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, we’ll see, 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.
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.
“You see that platform of clay, and you see up there, the traces? And there, where it’s black and has been blackened? That will make you understand things.” (That night gendarmes threw more than seven hundred grenades of all kinds, including 42 stun grenades of the variety that killed Fraisse.) “Gassing means all the weapons you’ve already heard of,” Christian went on, “smoke grenades in three or four different colors, even the orange gas that makes everybody vomit right away as soon as it comes, deafening grenades, dispersive grenades and stun grenades made with TNT that killed a little boy.
“I have other things,” he said. “I have a house, and I have other things to do besides staying here in the mud.”
In the tent, the third zadiste said he might leave Sivens for a few days. “I feel lost.” Christian supported him: not everybody could have a mission like his, to testify. “We have nothing to do here,” Christian said. “There are no gendarmes to fight. What are we here for?”
At the time, I assumed the death of a 21-year-old visitor had precipitated this existential question. However, a zadiste newsletter distributed at Sivens that October 25th, the day before Fraisse’s death, raises Christian’s question in a different form, acknowledging that the dam development had already done its harm. “The trees have fallen,” it reads. “The opponents remain. … This collective has seen disappear, with the wetland, its first argument.”
By night, a few zadistes sat up in a lean-to by the Sivens gate, keeping vigil. A donkey tethered nearby emitted otherworldly brays. Flames leapt from Joe and Christian’s campfire, baking dry the mud that caked our boots. Zadistes struck up a song, lit cigarettes off the fire. Joe, wearing a headlamp, used a knife to coax a string of flesh from a leg of ham. Another zadiste dozed beside the fire. A black puppy slept on that zadiste’s back.
“Changing the world starts with changing one’s self,” sang a man with a guitar.
Christian yelled, “Do you take music classes?”
“He locked himself in a music room, and when he got hungry, he ate the piano,” Joe said. “He loves everybody.”
By that fire, a zadiste, a woman, told a tale heard in town. I understood it as a parable about remaining at a site of trauma. Everybody knew it, she said, in the village Gaillac, in Lisle-sur-Tarn. Years back, a girl named Pimprenelle and her sister wandered into the forest that used to be at Sivens. They were attacked: a hunter raped them. He was tried, jailed. Pimprenelle’s sister emerged from the forest, and Pimprenelle, according to the story, stayed. She lived eighty years in an RV, keeping chickens, gathering mushrooms. When she brought her mushrooms and eggs to market, boys called her the Lady of the Wood.
The zadiste told me the story twice. Privately, I reasoned that Pimprenelle had not meant to stay in the valley her whole life. She was waiting for things to right themselves before she ventured out, and things did not.
In the weeks after I left Sivens, as many as two hundred farmers had blockaded the ZAD; they adhered to a union supporting the dam. On March 6th, three hundred gendarmes and special forces evicted the zadistes from the valley. They allowed the correspondent for Le Monde to watch them dislodge the last four zadistes from a watchtower, but stopped him and other journalists from entering the forest for fear that the zadistes had laid “traps.” I no longer remember which zadiste called me that month to say Joe and Christian were to be tried in Albi, a city near Sivens. They stood accused of assaulting a farmer. The assault of which they stood accused had occurred in the night of March 3, 2015; either a billhook or a “sickle” opened the farmer’s hand, making a wound of seven centimeters.
Joe sat strangely before the judge, almost comically straight, his shoulders pinned to the chair, the bump of his stomach showing. “I didn’t do it, and I would never do such a thing,” he said.
“And yet he’s wounded,” the judge said, asking the questions as French judges do.
Joe said the ZAD was seen as a “supermarket” for accusations, and that he and Christian were on sale.
Christian told the judge he was a father.
Both men said they were innocent; Joe, found guilty of “violence with use or threat of a weapon resulting in an incapacity [to work] greater than eight days,” received a three-month suspended prison sentence. Christian, convicted of “violence with use or threat of a weapon,” in his case an axe, would take a citizenship course on penalty of one month’s imprisonment; both had to pay fines.
For my part, I splurged on a night train, electing to ride in a car reserved for women. We treated each other cordially, leaving the low bunks for the old ladies and unwrapping rail service-branded toiletries quietly, letting the train’s motion work on us like a lullaby.
In 2016, journalists reporting about the investigation into Fraisse’s killing revealed that multiple witnesses had faced intimidation. Judges delegated the investigation to a commission rogatoire, composed of gendarmes from a neighboring department. To them, Christian expressed his refusal “to be heard by ‘gendarmes investigating gendarmes.’” He “demanded to speak directly to the judges.” (The judges subsequently deposed him.)
In the same year, mourners, including Christian, gathered in the valley for the second anniversary of Fraisse’s death. Men identified by news reports as area farmers approached them, looking drunk, one brandishing a knife. The man used the knife to injure three women. The reports do not describe the injuries but note the women had them verified at a hospital, something of a prerequisite in France for filing suit against an aggressor.
In 2016, the dam project at Sivens was abandoned. (As early as 2014, the European Commission had found the project as planned unconstitutional, and sanctioned France.) Photos of the valley taken after my visit showed the mud had dried and cracked. In one photo, I could read the letters R-E-M-I in soot, char or the shadow of grooves: hard to say which. Time to move on, I might have thought. In continuing, we tell ourselves it is no capitulation to decamp.
To visit the ZAD at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, I left Paris on a Sunday in December 2018. The year that had begun with the airport’s abandonment was ending. Having moved away from Paris not long after the Sivens ZAD was evicted, I had just returned. In the night I had seen traces of that Saturday’s gilets jaunes demonstration. A dumpster was on fire; at Beaubourg, passersby crouched to photograph a spill of trash. A vehicle belonging to the city had burned down to its hull. So few people were out that an unusually large proportion seemed, to me, homeless. I couldn’t help wondering how they would sleep that night, if the fumes would bother them. The subway line I needed was closed, and in walking home I entertained myself by noticing which storefronts proprietors had bothered to board up with plywood: bank branches, obviously, but also a Sephora and a health-food store.
That very week, in response to the gilets jaunes, Macron had canceled a gas tax that was to take effect January 1st. On Monday, while I was in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, he made additional concessions, at which the gilets jaunes tended to jeer, finding them condescending. Macron had introduced the gas tax as an environmental measure, and many gilets jaunes understood it as an insult to their intelligence. Philippe referred to “emancipating households from their dependence on petrol,” a statement typical of official euphemism in its grandiosity. The people’s retort, as it was occasionally expressed: Your friends the corporations, and not my friends, are the ones at fault for despoiling our environment. There were the December concessions, Christmas, the slow down, January, the Rancière essay, the Latour essay, a February with temperatures in the sixties (as I thought of them, even as those around me counted in Celsius), the anti-Semitic turn (though the movement proclaimed itself, as if to reassure, heterogeneous and leaderless), March. Every March in Paris, I ask my roommates if they share my hunch that Parisian pollution is at its worst that month, the smog thickest in the valley of the Seine. The city does everything to get people not to drive.
On my way to Notre-Dame-des-Landes, I thought of my visit to Sivens almost exactly four years previously. As I had then, I felt uncertainty, tracking imperfectly with the bitter December weather over the French countryside. I remembered the wet earth, wore boots.
A commonplace of writing on Notre-Dame-des-Landes is the ordinariness, even ugliness, of the landscape that was, for years, defended with a seemingly incongruous partisanship: low, wet, flat, affording nothing so stunning as a view. But mist rises as mist will, beautifully, off the fields, which are lush, their cows calm. The ZAD occupies a bocage, a landscape once typical of the French countryside. The result of centuries of interaction between peasants and pastures, these quick fields cut by hedgerows, where even mature trees grow, play host to more species than do the dark forests toward which temperate Europe, without human intervention, tends. Structures spot the ZAD at some distance from each other, and the hedgerows are sparse enough that single trees within them appear in silhouette. Their elegant forms, black against the sky, contribute to the ZAD’s beauty.
Tanks did come. On April 9, 2018, 25 squadrons of gendarmes—2,500 soldiers—were deployed against 250 zadistes. For four days, they returned each morning. Nineteen squadrons finished the job on May 18th by evicting much of the ZAD, in particular the resource-poorer inhabitants of relatively fragile structures. When I visited in December, the zadistes numbered perhaps a few dozen. Only some zadistes had obtained temporary permits for their farming, which protected some of the structures; gendarmes destroyed the rest of the housing. “When they leave is when they’re the weakest,” an American zadiste, an ex-environmental lobbyist, said in English. As they were leaving, the troops used up their supply of grenades. “So between 6:30 and 7 they’re just chucking them over their shoulders to cover their backs while they’re getting into the cars… We couldn’t leave the house because there were so many grenades in the garden.”
During these evictions a gendarme’s grenade grievously injured one protester, a visitor from Lille. It was his first time at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, and as with the first-time visitor to Sivens, the French press spilled much ink in establishing the naïveté of this victim, Maxime. Like Fraisse, Maxime was 21, a student. He didn’t die; his hand was lost.
A general assembly, the last before the holidays, was small. Zadistes scooched in mismatched chairs, shrinking the circle. They discussed a trip to Paris for an upcoming rally; people were gathering to protest the killing of a young Arab man, Wissam El-Yamni. (During their own partial eviction in the spring, they had heard of demonstrations in solidarity outside French embassies in multiple countries. In Paris, books, good and bad, come out about the ZAD each season, adding to the literature the movement produces.) One zadiste was planning an event for the anniversary of the airport cancellation, which, despite the troubles since, would have to be festive. Another zadiste put him on the spot by asking if he planned to advertise it. He demurred, she pushed the issue, and a sweater drying on a bike wheel hanging over a wood stove caught fire and was carried, reeking, from the room.
In addition to ditches, which had slowed the tanks’ advance, I saw remnants of barricades: heaps of tires; the rusted shell of a van, hung with clothes. They had a fragile, touching appearance.
Naturalists had warned of the danger that an eviction would pose to the ecosystem at Notre-Dame-des-Landes. “As everyone knows, or should know (though this does not seem to be the case for anyone in this government) April is a decisive month for the majority of animal and plant species,” Naturalistes en lutte, an association active at the ZAD, wrote on its blog. Tear gas, which to animals smaller than humans is correspondingly more toxic, would linger; a predawn mobilization of tanks would jeopardize the ZAD’s amphibians, in particular its many young salamanders; and grenade explosions would put small mammals, with their high metabolisms, at risk for cardiac arrest. During my visit to the ZAD, one of these naturalists explained to me that its fauna were not necessarily the rarest creatures. They were only common species that should have been still commoner in the larger world but, as of lately, were not. The ZAD’s finch population was of a high density. In 2018 there was much discussion in Paris of a study indicating that a third of the countryside’s birds had died out, a bad sign. Hulot, the celebrity minister, talked about this loudly before resigning from Macron’s government, citing disillusionment. Finches, which do not migrate, have served in coal mines as canaries.
On my way back from the American’s cabin, I picked up my hosts’ allotment of bread, baked weekly by another group of zadistes, as well as a ZAD newspaper, thinner, as I heard, since the evictions. I walked a borrowed bike past broad puddles in the forest path, which was muddy and slick with leaves.
They lived in and around a stables, having supplemented the stone walls with insulation of their own. They had parked RVs and, in a field where a neighbor kept little black sheep, built two yurts. “A local variety,” one of my hosts said of the sheep. She shared the homestead with three cats and four other zadistes, two of whom were around when I visited. The house bristled with information. Accompanying instructions for using the dry toilet, a map of the backyard marked the spot to burn used paper: Cover with metal grille, otherwise the TP will fly off! The earnestness of these placards contrasted sharply with the flippancy of official signs I was used to. One of these was, by chance, the first thing in my notebook. The tart je m’en foutisme of a sign on my train from Paris had struck me as funny: “BAGAGES OUBLIÉS ? SOUCIS ASSURÉS !” Below was an English translation: “FORGOT YOUR LUGGAGE ? WORRIES GUARANTEED !” Evidently, the objective was to protect the national rail service against lawsuits. Zadistes’ signs, by contrast, placed faith in their readers. At Bure, a sign on the cellar door had two sides: The cat is in the cellar, don’t close the door, and Turn this sheet if the cat enters the cellar.
Here and there were unpretentiously intelligent stockpiles of like things: books, dead batteries, tessellating egg cartons. My hosts harvested a bed of coriander, installed a solar panel in a yurt and cooked a root they knew to have medicinal properties. My faux pas, over lunch, was to reach for herbal tea in a milk bottle. The food on the table was communal, but each housemate maintained an individual tisane, with the mixture they preferred of herbs, to which they added throughout the day. Twenty-odd varieties, most of which they grew, nestled, dry, in coffee cans. On a wall was a chart—the first thing I noticed—titled “i hate / cannot eat.” Each housemate has a column. Nobody likes everything, but everybody hates something: shellfish and mayonnaise; hot curry, banana and coconut in desserts; peanuts and raw bell peppers; cinnamon, parsley, raw onions; raw garlic cut up in little pieces.
“Rare are the places one can shape according to one’s pleasure,” Mauvaise Troupe writes collectively in Contrées, as translated by Kristin Ross. An anonymous, rotating group, they focus on social movements; some authors contributing to that volume, which discusses Notre-Dame-des-Landes, were zadistes themselves. Mauvaise Troupe also writes, in Contrées: “To create a world is thus not something to be done lightly, since it is a question of finding enormous strength in belonging to what surrounds you.”
My hosts put on the radio. In Marseilles, they heard, a woman of eighty, Zineb Redouane, had died of crowd control in her own home. A lawyer said she was closing the shutters of her fourth-floor apartment during a gilets jaunes protest when she was hit by a police projectile, a tear-gas grenade. Until her death the following day, a neighbor told the press, Redouane maintained that police had aimed at her.
A lesson the American left would like to draw from the gilets jaunes is that environmental salvation will come only when economic policymakers prioritize equality over growth, redistributing the cleaning fee so as to stick the big guy, and not the little guy, with the bill. For the zadistes I met at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, Sivens and Bure, an experience of state violence, the violence of the French state, provided them with some apprehension, well before the mass movement, of that same state’s unlikeliness—or unfitness—to bring about environmental revolution. Révolution, the title of Macron’s 2016 memoir, leaves us, then, with the image, not very reassuring, of a president who would think circles around you—or, alternatively, one whose desire to please all sides has left him merely turning in circles. (As though we had an infinity of trips around the sun.) Another commonplace of writing on Notre-Dame-des-Landes is to call the ZAD a “social experiment.” Insofar as the encampment was a laboratory for forms of life, it was simulating, when I visited it after evictions, the post-apocalyptic. “The ZAD is dead,” zadistes would tell me, still living there.
I walked along the narrow road that some zadistes had cleared of barricades in a concession to authorities (a betrayal, others thought). All clear: except for painted words. I stopped to note them down, standing on the shoulder: 400 BLESSÉS – 10 MILLIONS – ET MAINTENANT – QUOI? (“400 wounded – 100 million [euros] – And now what?”) On my side a driver did not slow down in passing me but sped up, honking. I was startled. A dusty van, it looked in that remote country like a zadiste’s, though it could have been anyone’s. I was taken by the edginess to which I had become, on the ZAD, no stranger.
Photo credit: Adèle Löffler, from the series ZAD, 2018