In the 1960s, the French government put forward the proposal for a “Great West” project, which would serve as a transatlantic gateway between France and the rest of Europe.
To take the idea ahead, the government, in 1967, identified 3700 acres of land in the commune of Notre-Dame-des-Landes to develop an airport.
Various geopolitical factors stalled the proposed airport project, 20 km north-west of the French city of Nantes, until the Socialist government of Lionel Jospin reactivated it in the year 2000.
After years of consultation, hesitation, and political squabbling, the $710 million (€580 million) airport project got a green-signal in 2008.
Days after the project got a go-ahead, anti-capitalists, environmental activists, and local farmers joined forces to oppose the airport, saying it would devastate the environment and wildlife in Notre-Dame-des-Landes. They promised to fight until the end.
As their numbers swelled, civil disobedience and protest marches with placards like “Non a L’Aeroport” became a common sight in the streets of Nantes.
Within a year, hundreds of activists moved into the proposed airport site. The protesters brought in caravans, erected makeshift shelters, and occupied abandoned farmhouses. For years now, they are living off the land.
French Government Abandons The New Airport Project Amid Long-Standing Protests
In January 2018, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced that the government will abandon the new airport project in Notre-Dame-des-Landes.
This is the most sensible decision, said Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, considering the dead-end in which the airport project has gotten itself into.
However, Philippe asked environmentalists, activists, and protesters squatting on the land to leave before Spring 2018 or face expulsion.
The Prime Minister also said the government is working to modernize and expand the capacity of the existing Nantes Atlantique Airport.
Activists Clash With French Police
Even after Prime Minister, Édouard Philippe instructed the protesters to depart from the site they are occupying, the activists refused to leave the land.
The campaigners said they are building an alternative society and would continue staying on the land they named ZAD.
ZAD, or Zone to Defend, is a French neologism used to refer to an occupation intended to block a development project.
After several requests, the government ordered a clearing operation in April 2018. A unit of around 2500 riot police officers stormed into the area, demolishing barricades and construction.
Aggressive protesters pelted stones and hurled petrol bombs at police officers. The police responded with tear gas.
Though left-wing political parties, anti-capitalists, and activists criticized riot police deployment, the government said the police will stay as long as required to ensure militants do not reoccupy the place.
The Political Story
Since his election, President Emmanuel Macron has spearheaded the fight against climate change with pledges like “make our planet great again.”
Allowing a go-ahead to the airport project would have dented his reputation on climate politics.
The go-ahead would also have put him at odds with his Minister of Ecology, Nicolas Hulot, an environmental activist.
The government has taken the easy way out and has given in to blackmail and violence, said the Mayor of Nantes, Johanna Rolland.