lost interest in the case.
And since there were no more reports of gnomes being liberated, it was assumed that either the FLNJ had disbanded or that the gnomes had accepted their lowly status in the French hierarchy. Until late 2018 when angry-looking gnomes were spotted, moving freely, on roundabouts and wearing yellow jackets.
Soon after the Coronavirus pandemic forced France into its first confinement last year reports began to circulate of gnomes once more being liberated from people’s gardens. The practice also spread to the UK. There was speculation that the FLNJ had mounted an undercover operation to smuggle gnomes born in the EU back across La Manche. It certainly seems that the FLNJ are still active, although your correspondent was informed by a person claiming to be the organisation’s spokesman that the nocturnal curfew in France has recently curtailed their activities.
The same informant revealed that if a liberated gnome tests positive during the current pandemic, it is isolated from others for ten days in a comfortable indoor location and retested. Some of these have been trained by members of the FLNJ to spread the safety message among their friends and acquaintances.
The incident of the Ever Given container ship, which blocked the Suez Canal in late March 2021, has also highlighted the dreadful exploitation of would-be migrant gnomes by traffickers. These ruthless organisations take advantage of the gnomes who, in their naïveté, believe that they would have a better life in the gardens of the West, instead of in the hills and valleys of their homelands. Hundreds have been trapped in a container on the ship in the Suez Canal’s Great Bitter Lake, unable to escape, since April 13. The Egyptian government has impounded the ship and demanded compensation from her Japanese owners. Neither side appears to be concerned that they are breaking basic gnomic rights. Fortunately, since the gnomes’ needs are meagre, their suffering is more mental than physical. Shamefully, the UK tabloid press, with its customary insensitivity, is reporting the episode as depriving British gardeners of the gnomes that they can’t do without.