Today in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, in western France, there is an area of about 4,000 acres that is illegally occupied, called ZAD (Zone à défendre, Zone to Defend). A few hundred people from different autonomous groups cohabit this place of social and ecological experimentation. Many things are happening here: farm work, processing of agricultural goods, maintenance of ecological habitats, cultural activities, exchange of know-how, canteens, radio stations, a newspaper, an internet site,1 a library…
The ZAD was born in 2009 out of the struggle against a planned airport, which was to be located on farm lands near the city of Nantes. In the mid 1960s, the national government and local officials wanted to develop this area of woodland, heath, small hedged fields, and wetlands located about 12 miles northwest of Nantes into part of a sprawling metropolis by creating an international airport able to accommodate the Concorde. This ambitious project, which required the expropriation of local farmers, encountered immediate opposition, especially since Nantes already has an international airport. Starting in 1974, the Loire-Atlantique Department (Nantes is its capital) began to acquire some of this land to make it into a Zone d’aménagement différé (Zone for Future Development)—the origin of the acronym ZAD. But with the oil crisis, the plan was temporarily abandoned.
The project resurfaced in 2000 at the initiative of Nantes’s Socialist deputy mayor, Jean-Marc Ayrault. Coupled with real estate development and a reorganization of transportation largely supported by the right as well as the left, the plan aimed to create a metropolis extending all the way to the industrial port of Saint-Nazaire on the Atlantic. Behind this was the ego of Mr. Ayrault, who wanted to leave his name in history. Another driver of this project was Brittany’s big business, notably agribusiness, which saw an opportunity to expand internationally and to develop a territory adapted to local capitalist dynamics, moving away from the Paris-centeredness peculiar to the French state.2 The businessmen’s regional pride, indeed Breton nationalism, was also involved. For these elites it was a matter of making Brittany “shine” in the world, through a new airport, through making this territory a brand name.
But some of the locals objected. They soon formed the Inter-Municipal Citizen’s Association of Populations Affected by the Notre-Dame-des-Landes Airport Project [l'Association citoyenne intercommunale des populations concernées par le projetd'aéroport de Notre-Dame-des-Landes] (ACIPA).3 To fight the airport, the association worked to mobilize people, and to get out information about the project’s oversights and flaws: the entirely possible and less onerous expansion of the current airport; the disappearance of local employment, especially in agriculture; the abuse of procedures; the badly estimated environmental consequences. Indeed, the zone is also a wetland, rich in biodiversity, including protected species, hence unsuitable for such an infrastructure.
From festive gatherings to hunger strikes, the resistance found a larger echo: the creation of the Coordination of Opposition (Coordination des opposants au projet d’aéroport), composed of the ACIPA, farmers unions, environmental associations, political parties, and elected officials. At the same time, Nantes’s Loire-Atlantique Department resumed the purchase of land and its expropriation from its owners.
In 2012, the Department handed the management of road and railroad construction for the project over to the national government. As a private-public partnership, Vinci, the huge French multinational concessions and construction company, obtained from the government a very favorable contract for the construction and the concession of the future airport; its rate of return would be guaranteed by the public authority for fifty-five years.
Constructed by outside people coming in to defend the woodlands from being paved over in concrete, the first illegal cabins made their appearance among the trees in 2007. During the 2009 Climate Action Camp (against global warming), which was held at the ZAD site, a call was launched to join the struggle and to occupy the area. It was at this time that militants rebaptized ZAD as “Zone à défendre” a collective nose thumbing at decision-makers and technocrats.
From then on, forms of resistance have evolved. Dozens of people, mostly young, have flocked to the area. Dwellings have been built out of wood, earth, straw, and salvaged material. Abandoned homes were squatted. A dynamic of illegal actions and offensives was put into place: occupation of the existing airport by activist clowns, defacing of Vinci offices, prevention of work on the airport, sabotaging machines. Demonstrations involving thousands of people multiplied, often resulting in clashes with police, with the consequent toll of wounds and arrests. As a result, solidarity grew and legal and medical support arrived. The number of ZAD inhabitants continued to grow, fluctuating between 200 and 300 illegal occupants. Radical ecologists, anti-capitalists, anarchists, the autonomous of all nationalities settled there for a few days or for years. There was an ongoing turnover among the residents: squatters, precarious and itinerant workers, retirees, salaried, people on holiday, peasants, artisans, unemployed, students, and even migrants were coming and going, building and participating before leaving; many returned. Children were born there.4
For many, the struggle was not just over the government’s plans for developing the territory, it was also a struggle over the logic of economic growth, profit, environmental destruction, state authoritarianism, and technological and industrial domination. Hence the militants’ slogan, “Against the airport and its world.” These militants can also be found engaged in other social movements, among workers, in Nantes and elsewhere, supporting other struggles, like that against the Turin–Lyon high speed train between France and Italy (No TAV). If the ZAD and the fight against the airport echo the victorious struggle of the Larzac farmers who opposed the extension of a local military base in the 1970s, some people like to see it as a resurgence of the Paris Commune of 1871. In fact, the ZAD is the largest squat in Europe. It does not form a community folded in on itself, but is a federation of small groups and autonomous structures.
The alternative, self-managed ways of living which developed there were not clear to many longtime opponents of the airport (ACIPA, elected officials), who observed in the ZAD a nonconformism and a collective functioning they were not used to. Similarly, the choice of direct confrontation with police was badly viewed, the ACIPA having chosen only non-violence. On the other hand, some activists could not understand the limitation to legal action. But little by little, neighborly relations improved.
In October 2012, the Socialist government, whose Prime Minister was none other than the aforementioned Jean-Marc Ayrault, decided to evacuate the zone by deploying over a thousand gendarmes. The event took on national, political, and media dimensions. The Zadists proclaimed, “No to the Ayraultport!” The multifaceted resistance, combined with the conditions of the terrain (groves, woods, wetlands) defeated this so-called “Opération César,” blocked by tractors, barricades, and human chains, the over equipped gendarmes floundered in the autumn countryside under a fusillade of projectiles.
Support committees multiplied all over France, Europe, and even internationally (support came from Zapatistas in Chiapas, for example); thousands of people came to support the struggle, or organize gatherings and local actions. The state began to back down. Over the years, the situation has become increasingly bogged down for the government and for Vinci. Each new attempt of theirs to return to the zone was defeated. French public opinion was divided but became increasingly favorable to the anti-airport position. Bumper stickers expressed solidarity. Well-known musicians got involved and came to perform. Writers and designers put their talents in the service of the resistance. The terms “ZAD”and “Zadistes” have entered the vocabulary to mean radical opposition to various capitalist and statist projects.
In January 2018 the government gave up on the airport project. This was a great victory for all who opposed it and, further, for all social struggles in France, many of which have failed in the last few years despite sometimes massive mobilizations.
However, the government is now asking the occupiers to file individual economic projects that meet its standards and threatens to evict all occupiers who do not meet their requirements. Divisions already present in the movement have been exacerbated, particularly between those who agree to return to legality in order not to lose everything they have built over the years, and those who want the territory to be managed collectively—without property titles, at whatever cost.
Strengthened by these divisions, the government launched another operation of destruction and expulsion on April 9, 2018, 2,500 gendarmes mobiles with armored vehicles, helicopters, drones, water cannons, grenades of all kinds, and Flash-Balls wounded hundreds of people and destroyed sites that had not yet accepted the state’s conditions. Journalists were not allowed to cover the operation, which cost an estimated 300,000 euros per day. Large demonstrations protesting the intervention have taken place. But missing are some longtime opponents who welcome the return of legality to the territory. Furthermore, police and military forces have contained and neutralized the crowds. The hundreds of tractors that once paraded in the streets no longer come. The changes are obvious, the balance of power favors the government. If people understood the struggle against the airport, many reject the Zadist alternative forms of living, outside the legal framework.
The Zadist movement is also divided. Some opponents have agreed to file individual economic forms while remaining linked to each other to maintain the collective aspect of the territory. Alliances have been made between certain “radical” groups and legalist associations to safeguard the permanence of a few spaces. Others denounce the takeovers. The state has granted precarious leases to certain projects, such as those filed by longtime farmers in the area (who had resisted the airport) and to some of the Zadists’ agricultural projects. It has also refused several and is currently examining others. Everything is under negotiation. The state is keeping up the pressure and continues to use force and to destroy sites. On March 22, 2018, a student who came to give support had one of his hands torn off by an exploding grenade thrown by gendarmes.
It is difficult to foresee what will happen next. A large part of the land held by the national government has just been sold back to the Department, which remains very hostile to the Zadists, and which wants to reexamine in 2019 the concessions authorized by the government. It favors the return or the installation of farmers who are already owners of large mechanized farms.
Meanwhile, two visions of the world continue to confront each other.
June 11, 2018
- These businessmen have organized a think tank for economic competition under the name of the Locarn Institute.
- See C. Durand and F. Cazalis, “Fighting for the Forest,” Brooklyn Rail: Field Notes, December 2014-January 2015. brooklynrail.org/2014/12/fighting-for-the-forest-ecological-activism-in-france