The government, in 1970, identified 3,700 acres of woodland and fields near the village of Notre-Dame-des-Landes to set up the biggest airport in western France.
To meet the growing demands of a new airport in western France, the government intended to use the chosen site as a hub for both Concorde flights and cargo traffic.
However, the first oil crisis of 1973 that knocked the breath out of the global economy, and the country’s expansion plan for a high-speed railway network, stalled the airport project for several decades, before the government reactivated it in the year 2000.
In the meantime, hundreds of ‘activists’ occupied the land, complaining that an airport project would be a threat to the land’s biodiversity. In 2009, activists set up permanent protest camps made of earthworks, wood, and corrugated iron.
The protesters named the site–ZAD–the French initials for zone d’aménagement différée, or zone for future development.
To some protesters, the area is zone à défendre, or zone to defend.
After half a century of fierce debates, arguments, and consultations by successive governments, the Emmanuel Macron government dropped the £505m (€580m) controversial airport project once and for all. The official announcement came in January this year.
Even though the government abandoned the airport project earlier this year, protesters refused to leave the land they have been occupying for nearly 10 years.
Initially, the protests centred on preventing the airport project due to its environmental hazards, but now, the protesters say they want to create an alternate way of life.
In the area called ZAD, local farmers, environmental activists, and anti-capitalists have developed an alternative society.
Many squatters built permanent shacks, homes, and cabins, deserting their early-day caravans and makeshift tents. There are dozens of buildings on the site, including collective kitchens, a brewery, a bakery, living arrangements, and a library.
While a group of people run a pirate radio station, an online newspaper, and a vegetable market, there are others, who grow plants and raise cattle.
The alternative society has local assemblies to settle conflicts, and volunteer doctors to treat activists who fall ill.
The Government Orders A Crackdown On “Miscreants”
In a major clearing operation, a unit of 2,500 riot police officers, on Monday, Apr 9, 2018, stormed into ZAD before dawn, wrecking barricades and bulldozing activists’ camps along their way in armored vehicles.
As the police cleared the area, around 250 dissenters fought back, hurling petrol bombs, pelting stones, and flinging other projectiles at the police force.
According to government sources, the violent confrontation injured one protester and 28 police officers, but the protesters claimed the clash wounded several activists, who they treated on-site.
An Incident That Rocked The Nation
Amidst countrywide protest movements and waves of strikes against President Macron’s moves to revamp the economy, the standoff between police forces and activists in Nantes made headlines throughout France, as police officers continued the clearing operation on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Thousands of socialist politicians, environmental activists, and sympathizers of squatters gathered in Paris, Nantes, and other parts of France to condemn police violence at the site. Protesters denounced the government’s decision to deploy riot police officers, and the use of armoured vehicles to devastate installations.
On LCI, France’s first all-news TV channel, Gérard Collomb said, the police would stay for as long as needed to make sure protesters do not reoccupy the site.
The government will leave nobody on the street, the French interior minister added. The state would offer alternative accommodations to those dislodged.
A Conflicting Story
One activist said, the farmers and the squatters are structuring something that’s exceptional, something that dates back to the uncomplicated and simplistic lives of their ancestors.
The farmers can raise what they need, and they require little. The government and capitalist establishments have no business here.
The farmers have organized their lives without them, and that is what institutions dislike. A protester warned that even if the government expels them, they will come back within a month, in thousands.
It would take weeks, or maybe months, to complete the eviction process of squatters. So far, the police have taken seven people into custody.
To know the other side of Nantes, click here.