This article was originally published in Finnish here on the 13th of December 2012, and some of the information may not be all that up-to-date now that the translation is finally posted. Please do not let this bother you.
Notre-Dame-des-Landes is a small village in Western France, near the city of Nantes. Plans to build a new airport in its vicinity, originally envisioned in the 1960s, have been advancing swiftly in the past few years, especially since Jean-Marc Ayrault (Parti Socialiste, PS), former mayor of Nantes and zealous proponent of the project, became Prime Minister. Opposition to the idea has equally been gaining significant momentum, and the public debate has been heating up.
Approximately five years ago the regional administration of Pays-de-la-Loire decided to move the traffic presently handled by the international airport of Nantes Atlantique to the bigger airport-to-be in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, the construction of which is due to begin in 2013. The project is wrought with many issues, and the wide opposition it has been facing comes as no surprise. To begin with, the area set aside for the airport is mainly expropriated land, consisting of cultivated fields and legally protected wetlands of high environmental value.
The plans also require massive public investment in the motorway and railroad networks of the region, and the dependence on fossil fuels would deepen further. Alternatives, such as the renovation of the existing airports in the region, have not been investigated thoroughly enough either, according to some critics. As the fossil-intensive, environmentally destructive aviation industry is already struggling with rising gasoline prices and profitability problems, it is of course questionable whether investing in it at this point makes any sense to begin with.
On top of these issues, the project is a public-private partnership, a concept infamous for profiting mass corporations while states cover the risks. In this case the private sector is represented by the notorious construction giant Vinci, perhaps best known in Finland as the constructor of the destructive motorway traversing the Khimki Forest in Russia. The airport would also swallow more than 500M euros from the state budget, already said to be tight enough not to allow for much environmental protection.
Some regard the airport as Ayrault’s personal crusade, and many condemn his arrogant attitude towards the opposition, as well as the brutal evictions and criminalisation of demonstrators. In the end the airport represents what an ever growing number of Europeans are starting to be fed up with: shady deals made by the elite for the profit of big private capital, at the expense of democracy and the environment.
This smörgåsbord of reasons has brought together a very colourful group of opponents: environmental NGOs, the far left, small scale farmers and anarchists have all gathered behind the same concrete demand. Several political parties have also sternly condemned the project, and the environmental party Europe Écologie Les Verts (EELV) has threatened to give up their sole seat in the government unless the plans are cancelled in time. It is no coincidence that the convergence of battles is a central theme of the opposition camp.
Calling it a mere “camp” is nonetheless misleading. The area reserved for the airport, covering almost 2000 hectares of fields, forest and wetlands right next to Notre-Dame-des-Landes, has been occupied by fervent opponents of the project since 2007. Permanent squatters add up to more than two hundred to date, and the flow of more temporary campers is constant.
In addition to occupied houses, people live in tent villages, self-erected cabins and tree houses that tower to impressive heights. The community builds its accommodation, cooks its food, runs its water facilities and organises its parties collectively, and, when possible, without the need for monetary exchange. A pirate radio station and a wireless network have been set up for communication, and news and events are being reported at a constant rate. They collectively built wind turbines and vegetable patches that don’t quite secure sovereignty, but illustrate a completely different way of living and acting from any usually seen at, say, airports.
It is remarkably clear that those in power do not approve of this kind of conduct. Some of the lands have already been acquired by Vinci, and the rest will be expropriated by the state in the name of so-called public utility. The expropriation process is slow and, last spring, as a result of a hunger strike of two local farmers, the government agreed to freeze all evictions while the juridical process is still underway. The agreement does not cover illegal squats, but is supposed to secure some of the newer infrastructure built with the consent of the landowners.
In October 2012 the authorities began “Operation Caesar”, a wave of very aggressive evictions in the area. Riot police officers armed to the teeth have recently been emptying one building after another of their self-righteous inhabitants, demolishing many of the structures in their wake. The brutal force used by the police has wounded hundreds of occupants and infuriated their supporters all across the country.
This kind of aggression doesn’t seem to have diminished the courage of the occupants – a year-long battle and an autonomously built community are not giving up all that easily. Their resilience is strengthened by the successful history of such direct action in France. One of the most famous examples from recent decades is the planned extension of a military base on the Larzac plateau, which was cancelled in the early 1980s after ten years of uncompromising civil disobedience. The support received then by local farmers does not seem to have been forgotten in thirty years, as demonstrated by Larzac veterans that have turned up to help the occupants of Notre-Dame-des-Landes.
On the 17th of November, a mass demonstration gathered in the concerned zone to demand once more the cancellation of the airport plans and to reoccupy the evicted areas. People flowed in by means of coaches organised by NGOs and syndicates, carpooling, bicycles and hundreds of tractors. Many came to stay for longer, others only for the day. Over 30 000 people attended the demonstration in all, which is not bad at all for a town of less than 2 000 inhabitants. After the ten-kilometre march, thousands helped out with construction work, and a significant amount of new settlement infrastructure emerged in the forest during the day.
The construction was carried out in peace for almost a week, but soon the violent evictions recommenced. During the following weekend only, more than one hundred people opposing the airport were wounded in police attacks that lasted until late into the night, the main causes being rubber bullets and the shards from stun as well as tear gas grenades. Dozens of support demonstrations saw thousands of people gather all over the country, and in Nantes the police resorted to a water cannon to control the demonstrators.
Does this sound like exaggeration? It is clear that the battle is not even about moving a single airport. The newly-appointed PM does not want to begin his term by giving in to the demands of militant activists and insists on repeating that nothing can stop the airport from being built, if only to underline his own authority. However, many suspect that the project will fail in the end, bringing Ayrault down with it. Then again, carrying on with the project is dividing both the party in power and the government, and the continuous police violence certainly does not evoke trust towards either one. On the contrary, the most furious PS electors have started sending their torn electoral cards straight to President Hollande as a symbol of disapproval.
Notre-Dame-des-Landes is also well on its way to becoming the French symbol of civil action of this generation. I will not attempt to predict what will happen when this battle dissolves, but even if the government did manage to violently suffocate the physical resistance, would it be realistic to assume for the occupants, along with all their supporters, to apologize, go home and get real jobs? And what if the project were called off, would the movement stop there, or would the victorious join other similar, already ongoing battles? The Lyon-Turin high-speed train line, for one, has faced similar opposition for more than a decade, and the solidarity between these movements is strong.
Ayrault is currently trying to form a negotiation committee to find common ground for the opponents and proponents of the project. The idea of such a “dialog” seems to amuse the occupants, if anything, and frankly I would not hold my breath were everyone gathered at the round table one day. EELV has already made it clear that they will not negotiate as long as the police operation is in action. While it may be too early to talk about a dead end, the situation does not look bright in the slightest for the Prime Minister.
To counter the police operation, the reoccupation was cleverly named “Operation Asterix”. We shall see what kind of damage this small village in Gaul will eventually cause among the megalomaniac governors of their time.
The website of the occupation (also in English): http://zad.nadir.org/
Pictures taken from the photostream of the occupation: https://picasaweb.google.com/113382718807039752437
Pictures used under a Copyleft license: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyleft