By 2018, these experiments in political autonomy and social arrangement interested many zadistes more than the obstruction of the airport. They also intrigued outsiders, some of whom saw the ZAD as a proof of concept. “For a territorial state as ancient as the French state, that a portion of ground is torn away from the national continuum and brought into secession on a lasting basis amply proves that the continuum no longer exists as it did in the past,” the Invisible Committee, anonymous polemicists, wrote in their 2017 treatise Now. They praised the zadistes for bringing about “a profusion of forms.”
These forms entailed conflicting visions for the future. When the airport was called off in January 2018, this future came due. Officials said they would postpone evicting zadistes until the spring, but they had also promised to facilitate through traffic on public roads crossing the zone. Many zadistes had opened negotiations with the prefecture in the hopes of staying, and after the cancellation, some zadistes endeavored to clear a road themselves, putting on a show of good faith for the zadistes’ neighbors as well as the state. They dismantled barricades and moved a cabin, to the dismay of other zadistes, some of whom questioned if the inhabitant had freely consented to the move. In an online posting to the open platform Indymedia, one zadiste implied that other zadistes were eager for gendarmes to drive out zadistes who had moved to the zone because of societal exclusion. (The writer’s examples were foster care and adolescent homelessness.) Capitulation to the external discourse opposing nice and nasty zadistes—farmers and activists versus the so-called violent minority—disgusted this writer. There were diatribes like this, there were dispatches warning of circling drones, there were epistles announcing victory and then glossing its complexities. At last there was the letter, sent over a listserv by a sociologist I’d met in Paris, with a section in memoriam. She named zadistes who had lost their lives. She mentioned Sivens and Rémi Fraisse.
A week before news of the airport cancellation, on January 8, 2018, something else broke. It was reported in France but not, unlike the airport, internationally. The gendarme who killed the protester Rémi Fraisse with a stun grenade, whom journalists refrained from naming throughout a pretrial investigation criticized for its slowness and opacity, would not be indicted. The Toulouse Tribunal de Grande Instance dismissed the case, making it a non-lieu, which translates with idiotic literalness to a “non-place”—a nowhere declared, at the same time as the Notre-Dame-des-Landes ZAD was losing its original reason to exist.
Speculatively, journalists reported that these Notre-Dame-des-Landes zadistes might decamp for Bure, in the Lorraine, where still more environmentalists were working to impede the construction of a nuclear-waste repository. I had stayed nine days at Bure the previous January, and was surprised to learn those activists preferred not to call the territory they were defending a ZAD. They used the term as another name for Notre-Dame-des-Landes, and not as the common noun it briefly became in France. By this choice, they meant to avoid associating themselves too closely with the tragedy of the Sivens valley. There, an hour’s drive outside Toulouse, the ZAD had lasted for several months of 2014 and 2015.
October 25, 2014, a Saturday, was a night of unusual density at Sivens, as the ZAD’s sympathizers, including politicians, gathered for a party. After negotiating with environmentalists, the prefecture had agreed to remove most construction equipment, but left behind a generator, which celebrants torched the day before the event. On Saturday, gendarmes came after all, and with nothing to protect, they stood behind a ditch and a metal grillage wearing armor and night-vision goggles, as zadistes threw dirt, the odd Molotov, rocks. The gendarmes opened fire. Fraisse fell at 2:03 a.m., October 26th. He was 21, visiting Sivens for the first time. A biology student, he was active in efforts to conserve a rare flower in the buttercup family. The stun grenade caught him on the back. A Sivens zadiste would tell me, implausibly, that a bloodstain remained for three weeks where Fraisse had fallen, despite that season’s rain.
The first report out of Sivens was grammatically passive. A body had been discovered in the valley. The ZAD there had formed in opposition to plans for a dam, which environmentalists considered unnecessarily destructive of a riparian woodland as well as financially corrupt. The national newspapers had previously provided little coverage of the Sivens ZAD, and their accounts of the death took on an oddly fateful air, as if the zadistes had only assembled so that the young man could be killed. At first, journalists suggested that Fraisse died by a malfunctioning or poorly aimed Molotov, possibly his own. But analysis found traces of TNT, a component of gendarmerie stun grenades, on his backpack. Bernard Cazeneuve, then minister of the interior, quickly responded by banning the use of such grenades; within days, however, he said that blame really fell on casseurs, a term for individuals thought to infiltrate protests and—with a violence uniquely theirs—force the state’s hand.
I was living in Paris reporting on the city’s squats, where zadistes’ tracts were commonly distributed. A trip to Sivens seemed within the project’s scope, although I couldn’t say why; in Paris there was much talk of Fraisse, and it seems I wanted to investigate. I spent two nights that December camping alongside the zadistes. A valley of 46-and-a-half acres, Sivens had been a preserve, owned by a local government. Along the Tescou, the low-lying river the dam would have stopped up, the valley ran for half a mile. When I visited, workers had already deforested the area, leaving both ridges piled with trunks. Near the preserve’s gate, reinforced as a barricade, zadistes had commandeered a farmhouse for basic services: a radio station, chicken pens. Cooking smoke blackened the stone. Evicted once, they had resettled that August, before preparatory work for the dam.
At the far end of the valley, workers had removed the topsoil. A steamroller, as zadistes told me, had left an expanse of clay that was flat, smooth and even reflective. It had become a field of thick, sticky mud that buckled under my boots. I walked with difficulty, sinking, opening puddles that were mirrors for the sun. A film dried on the hem of my coat. The valley fell quiet, and I imagined the mud acting as a silencer, absorbing sound. People wore layers, which flapped in a wind.
Between farmhouse and mud lay a field, unoccupied at the time of my visit except for a big-top, which was used for public-facing events. Workers broke ground in September; that month through October, zadistes used their bodies to block the advance of the machines. Gendarmes deployed to “maintain order” repeatedly removed the protesters. But Fraisse’s death brought work and the attendant conflict to a standstill. Although that part of the valley was green, tear-gas canisters still turned up. Zadistes believed tear gas had contaminated the Tescou.
As a practical matter and one of tradition, many zadistes remain anonymous or choose new names in speaking with journalists, and sometimes with each other. Jonathan Losser, who went by Joe, was unusually free with his name, showing me his ID. He had come “two or three days” before the death, which he used to keep track of time. In his telling, he had hardly the “time for a beer” before a “deafening grenade” sounded and he had to get his boots. He was 29, wearing rubber boots, eyes the color of a sun-bright tarp at his back. The structure where I was interviewing him had begun as a tent. He had found it intact and, to his delight, apparently deserted. Wooden pallets, tires and staves of bamboo reinforced the walls, which were irregular, each a different trapezoid. At the center lay a fire, which Joe fanned by blowing through a metal tube. (The sound interrupts my recording like static.) He drank red wine improved with port and sugar, and riffed on a harmonica.
He had previously lived at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, where he led poetry workshops. After that, he had lived for six or seven months on the streets of Nantes, after which period he had lost some time in the Lot. He had then returned to Notre-Dame-des-Landes with the aim of recovering a cat that he had left behind. Unable to find it, he had taken another cat, left Notre-Dame-des-Landes for Nancy, left Nancy for Strasbourg.
The tent where Joe had settled down stood apart on the messiest section of the mud field. The peculiarity of that tent was that he and other zadistes had put it together at a distance of ten or fifteen yards, by Joe’s estimate, from the spot where Rémi Fraisse had died. It was for that reason that Joe and another zadiste, Christian Decoster, had chosen to live there.
A zadiste warming himself at the fire told me that while some zadistes spoke incessantly of what they’d seen, hoping to make others see it, there were many who lacked for words.
Joe said that he had spoken to the gendarmes as though to his father, also a gendarme, to whom he no longer spoke. He had left home amid what he implied had been some violence in his family. Joe said that a lot of people had lives like his hands—muddy. He turned them over. “All you have there stings,” he said, “black, it stings, it’s disgusting.” Nearby hung a gendarme’s helmet, painted orange and green.
Joe led me outside. The death site was marked with charred earth, candles, chestnuts and grenade-canister caps, which fit together like flowers in leis. A blackboard read: “For You Rémi: Killed by Socialist Politicians.”
Ahead of us, atop the plateau of excavated topsoil, men were reinforcing dwellings for the winter with mud and straw. Joe waved at dry branches and root clusters, which he was in the habit of smearing with honey or agave syrup, hoping to tempt back native insects. The clusters looked like driftwood, as if some natural process had left them behind. On the mud lay a pot of plastic lilies; he kicked it away. It landed, and mud sucked at it. “Rémi was a botanist,” Joe said. “I don’t think he would have wanted plastic flowers.”
Back at the hut, Christian, who also slept there, agreed to speak. Tall with a leathered face, wearing work blues, Christian had spent months putting off a friend who urged him to visit Sivens, out of fear that he would have trouble leaving. (He told me that he had two children.) “That’s what came to pass in reality,” he said, “because of the weekend of the 25th.” He energetically narrated his arrival that day, making reference to corroborating train receipts. After a time he apologized, almost shouting. “It’s hard for me to do this, I can’t. I’ll do it in court. Bref, if you want to hear my testimony, when the judgment comes down, when the death of Rémi is heard in court, will you be there?” His understanding was that he would go to jail for testifying against a gendarme. In spite of this, or to honor the gravity of the situation, he had decided that he would remain in the Sivens valley until the killer was locked up. For fear of incriminating himself, he stopped the tape. He allowed me to start it again and invited me to follow him. It captured our boots working the mud.