Revenge against the commons

In France, a fight against a new airport has morphed into a defence of new ways of living. John Jordan reports from inside an ‘autonomous zone’ under attack by the state. Photographs by Penelope Thomaidi

July 8, 2018
14 min read

The ZAD: The story so far

The ZAD (zone à defendre, zone to defend) was initially set up as a protest against the building of a new airport for the city of Nantes. A letter from residents was distributed during a climate camp in 2009 inviting people to squat the land and buildings ‘because only an inhabited territory can be defended’. Over the years this territory evolved into Europe’s largest laboratory of collective living. Some 300 inhabitants in 70 different living spaces nestled into this chequerboard landscape of forest, fields and wetlands.

From making our own bread to running a pirate radio station, planting herbal medicine gardens to making ‘rebel camembert’, from a rap recording studio to a pasta production workshop, an artisanal brewery to two blacksmiths’ forges, a communal justice system to a library and even a full-scale working lighthouse – the ZAD has become a new commune for the 21st century. This beautifully-imperfect utopia in resistance against an airport has been supported by a radically diverse popular movement, bringing together tens of thousands of anarchists and farmers, trade unionists and naturalists, environmentalists and students, locals and revolutionaries of every flavour.

Everything changed on 17 January 2018, when the French prime minister appeared on TV to cancel the airport project – and in the same breath declare that the ZAD, the ‘outlaw zone’, would be evicted and ‘law and order’ restored.

The police helicopter hovers overhead; its bone-rattling clattering never seems to stop. It has been so hard to sleep this past week. Even dreaming, it seems, is a crime on the ZAD. These 4,000 acres of autonomous territory, this ‘zone to defend’, has existed despite the state and capitalism for nearly a decade – and no government can allow such a place to flourish. This is why France’s biggest police operation since May 1968, at a cost of €400,000 a day, has been mobilised to evict us, with 2,500 gendarmes, armoured personnel carriers (APCs), bulldozers, rubber bullets, drones, 200 cameras and over 11,000 tear gas and stun grenades.

I am writing this eight days into the attack. Days, dates, hours of the day merge into a muddle of adrenaline-soaked intensity. We are tired, bruised and in some cases badly injured. Medics have counted 270 injuries so far. Most are from the sharp metal and plastic shrapnel shot from the stun and concussion grenades whose explosions punctuate the spring symphony of birdsong. The ZAD’s welcome and information centre, still dominated by a huge hand-painted map of the zone, has been transformed into a field hospital. Local doctors are working in solidarity with action medic crews, volunteer acupuncturists and healers of all sorts.

Thousands of acts of solidarity have been a lifeline for us, from sabotaged French consulate parking in Munich to local pensioners bringing chocolate bars; musicians sending in songs they composed to demonstrations by Zapatistas in Chiapas; banners in front of French embassies from Delhi to New York; a giant message carved in the sand of a New Zealand beach; and even scuba divers with an underwater banner.

Not many people are psychologically or physically prepared to fight on the barricades, but thousands are ready to give material support. It means opening up to those who might be different, those who might not have the same revolutionary analysis as us, those who some put in their box named ‘reformist’. But this is what building a coalition is all about; it is how we weave a true ecology of resistance. The battle of the ZAD is a battle for the future, one that we cannot lose.

Day 1: Monday 9 April

Barricades and bulldozers

The telephone rings. It’s 3.20am. A breathless voice says two simple words, ‘It’s begun!’, and hangs up. Everyone knows what to do. Some run to offices, others to the barricades, some to the pirate radio, others start their medics shift. Hundreds of police vans are taking over the two main roads that pass through the zone.

Fighting on one of the lanes manages to stop the cops moving further west. But elsewhere the bulldozers smash their way through some of the most beautiful cabins in the east of the zone. They destroy the Lama Sacrée, with its stunning wooden watch tower. Permaculture gardens and greenhouses are flattened. A large mobile anti-riot wall is erected by the police in the lane that stretches east to west, a technique that works in cities but here it’s useless and people hassle them from every angle.

In the afternoon the cops and bailiffs arrive at the 100 Noms, an off-grid smallholding with sheep, chickens, vegetable plots and beautiful housing. The occupiers, who have built this place up from nothing over five years, are given 10 minutes to leave. Several hundred people turn up to resist, many from ‘the camp of the white-haired ones’, who have been one of the backbones of this long struggle. There must be nearly 200 of us. We are peasants and activists, occupiers and visitors, young and old and they beat us, burn our skin with their pepper spray and push us out of the fields. Our eyes are red with tears of grief and gas.

Day 2: Tuesday 10 April

A tactical palette

It begins again before sunrise. Hundreds of walkie-talkies, old-style truck drivers’ CB radios and the pirate radio station call us to go and defend the Vraie Rouge collective, next to the ZAD’s largest vegetable garden and medicinal herb project. We arrive to find one of the armoured cars pushed up against the barricade. Then the tear gas begins to rain down among the salad and spinach plants. There is so much gas we can no longer see.

The police are being pressed from the other side of the road by a large militant crowd with gas masks, makeshift shields, stones, slingshots and tennis rackets to return the grenades. They are playing hide and seek from behind the trees. The armoured car begins to push the barricade, some of us climb onto the roof of the wooden cabin, others try to retreat without crushing the beautiful vegetable plot. It’s the end of another collective living space on the zone.

Tear gas rains down on the bocage

Then we hear a roar from the other side of the barricade. Dozens of figures emerge from the forest, molotov cocktails fly, one hits the APC, flames rise from the armour and the wild roar transforms itself into a cry of pure joy. The APC begins to back off, as do the police. The Vraie Rouge will live one more day, it seems, thanks to the diversity of tactics.

In 2012, when we stopped the first eviction, this was what gave us an advantage. Over the 50 years of the movement against the airport, it used everything from petitions to hunger strikes, legal challenges to sabotage, riots to ecological inventories, defensive tree houses to flying rocks, tractor blockades to clown armies. Our secret weapon was the respect we had for each other’s tactics. Pacifist pensioners and black bloc anarchists worked together in a way I had never seen before, which made criminalising the movement much more complicated. Movements win when they have the richest, most colourful palette of tactics and are ready to use every one of them.

Day 3: Wednesday 11 April

Gas at a picnic

We are woken as normal by the explosions of grenades; fighting continues near the D281 road. A small group is trying to stop the police lining up in a field. There aren’t many of us, it feels hopeless, then out of the morning mist comes a tractor. Its driver wears a balaclava, and in the front bucket is a tonne of stones. He drops them in a pile, puts the tractor in reverse and disappears back into the mist.

The picnic is gassed

In the next field a guy wearing a balaclava and a full monk’s habit throws a bucket of water over a handful of cops. ‘I baptise you in the name of the ZAD,’ he bellows. A cloud of pepper spray engulfs him, but one of the gendarmes slips in the mud and drosp his truncheon. The monk grabs it and runs off, wielding his rebel relic in the air. The police megaphone calls out: ‘You must return the state’s property. Return it now!’

Over a thousand people turn up to share a picnic. More than 30 tractors have come, despite the fact that it’s one of the busiest seasons for the farmers. They encircle the collective vegetable garden, now littered with hundreds of toxic plastic tear gas canisters. ‘The state crossed the red line when they destroyed the 100 Noms,’ one of them says.

A crowd of all ages walks through the barricades and debris of yesterday’s battle that litter the country lanes. The atmosphere is festive; a samba band with pink masks leads us into the field beside the Lama Sacrée. A long line of black-clad police stretches across the spring green pasture. The samba band approaches, then all hell lets loose: gas canisters shower down, dozens of stun grenades are thrown into the peaceful crowd, panic ensues, people retreat across the hedgerows.

DAY 4: Thursday 12 April

Striking a deal

The day begins with some good news. An affinity group action just shut down the motorway that passes near the ZAD. Emerging from the bushes people flowed down onto the tarmac armed with tyres, fluorescent jackets and lighters. Within seconds a burning wall blocked the flow of commuters to Nantes. The group disappeared as quickly as they materialised, melting back into the hedgerows. The more we fight for this land, the more we become the bocage and the harder it is to find us. Every day more and more people converge here, many for the first time in their lives.

Following an attempt by friendly lawyers to prove that the eviction of the 100 Noms was illegal, the prefect is forced to appear in court in Nantes, but the case is adjourned. Clashes continues across the bocage as Macron takes to the TV screens for a national statement about his policies. A social movement is rising against him, with university occupations, supermarket, rail workers and Air France on strike – he has to respond. He sits in a primary school classroom. ‘Republican order must be returned,’ he declares, but he says of the ZAD that ‘everything that was to be evacuated has already been evacuated’.

La Chévrerie a few hours after its destruction

 That night under a clear constellation-filled sky, the ZAD’s assembly meets. We sit under Le Hangar de L’avenir (the barn of the future). This cathedral-like barn was built by more than 80 traditional carpenters in 2016 using mostly hand tools. There are several hundred of us at the assembly. One of the peasants whose tractor is blocking the crossroads reads out a series of text messages he has received from the local prefect, who is trying to negotiate with the ZAD. ‘Yesterday the prime minister said it was war, today the president says its peace – therefore it’s all over.’ A deal is made: move your tractors, she writes, and I promise that by 10pm I will announce to Ouest-France, the regional newspaper, that it is the end of operations by the gendarmes.

We wait for the article to appear on the newspaper’s web site. I reload my phone endlessly waiting for the site to update. Suddenly it does, but it’s just a story about rock legend Johnny Hallyday. Was it all a bluff? Then it arrives. A cheer rises from the tired voices. At home we try to party a little. At least we might get a lie in tomorrow morning.

Day 5: Friday 13 April

A deadline to declare

I’m half awake. There is a rumble of vehicles on the road. At first, I think it’s tractors, then I see the lights, blue and flashing, van after van of cops passing. We leap out of bed and run to the top of the lighthouse: the entire road is filled with vans as far as the eye can see. The huge barricade at the crossroads is on fire, and a plume of black smoke frames the orange dawn. Radio Klaxon says they have kettled la Grée and are searching it, the Wardine camping is also encircled and 150 cops are heading towards the Rosier. The Lascar barricade, made of several burnt cars, with a huge metal doorway and a trench that is several meters wide, is being defended by nearly 100 of us.

 

The 100 Noms invaded by the gendarmes.

At midday the prefect begins her press conference in Nantes. She confirms last night’s message – evictions are over – and, in a dramatic gesture, flourishes a page of A4 paper towards the cameras. ‘It’s a simplified form,’ she tells the press, ‘so that those who wish can declare their projects as quickly as possible… The deadline is the 23rd of April,’ she continues. ‘All we are asking is that they declare their names, what agricultural project they wish to develop and to tell us what plot of land they wish to work on, so that the sta