The Battle for Notre-Dame-des-Landes
It all started 50 years ago...
During the 1960s, as part of an effort to redistribute commercial and cultural importance to different regions across the country and away from the Parisian economical hyper-center, the groundwork was laid to create an airport between Brittany and the Loire-Atlantique as an important European hub for commercial and freight airlines.
By 1968, Notre-Dame-des-Landes, a small village and farming community 20 kilometers north of Nantes, the region's capital, was the favorite site for the future airport, and in 1974 an area of over 3,000 acres were put aside as a "zone d'aménagement diferré," or ZAD meaning that the prefecture had issued an order banning any urban development on the site until construction on the airport began.
Due to an oil shortage in the 70's, the project was put on hold and remained dormant for almost 30 years, but in 2000, during Jaque Chirac's first presidential term, it was revived and research began on the organization and viability of the "Aéroport du Grand Ouest." Spearheading the project was Jean-Marc Ayrault, then mayor of Nantes and current prime minister. In 2007 the undertaking of the airport was confirmed and the opposition began to take shape.
Is there a necessity?
From the very beginning, proponents of building a new airport only 40 kilometers from Nantes' current airport have had to defend the project, which they consider a necessity and a matter of safety, as well as important to the commercial development of the region.
Currently incoming flights have to fly low over Nantes, France's 6th largest city and a metropolitan area of nearly 600,000 inhabitants, to land on the airport's single runway. Some consider this constant flight activity over a densely populated area to be a safety issue as well as a nuisance and believe that relocating to a more rural location will alleviate the problem.
There is also the argument that a new airport is necessary, as Nantes' single runway and small building will be unable to accommodate increased traffic. Some say that the current airport will reach saturation by 2020, at around 4 million passengers per year, though by comparison, San Diego, Geneva and Stuttgart airports all have only a single runway and serve between 10 million and 18 million visitors a year.
Whether or not a new airport is a logistic necessity or a matter of public safety, it certainly is a matter of economic interest. The construction of the airport itself and the system of highways, shuttles and trains connecting to surrounding cities would create a huge quantity of new jobs in the area. With Airbus' factories and a large commercial port only 40 minutes away, in Saint-Nazaire, the new airport would lend the region great commercial importance in France and Europe as a whole.
All those opposed...
Some of the greatest opposition comes from an environmental standpoint. The site of the new airport is currently made up of pastures, forests and marshland. Not only is the ZAD home to a number of protected species and a large variety of flora and fauna, but over 12,000 acres of active farmland will be affected by the construction, to the detriment of the local agricultural community.
The project is to be funded jointly by the region, the state and Vinci, the world's largest construction company by revenue and owner of France's more than 40,000 kilometers of privatized pay-as-you-go highway network. Though tax-payers will be footing almost half of the €556 million bill, profits will go to Vinci and when the additional costs of necessary infrastructure and transportation are added, the budget of the airport and surrounding projects has been estimated at as high as 2 billion euros. This is an enormous amount of money to be spending at a time when budgets for countless social and educational programs are being cut.
A great deal of opposition has also come from ant-capitalist groups who believe that the paving-over of cultivated and wild lands for commercial gain is fundamentally wrong. Many individuals find the construction of a new airport to be wasteful and unnecessary and think the money should be put to better use elsewhere.
Regardless of the reasons, recent polls show that 56% of the French population is opposed to the building of a new airport, with only 24% of the population favorable to the project.
Evolution of the Opposition
From the moment that the countryside near Notre-Dame-des-Landes was set aside as a zone d'aménagement diferré in 1974, the new airport was met with opposition. When, in the early 2000s, the project was revived, the area became known only as the ZAD, zone à défendre, or the zone to defend. The two largest opposition organizations, ADECA and ACIPA, have worked tirelessly to inform and mobilize the public against any future construction.
As early as 2006, squatters, both from France and across Europe began occupying the ZAD; some as an act of militant defiance, but others as environmentalists who wanted to live off the land and break away from consumerism and urbanization, constructing small cabins, farming and practicing craft-trades. Small demonstrations began to be organized in Nantes and In front of the city's prefecture, a handful of concerned citizens became a constant presence. Several days a week, for years on end, they manned a small stand armed with information about the project for the airport as well as petitions to sign.
By the end of 2010 the demonstrations in Nantes were more frequent and in Fall 2011 3,000 people, joined by dozens of tractors and bicycles parade through the streets of Paris in protest of the airport. But it was in 2012 that the opposition movement truly gained momentum.
March 24th 2012, between 3,000 and 10,000 demonstrators march through the streets of Nantes accompanied by more than 200 tractors driven by neighboring farmers. Though the march began in the spirit of festivity, (horses, cows and goats marched alongside demonstrators, clowns performed and trees were planted along the route) city officials mobilized over 1,000 riot police and municipal officers as well as a helicopter and water cannons. After the majority of demonstrators had lefts, certain more radical individuals engaged in direct conflict with the officers and downtown Nantes, from bus stops to businesses, was covered in graffiti. The anti-airport movement finally had the media's attention.
In April, while interest was still high, two farmers from Notre-Dame-des-Landes went on a hunger strike, camping out in Nantes' downtown, near a monument to the French Resistance. An entourage of supporters surrounded the two men day in, day out and a number of politicians and public figures made appearances to show their support for the cause, including well-know environmental activist José Bové. Prime minister Ayrault wrote a letter asking the strikers to end what he considered a useless demonstration. But after 28 days of fasting, an agreement is signed halting any exploitation until the project underwent re-evaluation.
The summer of 2012 passed quietly, but on October 16th, military and police forces were sent to expel the around 200 squatters living in the ZAD, many with the permission of landowners, so that construction on the airport could begin, but they were met with violent resistance. Most of the dwellings were destroyed, but the expulsion, known as "Opération César," had only limited success. Public sympathy for the opponents of the airport was growing and on November 17th more than 20,000 people marched from the town of Notre-Dame-des-Landes to re-occupy the ZAD. There was a long procession which included trucks full of building materials for the reconstruction of dwellings as well as look-out posts. After several days of hard work, the "Zadists" were back home.
The joy of victory was short lived however, with police forces returning to evict the squatters once more. This time the opposition was prepared and the ZAD became a veritable war zone.
The Fight for the ZAD
The main road leading into the ZAD was barricaded by occupants using anything that they could find. Tires, wooden pallets, chicken wire and fencing were fair game. Paths leading to the zadist's farm and dwellings were blockaded and asphalt was ripped up, creating an almost impassable system of trenches and potholes complete with check points and look-out posts.
Activists from surrounding areas visited often, bringing food and supplies to the ZAD, but media access and general passage was restricted.
The fighting became more and more violent, with police raids happening regularly and squatters responding with any projectile at hand. A number of cabins were destroyed and burned, with local farmers surrounding others with their tractors to block the access of police vehicles. A number of zadists were injured by the flash balls and stun grenades used by the police.
Neighboring towns were under siege, with police forces patrolling the streets, commuters obligated to pass through checkpoints controlled by both sides and locals waking up to the sounds of fighting in the distance, a haze of tear gas still drifting through the morning air. The complaints coming from the towns and stories of villagers afraid to let their children out to play captured national attention. The constant police and military presence at Notre-Dame-des-Landes as well as the violence of the attempted expulsions began to be considered extremely excessive on the part of the government.
The clashes lasted for almost two months, ending in December with government forces pulling out of Notre-Dame-des-Landes. The ordeal gained not only national, but international attention, and the fight against the airport became the inspiration for similar movements across Europe.
Welcome to the ZAD
In the beginning of January, opening up the ZAD for the first time since the beginning of the conflict, the public was invited to Festi-ZAD, a 3-day music festival boasting over 30 groups playing in support of the resistance movement. Again, on May 11th 2013 the public was called to the ZAD as more than 20,000 people, coming from every corner of France and every walk of life, united to form a human chain around the 15-mile border of the proposed construction zone.
For three days in August, the ZAD hosted concerts, forums and debates boasting thousands of attendees, again from across France. There were art installations, information booths, shows for children and families and a festive ambiance with suggested-donation restaurants and perfect weather. Sunday morning was a kite-building workshop with the goal of flying 1,000 kites at noon to celebrate the freedom of the sky.
There had been no new attempts to undertake construction and support for the resistance was at an all-time high. At the end of 2013, it almost seemed as though the people had claimed a victory.
Breaking the Peace
Taking a turn for the worse, 2014 started with the news that on the region had very quietly sold Vinci lands (including the ZAD) intended for the new airport, thereby finalizing one of the last requirements necessary for the beginning of construction. Outraged, opposition groups organized a massive demonstration on February 22nd in Nantes.
The night before the protest, the mayors office announced that it would not allow the group to pass through the center of town, as per the habitual circuit. This was the first time that access to the city center had ever been denied to a group of demonstrators, but despite the general disappointment with the city's ruling, the march had an unprecedented amount of participants; between 30,000 and 60,000 individuals accompanied by over 500 tractors.
The protest itself was a great success, uniting more people than ever against the construction of the airport, with carpools and buses bringing marchers from every corner of France. Though the general mood was festive, complete with music, floats and marchers is costume, the ominous police presence could not be ignored. There were over 1,000 officers mobilized equipped with riot gear and water canons, plus countless armored vehicles walling off the city's main street. Even weekend shoppers wanting to access the city center had pass through the police barricades.
The success of the march was quickly over shadowed by the clashes between radical activists and police forces, who hosed down the crowd before firing tear gas, dispersing the majority of the afternoon's demonstrators. The protest turned violent as more than 1,000 individuals stayed on, fighting the police, burning barricades and sacking several businesses – including the Vinci headquarters. Damages ran high; all of downtown was covered in graffiti, bus stops and rolling billboards were shattered, a tram rail was destroyed and maintenance cabins were burnt to the ground. In a nearby construction zone, two pieces of heavy machinery were set on fire and a number of cars were over turned. The fighting lasted for more than 6 hours, and caused nearly 1 million euros worth of damage.
The Fight Continues
Six days after the demonstration and the violence of February 22nd, the president of the region of the Pays de la Loire sent an official request to President François Hollande asking him for the evacuation of the ZAD. Though the outcome is uncertain, it is possible that a new wave of violent expulsions is on the horizon.However, the ZAD is not the only terrain necessary for the construction of the new airport, and certain land owners have refused to sell their parcels to Vinci. The fight for Notre-Dame-des-Landes is far from over.
The author has been living in Nantes for the past four years, has visited the ZAD and has witnessed the unfurling of events surround Notre-Dame-des-Landes. Further information was found on:
http://fr.wikipedia.org : Projet d'Aéroport du Grand Ouest
If you are interested, here is a great, albeit long documentary on the occupation of the ZAD. Feel free to just click through.