John MacCullough, a former further education lecturer, and Robert Evans, a psychologi st, were repairing the roof of Sarah Two's farmhouse in the tiny hamlet of Tapia in the Ariege dpartement when the gendarmes arrived.
They had been tipped off by one of Ms Two's neighbours, a bull breeder, who complained that she was paying for the work in the alternative currency of their SEL (Societe d'Echanges Local) and not in francs.
The police later persuaded two local trades federations to bring charges against the three Britons, who were eventually convicted of working illegally and employing illegal labour. They have now lodged appeals and plan to take their case all the way to the European Court of Justice if necessary.
"We weren't trying to avoid paying taxes. We were just helping each other out," Ms Two says. "We don't see why they brought the case against us, but we do feel that the SEL itself is under attack."
A teacher of English as a foreign language, Sarah Two has belonged to the SEL since it was set up three years ago. She offers other group members English lessons, babysitting and home-grown vegetables, exchanging the credits she earns in these ways for roof repairs and other jobs she cannot afford to pay for in hard cash.
Despite the role of the two trades federations in bringing the case to court, both Sarah Two and John MacCullough say that local builders have never shown any hostility to the
In ordering the three to pay token damages of just one franc and imposing a 2,000 franc (#163;200) fine, suspended indefinitely, the court seems to
have tacitly agreed that they
had not taken work away from the professionals.
"I think the reason the case came to court was a combination of the fact that the authorities were looking for a test case and the fact that Sarah's neighbour reported us," says Mr MacCullough, who came to France
seven years ago in search of a better life. He has found the barter scheme a way of becoming involved in the local community, as well as a help in surviving on a low income.
Many of the people in
the scheme are, like Mr
MacCullough and Ms Two,
professionals who came to the unspoilt Ariege region to
escape urban life.
But support for the three Britons has come from a much wider section of the population in France, where their case has attracted much publicity and fuelled interest in the whole cashless trading movement.
A similar movement exists on this side of the Channel where about 450 local exchange trading schemes (LETS) have sprung up since the first scheme was established in Norfolk in 1985.
Most rely on a group of core members to keep track of all transactions and to produce a directory of the goods and services offered and wanted by members.
LETS members agree what each transaction is worth and usually use a cheque book to record the credits and debits they have run up in "acorns", "readies", or whatever name their LETS currency goes by.
If they find themselves overdrawn, they are not charged any interest, but are encouraged to offer work or goods to other members.
Unlike the French schemes, Lets enjoy some official support, with almost one-third of schemes receiving help from local authorities, according to the national development agency, Letslink UK.
Liverpool City Council, for instance, has set up a three-person LETS development unit as part of its anti-poverty drive, while other authorities have themselves become trading members of local schemes.
Although these schemes have the potential to reduce welfare dependency and develop skills, a recently published report concludes that unemployed people are often deterred from joining by fear of losing some of their welfare benefits.
Letslink UK is campaigning for local currency "earnings"
to be disregarded when bene-
fits are calculated, but at
present most LETS groups are predominantly middle class, according to the report, Uncommon Currencies.
It also found that LETS members have been slow to take advantage of changes in the
way many local authority services, including education, are delivered. "Schools under local
management, independent incorporated colleges of further education and the voluntary housing association movement could all find some common interests with LETS," say the report's authors, John Pearce and Chris Wadhams.
They argue that schools and colleges should review their management and development programmes to make sure staff do not miss opportunities.
A school could hire out its computers or other facilities in exchange for help with grounds maintenance, or painting and decorating, for example.
However, very few schools have done more than express
an interest in LETS so far,
even though individual
teachers are often active
members of local groups.
'Uncommon Currencies' by John Pearce and Chris Wadhams is published by Policy Press in association with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Price #163;11.95 from Biblios Publishers Distribution Service, Star Road, Partridge Green, West Sussex, RH13 8LD. Telesales: 01403 710 851