On a cold but sunny December morning, the only sound around the hedgerows of Notre-Dame-des-Landes is the cawing of a horde of squabbling crows. Those asleep in the cabins, caravans and reclaimed farmhouses of Europe’s largest political squat (in terms of area) are awaiting a far ruder awakening, reports The Guardian.
“They could send the gendarmes to evict us at any time,” says Pierre (not his real name; like most of the “resistants”, he prefers to remain anonymous). “But we are ready to defend the area – this is now our home. Besides, they’ve tried in the past and not succeeded.”
The story of “la ZAD” in western France began more than half a century ago, when the French government earmarked the site for a new airport as part of a plan to create a transatlantic “Great West” gateway to France and Europe.
Years of consultations, arguments and indecision supposedly ended in 2008, when the €580 million project was given official approval. The squatters began arriving the same year, claiming they were responding to an appeal from farmers fighting compulsory purchase orders. No airport-related construction has since taken place on the 1,650-hectare site.
Up to 300 squatters – eco-warriors to some, green jihadis to others – now live in the ZAD: officially the Zone d’aménagement différé (zone for future development), renamed by protesters as the Zone à défendre (zone to defend).
Some view themselves as political activists, reminiscent of those who protested against military installations such as Greenham Common in the UK and Larzac in southern France in the 1970s and 80s, and the tree protestors who fought the Newbury bypass in Britain in the 90s. Others are inspired by the 2008 Kingsnorth climate camp in Kent and the Christiania commune, the historic self-proclaimed autonomous district in Copenhagen, Denmark. For the majority, the ZAD offers an alternative, simpler and more utopian way of life.
“The movement itself is large and has great solidarity, but there’s a great diversity of people and opinions,” says Camille (a favoured alias among the protesters). “From those who’ve got degrees to people from the streets or those who just want to get away from their families ... some are already politically engaged, some just broken by conventional life.”
For the squatters, the airport plan – and the methods various governments have used to defend it – have become symbolic of everything a generation of politically, economically and ecologically militant millennials despise: inequality, capitalism, globalisation, the destruction of the environment, intensive farming and, above all, the rise of the individual over society and the collective.