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In the early morning of Monday, April 9, French police began an invasion of the ZAD (Zone à Defendre, or “Zone to Defend“) in an attempt to clear about 300 activists from the site of an abandoned airport project. The attempted eviction by French authorities is not the first in Europe’s largest occupied autonomous zone, and in addition to violence and injuries, the eviction has led to extensive loss and damage to the community’s cultural production.
The ZAD land occupation is located near the village of Notre-Dames-des-Landes. Since 2008, anti-capitalist activists have occupied the site in western France in efforts to prevent the construction of a new airport. The French government officially abandoned those plans in January of this year, a decision that quickly became a pretext to evict activists who refuse to leave the zone. But the activists have remained encamped in makeshift tents, caravans, and shacks, vowing to continue to occupy the site some of them have called home for a decade. In recent weeks, the area has been under siege, subject to daily dosages of tear gas and concussion grenades, drone surveillance, clubs, tanks, and attack dogs.
After the decision to abandon plans for the airport project, activists banded together and decided to stay and run the land as a commons. In early April, the group collectively authored a six-point plan that laid out how the community would be run: as a commons together with rural farmers under what is being called an “assembly of usages.”
While media coverage of the ZAD evictions has been widespread, little coverage has been given to the cultural artifacts — sculptures, paintings, homes, makeshift musical instruments, films, and books — that have either been abandoned or destroyed by French authorities since the pre-dawn eviction raid that began on April 9. These include houses, sculptures, a library, and a radio station. The activists have tended the land for the last decade and autonomously run a bakery, a brewery, an online newspaper, and a weekly vegetable market. They have also created dozens of makeshift homes, installations, sculptures, and other artworks, many of which have already been destroyed while those that remain are under threat.
Opposition to the Aéroport du Grand Ouest project and plans to develop the land began in 2006, when a small group of locals banded together. Early on, the campaign was targeted to local farmers who were persuaded not to enter into negotiations with the French state who wanted to buy their land. The first wave of resisters included those closely linked to local factories, wage workers and unions, all of whom were in solidarity against government plans to develop the area.
Today, the area remains mostly as it was back then, small patches of agricultural land controlled by local farmers in settlements known as bocage: pastures divided into small fields, interspersed with groves of trees separating each plot. In 2008, environmental and ecological activists took notice of the campaign started by local farmers. By 2009, the movement had significantly swelled, transforming into a climate action manifestation based on a similar one that had initially — and unsuccessfully — opposed the expansion of Heathrow Airport in London. By late 2008, several abandoned structures, farms, and barns were occupied by outside activists who assembled in the area in opposition to the Aéroport du Grand Ouest plan. Soon thereafter, an anti-airport organization called ACIPA brought the struggle into the French courts, using legal means in addition to frontline activism to fight the government plans. The land near Notre-Dames-des-Landes — over 4,000 acres — has been home to hundreds of activists who have entered the struggle, recalibrating what was once a local issue into a global movement against capitalist exploitation of land held in common.
Last month’s raids are not the first attempts to evict ZAD. In 2012, for example, the French authorities began what they dubbed “Opération César,” which used brute force to enter the area “in a clear attempt to erase the memory and history” of the occupiers, said one activist who wished to remain anonymous. During that first attempted eviction, dozens of makeshift homes and works of art were destroyed. The 2012 police action failed due to strong resistance and widespread local, national, and international support, as well as a very proactive media campaign utilizing images of the violent tactics authorities had used, which often went viral on social media, leading eventually to a number of solidarity demonstrations that were held across France. Thanks to strong public opinion in favor of the ZAD, French authorities backed down and allowed the activists to continue to occupy the land — until recently.
On the morning of April 9, a group of approximately 2,500 French riot police attempted to evict the 300 or so activists who remained on the land. Shortly after 3am, ZAD organizers alerted the community that the police was on its way. Eight minutes later, they set a barricade alight in order to stop police from entering the zone. Protesters claimed 70 police buses had surrounded the site, boxing them in and leading to a violent confrontation, which has now lasted over three weeks.
Since April 9, at least 60 arrests have been confirmed — as well as six alleged cases of police brutality. Gérard Collomb, the French interior minister, said police would remain “for as long as necessary” to ensure the zone was not reoccupied. He added that those evicted would be offered alternative accommodation: “Nobody will be left on the street,” he said. Most recently, the French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced there will be no further evictions until May 14 and ordered 1,000 police officers out of the ZAD.
As the ZAD evictions appear poised to resume in on May 14, the fate of the community’s many incredible works of art, homes, and community projects remains unknown. According to a dispatch collectively authored by activists who remain on site and published last week: “The ZAD always tried to go beyond the idea of a TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zone), in favor of a building a PAP (Permanent Autonomous Zone), this desire is embedded in the solid buildings, the long term agricultural plans, the vineyards planted for wine in five years’ time.”
As of April 25, 29 homes had been destroyed. There remain between 60 and 70 homes in the ZAD, while the local prefecture estimates there to be “between 500-600” remaining activists on site. “It will take a building permit to settle in the building zones of the ZAD. We will no longer accept homes scattered in wetlands,” warned Jean-Paul Naud, the mayor of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, last week.
Accordingly, the cultural artifacts, homes, and sculptures created on site are now under significant threat. Those who refuse to leave face an uncertain future. Nevertheless, activists have said they remain committed to governing the land as a commons, focusing their efforts on rebuilding and creating a more equitable, horizontal, assembly of usages. While the government maintains that the rights of private property must be upheld, the ZAD land occupation points to the possibilities of what a vibrant, anti-capitalist commons might look like.