On January 17, 2018, the French government announced it was canceling plans to build an airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, near Nantes. For fifty years, the project had occasioned fervent protest in France as well as internationally. In a stand “against the airport and its world,” as one of their slogans put it, some environmentalists had made their homes at the site for ten years. Predictable criticism of their stance as shiftily utopian would apply just as easily to the multiplicity of official explanations given, over the decades, for the airport itself. It would have provided the Concorde with a landing pad nearer the Atlantic.
The issue fell in and out of fashion until the new president, Emmanuel Macron, rolled out his own glamorous environmentalism. He styled himself a technocrat in the contemporary way: green. As candidate, he told television audiences that the airport was happening, and environmentalists that it might or might not be happening. As president, he took the temperature. Within weeks of taking office in May 2017, he seized on Trump’s withdrawal from the UN Paris Agreement with a viral video smarmily entitled “Make Our Planet Great Again,” in which he starred as himself. For minister of ecology, he picked Nicholas Hulot, a celebrity environmentalist. To deal with Notre-Dame-des-Landes, he commissioned “mediators.” Their December report pointed up the cost of the airport, greater than had been anticipated.
Last January, journalists declared victory for the environmentalists, reporting euphoria at Notre-Dame-des-Landes. One philosopher went so far as to proclaim a “change in civilization” on the evidence that a government had prioritized “environmental” over “economic” concerns. However, even as the prime minister, Édouard Philippe, announced that no airport would be built, he aired a timeworn concern about the ZAD as a “zone of lawlessness.” He deplored the situation on the ground at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, vowing to “reestablish the rule of law”; another campaign promise of Macron’s had been to clear the zone.
This concern that law should rule, deepening into an anxiety that the law might not rule firmly enough, shaded the coverage. On January 12th, Le Monde reported that gendarmes, some thirty to forty squadrons, were preparing to evict the encampment. Regrettably, the journalist noted, they would not have surprise on their side. The terrain was marshy and riddled with barricades, which the protesters had been known to set afire. Gendarmes helped the journalist picture a difficult march, slowed by the heaviness of their equipment. They had not ruled out the use of “armored vehicles,” nor tear-gas grenades, sting-ball grenades or Flash-Balls. “There will be injuries on both sides,” said an unnamed “leader” of the gendarmerie, “and even deaths.”
The demonstrators at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, alternately portrayed in these articles as vindicated celebrants and guerrilla insurgents, have a more specific identity: they are zadistes. A ZAD, or zone d’aménagement différé, is a parcel of land that the government can expropriate. A 1974 decree made a ZAD out of four thousand acres of mostly agricultural land, setting them aside for the airport. The project was deprioritized in the Eighties and Nineties, during which time the zoning protected the land from other development. In 1998 and 2000, when French ministers and a mayor of Nantes revisited the plan, farmers in the area energetically resumed their resistance. Every so often in the years following they drove a few hundred tractors into the city. France has a tradition of protest against public works by peasants—a term with a political connotation in French that it lacks in English—and anti-globalization, anti-nuclear and anti-war activists have traditionally joined in. In 2008, after a “declaration of public utility” preparatory to expropriation, farmers at Notre-Dame-des-Landes issued what movement histories refer to as “a call to occupy the ZAD.” It became, in popular usage, a zone à défendre, a “zone to defend.” Zadistes, many of them activists from squat scenes in French cities, moved into farmhouses abandoned by those who took deals to make way for the airport. They tilled fields and rigged up lean-tos. They set a cabin on wooden stilts at the center of a pond, where it appeared to float. Rural toponyms, with their oddities of age and use, remained. At the lieu-dit La Rolandière, at the zone’s center, zadistes installed a library and a signal tower. The sharp lines of the tower’s latticed legs and windmill blades lent themselves to a warlike iconography.
In 2012, these zadistes and their supporters, totaling as many as forty thousand, successfully resisted an attempt to evict them on the part of twelve hundred gendarmes. For five years thereafter, according to zadistes’ histories, police did not intervene in the ZAD, during which time it rose to preeminence in the imaginary of the French left. The feat of self-defense attracted imitators. By 2015, Le Monde counted eight “emblematic” ZADs in France, even as newcomers continued to settle at Notre-Dame-des-Landes. Zadistes there deepened their self-sufficiency, raising livestock, baking bread with grain they grew. For produce, they set up a market where payment was optional. Some got by without money; those old enough to collect state unemployment pooled their benefits to share with those too young. Increasingly, zadistes diverted their time from sabotage of the airport project—pamphleteering in company buildings, disassembling machines—to subsistence agriculture and conflict management within their community, which became, as it grew, increasingly heterogeneous.