You may have heard of the activist victory against a major airport construction project that has been a sore spot for four consecutive French governments. If not, it was pretty major.
The government finally abandoned plans for a new €580m airport in western France but the prime minister, Édouard Philippe (who literally no-one has ever heard of) said hundreds of people squatting on the site in the village of Notre-Dame-Des-Landes have until spring to leave (but I’ll get to that part later).
As soon as news of this grassroots success broke, a team of young, guerrilla documentarian activists, with funding from the Guerrilla Foundation, shot over to report from the frontlines what was happening at the ZAD (Zone to Defend or in French, Zone à Défendre, a French neologism used to refer to an occupation or anarchist commune that is intended to physically blockade a development project).
Amid many learning opportunities, there emerged five key lessons about what it took to win:
- Legal Lesson – The fight for Notre Dame des Landes was won thanks to dozens of appeals filed year after year that funneled a massive pile of legal argumentaation and paperwork which kept delaying the construction of the project while probably driving the construction companies insane.
- Clever Citizens Lesson – The activists, locals and anti-airport campaigners, were able to challenge the pro-airport arguments with details about air pollution, loss of arable land, damage to biodiversity etc they knew their shit, and with evidence-backed information. One of the 300 ‘resistants’ Genevieve Coiffard said “we were able to develop an understanding of the project that the project initiators themselves and the elected officials didn’t possess at all. We knew and they didn’t.”
- Numbers Lesson – Be like Beyoncé and draw a crowd! This whole resistance affair started with a protest picnic in a field, so it is clear just how far it has come since they have succeeded in gathering thousands of people to defend the ZAD while still keeping things light, friendly and high-spirited.
- Occupation Lesson – The area you seek to defend, cannot be empty, instead it needs to be kept as alive as possible. There always need to be plenty of people, bodies that are keen to react and take direct action. The ZAD is made of 60 campsites which host over 300 people a year, people young and old, without whom the zone would probably already have been evacuated and the airport long built. Genevieve said “that’s saying something when you’re not living your quiet, little life and going out to fight from time to time. It’s by shaping your life that you shape and reinforce the fight” – Yas Genevieve, yas!
- Political Lesson – The fifth and final lesson of this and most activist struggles is political action, the need to take the fight from the fields and bring it to the heart of institutions at the national level. This outcome ‘is the fruit of constant organising and mobilising and not a gift from our elected officials’ said one of the activists. Indeed the victory of Notre Dame des Landes is the victory of the collective of these thousands of people that had little in common but that succeeded in putting their tools and means of action in synchrony so as to secure this victory. Head documentarian Vincent Verzat said ‘I look around I see people who are so different, old farmers, young activists, architects, biologists, lawyers who all came together to defend the ZAD and became ZAD activists from the moment they started to defend a common space, an illegal but legitimate laboratory‘.
So, is the job done?
On the contrary, it’s really here that it all starts, because the state wants all the people living (for years & some for decades) in Notre-Dame-des-Landes to clear out by spring, as they are technically squatting there. There is currently a boulangerie producing bread from wheat and grain grown in the ZAD, a brewery, a pirate radio station, an online newspaper, a weekly vegetable market, and several herds of cows, goats and sheep producing milk and meat. Produce is shared or sold for whatever buyers can afford. So the people are there to stay. But spring has arrived.
Dominique, a ‘resistant’ who has been living on site since 1983 said in January ‘we actually haven’t won the struggle yet, it is only beginning, because it’s easy to get together when we have a common struggle but it’s much harder to build something. Now we absolutely have to be productive and have to stand united to build a brighter future and show that it is possible that we can shape our own destinies’. Vincent reminds us that this ZAD ‘is not heaven on earth, it is precarious life hardened by struggle, made of bits of string and puddles of mud’. But he finds something inherently beautiful and inspiring in that 300 determined individuals backed by thousands of others succeeded in overturning the decision of four consecutive governments and one giant multinational.
Dominique’s words were prophetic and right on the money, because throughout April and continuing into May, 1,500 to 2,500 French riot police have been raiding the ZAD amid clouds of tear gas and hostility. However, the happy campers have been putting up a fight, setting barricades on fire and most definitely not keeling over and letting them in. The environmental justice group 350.org wrote a great piece on these events titled The ZAD and the Global Crackdown on Alternatives highlighting that the ZAD exemplifies the “possibility of different ways of life, seeking cooperation rather than competition, flat hierarchies between people, settling conflicts without the police or judiciary, sharing resources in harmony with nature, escaping from the rule of money…” and that the 2,500 riot police sent by the “ex-banker French president is to shoot down the possibility of a different way of life”.
There are still lots of other ZADs all across France (and the world) that are being threatened by hostile, corporate schemes, and they make up these illegal yet legitimate laboratories, places of experimentation on how to live differently. You can find the list of all these different French ZADs right here, and if you feel the spirit of activist adventure move you, you now know where to go to rub shoulders with brave people fighting to turn all of those struggles into victories.
Inspired by another ZAD ‘resistant’ I offer you this parting purpose; that we may be able to draw connections between other struggles such as the struggle at Bure against nuclear waste, which are all cut from the same cloth. May we learn from each other and organise better, and in greater solidarity across borders against regimes that discount activists as a minor, insignificant grievance and consistently plan on executing corporate projects without the support of the people most affected by them.
Ivan March is an activist, event designer, Sci-Fi nerd, campaigns coordinator for the Psychedelic Society, chief advisor to the grassroots-movement-supporting Guerrilla Foundation & European Steering Committee member of the EDGE Funders Alliance
This article is part of the “Adventures in Activism” series, a defiant column letting you in on who the coolest cats of today's rebel alliance are, why grassroots movements matter more than ever, and what radical systemic re-envisioning is being done by badass activists around the world. Discover more stories like this, here.