In the first week of April 2018, over 2,500 armed French riot police, together with armoured vehicles and demolition machines, attempted to level a vast protest camp spread out over 2,000 hectares: the site of a proposed airport at Notre-Dames-des-Landes near the city of Nantes. The subject of fierce opposition since it was first put forward in 1957, the airport plan had finally been shelved by the French government in January 2017. Yet, the protestors who had occupied the site since 2009 remained, their decade-long existence as an anarchist commune – up to 250 strong in 80 separate collectives – becoming much more grounded in developing alternative, sustainable ways of living than simply a protest against airport expansion. Having already tried to evict the squatters in a major police operation in early October 2016, but being met by 40,000 additional protestors from all across France, the police returned in April 2018 in much greater numbers and with a blanket ban on news reporting of the eviction. Using tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets, protestors’ footage of the eviction suggests a war zone – the police vehicles demolishing many of the dozens of self-built structures in seconds, the black-clad protestors wearing gas masks fighting the police in darkness using molotov cocktails, slingshots and even lasers.
The occupiers had named the site La ZAD – zone à défendre meaning ‘zone to defend’, a subversive reworking of the acronym used to describe sites for redevelopment in France (zone d’ameragement differe, meaning ‘designated construction area’). Like its much smaller counterpart in London, Grow Heathrow, the ZAD began as a result of the global Camp for Climate Action protests in 2009 – an occupation that was both an explicit protest against airport expansion and its destructive effects on both the environment and global climate and also an opportunity to develop greener lifestyles. Both sites also share a basis in anarchist politics: anti-hierarchical, they are organised along principles of horizontal decision-making and mutual aid first set out by Peter Kropotkin in his 1902 book Mutual Aid. Yet the scale of the ZAD sets it apart: as one of the largest and longest-lasting protest sites in recent history, it has become legendary in activist circles, despite its near obliteration in 2018, and has inspired similar occupations across Europe, including the Hambach Forest anti-coal mining protest camp and another in the Lejuc Forest near Bure in northeastern France, opposing the proposed storage of nuclear waste there. The many structures built at the ZAD drew on different tactics of occupation: the earliest homes were treehouses derived from the anti-roads protests of the 1990s; later, particularly after the removal of many treehouses in the 2013 police operation, more substantial structures were built, including an infirmary, timber-framed barn, information centre, meeting rooms, climbing wall, brewery, library, bakeries, boxing gym, pirate radio station, and a play centre for children. Around the edges of the site were barricades and several observation towers that served as look-out posts for the occupiers.
In his documentary film about the ZAD, made during the failed 2013 eviction attempt by the police, Jean-François Castell interviewed a wide range of supporters of the occupation, including local farmers, politicians and protestors themselves. It revealed that a whole network of people, both inside and outside the ZAD, were critical in sustaining the occupation: food and building materials were regularly brought in by local residents; and farmers’ helped blockade the site with their tractors during the eviction attempts. A critical tactic on the part of the police in the most recent eviction attempt was to cut off these networks – in the year leading up it, protests in support of the site were curtailed and the press were not allowed to access the site. Yet, as reports from ZAD residents show, the zone continues to exist, albeit much reduced – the remaining structures still inhabited, some of the destroyed ones rebuilt. Meanwhile, the ideals behind the occupation are dispersing elsewhere, waiting to reappear as protestors recover and regroup – and parallels have already been drawn between the ZAD and the more recent Gilets Jaunes, or ‘Yellow Jacket’ protests in Paris and elsewhere.
What’s unusual about the ZAD is not that it was crushed with all the violence the state could muster, but rather that this final action came a significant time after the decision was made to abandon the airport project. It seems that what the French state could not countenance was an occupation for its own sake – the continuation of a genuine alternative to top-down government in the pocket of neoliberal capitalism. The French government clearly feared a larger kind of solidarity emerging, one that would continue the process that had already seen mass protests. One of the most powerful moments in Castells’ 2013 film is when a local farmer speaks about why he supported the occupation, even as the ZAD’s permaculture practices directly challenged his own industrial methods of farming. What this farmer recognised was the power of ‘fraternity’ that had developed between people of widely differing views – one that, to him, suggested a vision of the future rather than just a site-specific protest. Witnessing the police operations, another local resident in his 70s was reminded of his time serving in Algeria 50 years previously, when he evicted people from their land in the name of what he termed ‘something futile’. It is these larger connections – when an ostensibly narrow form of protest suddenly reaches out much wider – that the French state so feared. When solidarity cuts across normally hostile interests, a truly inclusive revolution might begin.