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How an anti-airport occupation became a battle for France’s future

Emilie Papillon reports from the ZAD – an occupation of the site of a proposed airport that has turned into something more

April 15, 2014
6 min read


After avoiding the police checkpoints, heading down road D42 and passing multiple barricades made out of wood, tires, hay bales and anything else burnable, you will eventually find yourself staring at a hand-painted sign: ‘welcome to the ZAD’.

The unlikely setting for this scene is the rural countryside 30 km (20 miles) north of Nantes, France. For some – including state forces and construction giant Vinci – ZAD stands for ‘Zone d’Aménagement Différé’, the proposed site for the construction of an international airport and motorway. For others – peasant farmers, eco-activists and anarchists – ZAD has come to mean ‘Zone À Défendre’ (‘zone to defend’), and has been home for the last four years.

An anti-capitalist experiment

The ZAD is located in Notre-Dame-des-Landes. It is a 4,000 acre area of farmland, forests and wetlands with significant ecological value. The struggle started back in the 1970s when Notre-Dame-des-Landes was first proposed as a site for the airport, and local residents and farmers set up a union to counter these plans. The project got mothballed and didn’t rear its ugly head again until the 1990s. As the plan for a new airport gathered more momentum with the buying up of land and property in the area, so did the opposition.

2009 saw the start of the occupations. A call out was put out for people to occupy and protect the area. Tree houses were built, old farm buildings were squatted, abandoned fields were reclaimed. Over the next few years the ZAD grew in size and became home to an almost accidental anti-capitalist experiment. What started out as a couple of squatted barns has mutated into a rich and diverse environment hosting its own bakery, crop-growing, an ironmongers, event spaces and a pirate radio station. At present there are over 30 settlements scattered across the ZAD – in swamps, up trees, on the side of roads, in the forest and even a cabin on the middle of a lake. People have gone all out, building their homes in treehouses 20 metres off the ground and constructing live-in barricades on the roads that cut through the area.


Most of the time life here has a gentle pace. The main mode of transport is by bike or by foot. There is a really strong sense of community: everyone has the kind of hospitality and kindness you’d expect from an anarchist free-for-all in the middle of nowhere. Everything on the table is communal, so there is never a need for money or to go hungry. Food is either grown on site or skipped (raiding local hypermarket bins) and delivered to the on-site free shop. Sometimes local farmers deliver huge amounts of their produce.

Your sense of time becomes warped in these kinds of places. Or perhaps your sense of time becomes less distorted. Back to the neolithic. Day time. Night time. The changing of the seasons is a greater reference than whatever month your calendar is trying to tell you it is. After spending a while ‘outside capitalism’, there is something that happens to you – possibly a changing of identity, or letting go of city problems. I can’t put my finger on it but it’s quite magical… maybe even sacred.

Resisting eviction

The company charged with the clearing of ZAD and the construction of the airport is Vinci, the world’s biggest construction company in terms of revenue and, thanks to government sell-offs, the owner of most of France’s motorways. The 580 million euro airport project is financed through a combination of public and private funding – but all profits would go into Vinci’s pocket.

In the period between 2009 and late 2012 there were calls for actions against Vinci – demonstrations and actions both in the ZAD and elsewhere. A lot of actions on the ZAD were blocking the state and Vinci from preparing for the construction of the airport. For instance, the state sent a ‘judge’ to evaluate the price of the land it was to buy up. The residents of the ZAD would take the opportunity to block the judge. The result was the judge couldn’t go anywhere in the ZAD without 50 gendarme guards with him in armoured vehicles.

October 2012 saw the start of the evictions. The gendarme were called in, along with bulldozers. their operation dubbed ‘Caesar’. The fighting on all sides was the most intense the ZAD had seen. The police carpeted the site in tear gas and concussion grenades. The activists fought back with rocks, fireworks and molotovs. The roads were barricaded and trenches were cut into the tarmac using pickaxes and shovels. Police set people’s homes alight and flattened squats. By the end of October, the evictions that the state had claimed would only take 48 hours were becoming problematic for Vinci and its airport.


A month after the start of the evictions, responding to a call out, 30,000 people demonstrated and reoccupied the ZAD. The ZAD had by this point made national headline news. More settlements were built. Vinci’s cranes were set ablaze and more intense fighting ensued. Eventually, after leaving untold destruction in their wake, the police pulled out, leaving behind a handful of checkpoints on the edge of the site.

Since then the ZAD has swelled in size, thanks to the attention the evictions gave the struggle. Things have remained relatively tranquil. It seems that every attempt to quash the protesters has just made the movement stronger.

On 22 February 2014, in response to whispers of another eviction attempt in the not-too-distant future and to keep the ZAD in the public eye, a demonstration was called in Nantes. 20,000 people and 500 tractors showed up. The local police station was covered in paint and Vinci’s offices looted. The police responded with their usual indiscriminate water cannons and tear gas tactics. The street battles ran long into the night.

Whether the rumours of eviction become a reality or not, one thing is undeniable: the people of the ZAD are determined to see this struggle through to the end.


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