End of la ZAD? France’s ‘utopian’ anti-airport community faces bitter last stand
From The Guardian
On a cold but sunny December morning, the only sound around the hedgerows of Notre-Dame-des-Landes is the cawing of a horde of squabbling crows. Those asleep in the cabins, caravans and reclaimed farmhouses of Europe’s largest political squat (in terms of area) are awaiting a far ruder awakening.
“They could send the gendarmes to evict us at any time,” says Pierre (not his real name; like most of the “resistants”, he prefers to remain anonymous). “But we are ready to defend the area – this is now our home. Besides, they’ve tried in the past and not succeeded.”
The story of “la ZAD” in western France began more than half a century ago, when the French government earmarked the site for a new airport as part of a plan to create a transatlantic “Great West” gateway to France and Europe.
Years of consultations, arguments and indecision supposedly ended in 2008, when the €580 million project was given official approval. The squatters began arriving the same year, claiming they were responding to an appeal from farmers fighting compulsory purchase orders. No airport-related construction has since taken place on the 1,650-hectare site.
Up to 300 squatters – eco-warriors to some, green jihadis to others – now live in the ZAD: officially the Zone d’aménagement différé (zone for future development), renamed by protesters as the Zone à défendre (zone to defend).
Some view themselves as political activists, reminiscent of those who protested against military installations such as Greenham Common in the UK and Larzac in southern France in the 1970s and 80s, and the tree protestors who fought the Newbury bypass in Britain in the 90s. Others are inspired by the 2008 Kingsnorth climate camp in Kent and the Christiania commune, the historic self-proclaimed autonomous district in Copenhagen, Denmark. For the majority, the ZAD offers an alternative, simpler and more utopian way of life.
“The movement itself is large and has great solidarity, but there’s a great diversity of people and opinions,” says Camille (a favoured alias among the protesters). “From those who’ve got degrees to people from the streets or those who just want to get away from their families ... some are already politically engaged, some just broken by conventional life.”
For the squatters, the airport plan – and the methods various governments have used to defend it – have become symbolic of everything a generation of politically, economically and ecologically militant millennials despise: inequality, capitalism, globalisation, the destruction of the environment, intensive farming and, above all, the rise of the individual over society and the collective.
Driving through the village of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, the “Non à l’Aéroport” signs planted in the hedgerow and painted on the roads become more frequent. On the fringe of the ZAD, a house is decked with a long banner: “I was born here. I’m staying here.”
After years of waiting, the veracity of that statement will soon emerge: French president Emmanuel Macron has pledged to make a final decision on the airport plan by the end of January. Whatever the decision, ministers have said those occupying the ZAD will have to go.
The French media has had a field day: Le Journal du Dimanche recently claimed the “Zadists” – a now perjorative term the zone’s occupants dislike – were gearing up for violence, suggesting there are tunnels, watchtowers, firearms even. Standing near the camp’s “lighthouse” – built by squatters with a flashing light and alarm to warn of imminent police action – Camille dismisses the article as “utterly ridiculous”.
“It’s just another attempt to make us out to be some kind of extremists. Really, it’s complete nonsense. They said we had dug series of tunnels like the Vietcong; in fact, it was one person who’d dug a well,” she says.
Critics of the plan point out there is already an airport at Nantes just 26km away, and that the hedgerows of Notre-Dame-des-Landes have been declared a “zone of natural interest” for their exceptional flora and fauna.
The local mayor, Jean-Paul Naud, says 75% of the area’s residents oppose the proposed airport – but above all, they will just be pleased to finally have a decision, oui or non.
“It’s been put off time and time again. Local people don’t want the airport, have never wanted the airport, but now people just want a decision. They want it sorted,” Naud says.
A successful social experiment
Whatever the outcome, the ZAD settlers are not planning on going quietly. An attempt to dislodge them in 2012, named Opération César, resulted in clashes between the squatters and 2,000 gendarmes, and the government backing down in the face of public opposition to the scenes of violence.
As their confidence has grown over the past decade, many squatters have abandoned tents and caravans and built wooden shacks and cabins, or occupied empty farms, planting the land around them.
Today there is a boulangerie producing bread from wheat and grain grown in the ZAD, a brewery, a pirate radio station, an online newspaper, a weekly vegetable market, and several herds of cows, goats and sheep producing milk and meat. Produce is shared or sold for whatever the buyer can afford.
It is a motley group living in around 70 different sites that defies age, class or social generalisations. There are no leaders, but those who speak for the “resistants” describe it as a “successful social experiment”.
Marcel Thébault, a 59-year-old cattle farmer, seems an unlikely “eco-warrior” as he pulls off his gloves, sits down on a large sack of cattle feed, and contemplates his cows.
He and his wife Sylvie, 52, were supposed to be living their dream: escaping the city to raise their two children in this tranquil corner of western France; tending their small herd, keeping a few sheep, living on the land, keeping it simple.
I’m a small farmer first – but I’ve also had to become a protestor to defend this land
During the last 17 years, however, they have been served with compulsory purchase orders, threats of evictions, and battled with politicians and gendarmes. A few years ago, Thébault resorted to a hunger strike to have his grievances heard.
The Thébaults’ farm in the hamlet of Liminbout was not in the ZAD when they bought it in 1999. It is now. Only five of the original farmers remain in the zone; most took the money and disappeared.
“I’m a small farmer first and foremost,” Marcel Thébault says. “My priority is to look after my animals, but I’ve also had to become a protestor to defend this land. And I will continue to defend it from a world that has become totally mad with capitalism; where only the strongest win and those with money take everything.
“The idea of building an airport here when there is already a working airport nearby is so bizarre, so politically stupid, I’ve convinced myself it will never happen. They gave us money for the farm but we refused it; we’ve not cashed the cheque.”
The Thébaults have no issue with the other protesters living in the ZAD. “[The media] make out that people here want to smash everything, defile everything – but I have no problem with them. We are detested by all politicians, to whom we present a real challenge. They don’t like the idea that people can block their decisions, they don’t accept it. But I will fight for everyone who wants to stay.”
His neighbours include Sebastian: a biologist in his 40s who was working as an independent project manager when he came to the ZAD “out of curiosity” five years ago, intending to stay a few days. He never left. Today, he spends his day looking after a herd of 20 cows, all loaned by local farmers showing solidarity with the anti-airport movement, collecting the milk and making cheese.
“The squatters and the farmers here are building something extraordinary, something that goes back to the simple life of our grandparents,” Sebastian says. “I feel in tune with that ideology. We are able to produce what we need, and we don’t need a lot. Before I’d always lived in towns, but I’m not tempted to go back to that.”
In the nearby village of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, locals have mixed feelings about the ZAD and its occupants – though few wish to be openly critical. There is a certain gratitude for keeping the airport development at bay, but resentment that the squatters are not playing entirely fair in their search for an alternative life.
“If they want to live on the land, they will have to pay for it like everyone else,” says one local man.
According to Mayor Naud: “People come to me and ask, ‘I have to pay my income tax and apply for planning permission if I want to build something, so why don’t they?’” He suggests if the government abandons the airport project, many of the squatters will simply move on to a new battleground for their ideology.
Inside the ZAD, a 28-year-old architect calling himself Yves says if the squatters win the fight against “the social cannibalism of capitalism” at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, he would indeed take the struggle elsewhere.
“If they decide to built the airport, it will be a new battle and I want to take part in that. If not, I will probably stay for five or so years and if all is going well, I’ll go somewhere else where we need to fight for our message,” he says.
A fast-response system has been set up should word get out that the gendarmerie is on its way. Old tractors and piles of tyres are on hand to blockade roads.
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“In 2012 when they tried to evict us and the gendarmes came, the first day there were 200-300 of us,” recalls Pierre. “The next there were thousands who heard the rallying cry of our resistance. We proved the government cannot make us leave here.”
Pierre points to what looks like a hedge but is actually a collection of sticks, wooden poles and brooms. “We had a ceremony last year and planted them all in the ground here,” he explains. “We said if we needed them again, we would unplant them.
“The state institutions have no power here. We have organised our lives without them – that’s what they don’t like. Even if they expel us we’ll come back … After a month, there will be thousands of us.”
Some names in this article have been changed at the interviewees’ request