New Internationalist

The battle for Notre-Dame-des-Landes

Thousands have lent their support at Notre-Dame-des-Landes. Photo: Romain ETIENNE/item

In 1974, 1,650 hectares of woods and land were reserved to build an airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes 30-kilometres from the city of Nantes near the French Atlantic coast. Nearly 40 years later, the ZAD (‘Zone d’Aménagement Différé’ [Zone reserved for later development] for the authorities and ‘Zone à Défendre’ [Zone to Defend] for resisters) is making the headlines, often compared to the (successful) struggle against a military base at Larzac in the 1970s.

Initially imagined as an inter-continental hub where the now retired supersonic Concorde would land, the airport project was soon forgotten in the wake of the oil crisis in the 1970s. But in 2000, a government committee resurrected the plan. The project has been eagerly pushed through by Jean-Marc Ayrault, socialist mayor of Nantes until May 2012, a post he left to become the prime minister under François Hollande’s government.

Asked about the Aéroport du Grand Ouest project when he was a presidential candidate, François Hollande stated that the airport would be built yet he committed to not to doing ‘anything that might hurt, especially until ongoing appeal procedures would be completed’. And yet, after Hollande was elected, despite several ongoing appeals, the government launched ‘Operation Caesar’ and deployed about 1,000 CRS (riot police) and gardes mobiles (French mobile military units charged with police duties) to the area with the view to initiate major works –  including the destruction of the forest of Rohanne as early as January 2013. Early in the morning of 16 October 2012, the police started to evict occupied houses in the area and adopted a scorched earth policy, destroying all infrastructure and gardens that enabled their inhabitants, the so-called ‘squatters’, to be largely self-sufficient.

Until the first evictions, opponents to the airport project were divided. Most organized farmers and residents had focused their efforts on lobbying authorities and gaining the sympathy of the public through the corporate media. They remained critical, if not scared, of the ‘squatters’ who instead had been preparing for physical resistance while sabotaging early surveys and construction works. But infuriated by the massive paramilitary deployment in the area, the brutality of police operations, and faced with the understanding that  this project is being forcibly pushed through, which would mean their own imminent evictions, along with the devastation of the area, ‘legalist’ opponents started to extend their solidarity to, and act in co-ordination with, the ‘squatters’.

A growing grassroots network of support grew across France and beyond. While many individuals travelled to the area, support collectives mushroomed organizing supplies for resisters, and engaging in numerous actions to raise awareness or take retaliatory action against proponents and beneficiaries of the project. The squatters, with the now growing solidarity, managed to maintain a presence in the area, and called for supporters to come to the area on Saturday 17 November.

The response to this call-out exceeded the activists’ wildest hopes. 40,000 people and about 400 tractors joined the march That weekend, there was a joyful atmosphere propelled by the rhythms of several bands.  Human chains moved tons of materials and supplies to build structures like insulated meeting spaces, sleeping areas (one of which even had heating!), as well as toilets and showers. There was also the opportunity to share information, co-ordinate and outline plans.

The battle of Notre-Dame-des-Landes could well become a major governmental crisis. Growing criticisms of the project and of the government’s brutal approach to protests now even come from within government: the Europe Ecology Les Verts (the Greens) who were initially silent (two of its leaders have ministerial roles) increasingly sides with campaigners following unrest from rank-and-file party members and after seeing the extent of the mobilization. Socialists maintain that the project is a ‘necessity’ for the ‘development of the region’, and claim that construction will go ahead anyway. 

Manuel Valls – minister in charge of the police – talked about the resistance to the airport as a ‘cyst’. Shortly after, Ayrault announced a ‘commission of dialogue,’yet police harassment has continued. He has also delayed the destruction of the forest of Rohanne by six months after a day of protest where one member of the riot police lost consciousness after being hit by a cobblestone and about 100 protesters were injured (largely unreported) due to the intensive use of stunning grenades and flash-ball guns. Opponents agreed that negotiations with the government could take place only after the police withdrew from the area and that the scope of discussions should include stopping the airport project altogether, not just its environmental impact. Meanwhile, police unions have started to protest about the poor organization of the operation and its effects on their members amid wider criticisms of Hollande’s and Ayrault’s amateurism.

Many resisters oppose not just this airport but also its world. We consider that it is one of many other large, useless (and contested) projects imposed on communities by multinational businesses through governments. We are infuriated that several billion euros of public money will be paid to multinational businesses such as Vinci, concessionaire of the airport, that is involved in a similarly repressive and murky road project that involves the devastation of the Khimki Forest in the Moscow ‘Green Belt.’ We denounce the cynicism of attempts to brand Notre-Dame-des-Landes as a ‘green airport’. We are outraged at the double devastation that this project would imply: we fight for the land, for the social and the ecological fabric that was preserved and grew in the area, and against the airport’s underlying growth agenda that will further aggravate climate chaos. We organize through grassroots and more direct democracy and reject the politicians’ view that they can impose whatever they want because they were elected. We demonstrate that determination can’t be evicted!

Camille is the nickname taken by many resisters, including the author of this post.

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  1. #1 Matt in London 14 Dec 12

    I've just read on ’Le Monde’ that the regional council (socialist) has launched two tenders for a total value of €190000 in order to ’elaborate a lobbying strategy to promote the new airport to the institutions and the general public’ - see for the full article in French. That really sounds like money well allocated ...

    Regarding Ayrault, I doubt that his tenure as prime minister will last for much longer. Traditionally in France prime ministers have always acted as ’fuses’ for the president - they would take the blame for unpopular decisions and would be dismissed when their position becomes too precarious (with the notable exception of François Fillon, who stayed - wisely - 5 years in the shadow of control-freak Sarkozy, and ended up his tenure mostly unharmed).

    In this case, Ayrault is putting himself in position to defend ’his’ project, which he lead while he was mayor of Nantes, and is dragging other ministers with him (some, like Manuel Valls, very enthusiastically, some like Cécile Duflot, former leader of the Greens, not enthusiastically at all :) ). This mixture of positions of responsibilities will be a burden for him, and I personally think that it will be his demise (I won't cry for him though).

    Now the question is: who will replace him? That's where I am getting scared. I see Manuel Valls (current Interior minister, number two of the government) placing himself and I don't like it at all. This guy is very bad, he wants to be the Tony Blair of the French socialists (i.e. the person who will make sure that anybody remotely leftwards will never come close to a position of power in the long term - remember Ed Miliband's ’there's nothing left-wing about me’ speech after becoming party leader...). Some people nick-named Valls the ’left-wing Sarkozy’, I have to disagree with that, there is nothing left-wing within this guy, however he has all the bad points of Sarkozy (a bullyish populist ambitious control freak). I have many times voted for the socialists ’by default’ (i.e. as the lesser of two evils) but if Valls ever enters the presidential race, I'll either stay at home during the second round or vote for his / her opponent. To me, he is the main danger right now.

    More optimistically, I have great hopes that the airport will be stopped at some point. The socialists are first and foremost clientelists (i.e. they will follow their electorate to gather votes) and they are currently facing a growing number of people within their electorate who are tired by this kind of time-wasting white elephant projects. So I keep my fingers crossed that this will be cancelled before the city council elections in 2014. Keep going, best of luck to all the people involved in the resistance, and do not give up :)


  2. #2 Matt in London 15 Dec 12

    More on the same topic: on this Wednesday's edition, the ’Canard Enchaîné’ (a satiric weekly paper, more or less the French equivalent to the Private Eye) reports the story mentioned by Camille in his text, from the point of view of a doctor who took on her free time to go and help casualties at the site. It sounds like the police is understanding ’non-lethal weapons’ as ’weapons that we can use any way we like because technically it doesn't kill’. So, Flash-ball shoots in the face, stunning grenades which embed little pieces of plastic inside their targets, close to vital areas, and so on. To all of you who are over there, please take care of yourself, I hope that this silly escalation will stop before somebody is critically injured.

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