This is the first part of a text we will publish in two parts, and which is featured in Liaisons’ forthcoming book, “Horizons.” In the following text, which explores the aftermath of the ZAD (zone à défendre, or “zone to defend”) – an occupation in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, France, against the construction of an airport – our friends examine key moments in the ZAD’s history. They also address the movement’s composition and the temporality of the struggle, as well as the "threat of implosion" that marked conflicts at the heart of the movement itself. The second part, to be published next week, will consider the extent to which the ZAD can be conceived of as a temporary autonomous zone, along with the paradoxical nature of the movement’s victory.
Victory and its Consequences: The Aftermath of the ZAD of Notre-Dame-des-Landes
The ZAD also became a rare example of a major victory for a movement of struggle in the last few decades in France: a victory against a major national project, defended by every government party, which was won solely through the relations of power established by the struggle. It is clear that the canceling of the airport project does not mean the end of our reasons for fighting. Yet, in terms of the airport’s cancellation, we can still consider this a total victory.
The first part of this text comes from inside the ZAD, from the heart of the anti-airport movement. It is an attempt to synthesize the lessons learned about what led to victory, and about the specific contradictions that might have prevented it.
I: From Operation Caesar to the Airport’s Defeat (2012-2017)
The ZAD emerged as a major battleground in the fall of 2012, in a battle that upended expectations and opened a horizon. The little political miracle of Operation Caesar’s defeat owed its success in part to its complete unexpectedness, as well as to the collective overcoming undertook in the mud and behind the barricades, the expansive generosity of neighbors, and the sudden alliances born in such moments of truth. This reversal was also the result of the development of a strategic perspective, including, among other efforts, the announcement and organization of a re-occupation protest more than a year in advance to take place on the fourth Saturday after the beginning of the evictions. On the 24th of November, 2012, a month after the beginning of Operation Caesar, and after hours of simultaneous skirmishes in Nantes and in the Rohanne forest (at the heart of the ZAD), as the state announced the end of operations, the feeling of powerlessness against backhoes and gendarmerie squadrons evaporated from the hearts of tens of thousands of people across the country. Once a horizon opened up, the most complex challenge was to bring to fruition all the possibilities promised by this explosive moment.
What was so radical about those who had begun the fight against the airport project since the 1970s was not usually their readiness for direct combat, but their ability to anticipate a longer period of time with an accurate understanding of the opponent’s rhythm. These “veterans” helped us understand to what extent a sense of time is, in the end, the key factor. Time must always be gained in relation to the calendar of the state. All means are useful: various kinds of legal actions and hunger strikes by the affected peasants and associations, but also sabotage and physical blockades of preliminary work, which became more frequent with the arrival of more occupiers.
This rhythmic requirement has for years been the subject of collective internal debate. The defeat of Operation Caesar left in its wake a tendency to over-evaluate the “intrinsic” power of the ZAD’s reactions. This tendency is most common among people who do not spend a lot of time tending to the power dynamic and who have remained on the sidelines when it comes to the movement’s diverse dynamics of organization. A certain number of inhabitants see the ZAD first and foremost as a refuge – a more or less collective, more or less isolated bubble of experimentation – and are situated in a logic of antagonistic rupture with this frequent state of mobilization. In certain fringes of the occupation movement, the priority also given to slowing down the decision-making process and the rejection of the pace imposed by the adversary translate into a nearly systematic bias against any broad-based initiatives.
For us, as partisans of the strategic rhythm, we had to react on time, even if it meant speeding up the process. Otherwise, this suspended world would no longer exist, and there would be nothing left to experiment or to debate. Yet the consistency of the experience of the ZAD, and its victorious entrenchment, are due to the fact that we acted as if we were going to stay forever, even though collapse threatened constantly. During the years before the airport project was abandoned, our seemingly paradoxical wager was also to try to reconcile the long term – that of the forest, the crops, and “solid constructions” – with the permanence of a certain sense of urgency, and the need to stay one step ahead.
The one fallback of this technique was that we constantly had to exaggerate the unity of the movement in order to repel the state’s efforts to divide us and minimize the public spotlight on certain genuine internal disagreements. On the other hand, speaking of the movement in terms of large “components” may have produced a distorted impression of homogeneity within each group, particularly with regard to the occupiers. All of this contributed to a lack of legibility, for those on the outside, of the movement’s internal tensions. This in turn caused conflicts to escalate, once they became more visible after the airport was abandoned. Finally, composition has sometimes been misconstrued as an argument for focusing only on the forms of “components,” in the name of a purely juxtaposition-based version of a diversity of tactics, leaving out the necessary game of articulation that bound them together.
Even if some organizations have been frequently and rightly criticized for not showing adequate solidarity with arrestees, the game of composition has on the whole softened repression. Given the intensity of confrontation and the illegality of many of the actions, which were in many cases in violation of prefectural decrees and the penal code, the level of legal persecution the state pursued in the years between Operation Caesar and the abandonment of the airport project was in the end quite limited, especially in comparison with the repression of other contemporary movements. This could certainly be attributed to the opacity gained by controlling the territory and a relatively widespread culture of anonymity. Yet these factors alone could not have protected us without also firmly relying on determined appearances, as well as on the public legitimacy offered by an incessant flow of statements of support from extremely diverse sources.
People and Community of Struggle
Our actions and our imaginations had so often constituted us as minoritarian and “autonomous” that for a long time the idea of perceiving ourselves as a popular struggle was at best distant, at worst deeply distasteful. For us, “the people” were the stuff of exclusionary republican myth, of chauvinistic and demagogic populism.
The problem of deeming a struggle “popular” is that it must be regularly renewed with mobilizations that demonstrate this fact. Surpassing certain thresholds can be a trap, because afterwards, every low turnout risks disproving the struggle’s popular character. And the obsession with “crowds” sometimes blows up in our faces: the issue was to find ways of organizing that reconcile the possibility of being numerous with a capacity for blockade and disruption, even though after the riot of February 22nd, 2014, some were more than a little nervous about the idea of another large, urban offensive. From this tension the idea of extending the ZAD onto the Nantes beltway or the nearby 4-lane road was born, with the goal of holding this area for hours, or perhaps days. The success of a day of mobilization isn’t measured by how many people show up, but by how it inspires each participant to return to defend the zone, in one way or another, in the event of a police operation. This is what the 2016 “stick ritual,” when thousands of protesters planted their sticks, pickets, and pieces of sculpted wood in the ground, meant to express: “We’re here, and we’ll be back.”
There is no broad movement without the close-knit group at the heart of the struggle: the several hundreds of friends and neighbors who we could count on in the long run, who were there in moments of glory and defeat, there for the hard blows and the triumphs, whose solidarity is practically unconditional and unwavering, who continue to hold meetings even in the dead of winter and who prove that the threat of blockading the region when work starts is not just wishful thinking. The local political community found its counterpart at the national level in the support committees. In 2013, the most active alternated for months at a time in the rebuilt hamlet of La Châtaigne, coming several times a year to build new sheds, huts, or keeps that they promised to return to defend. They took part in harvests and prepared themselves to arrive within a few hours in the event of attack. Over a period of five years, the committees also made the ZAD a site of action where they lived – through wheatpasting, public meetings, occupation of public offices, gardens, and demonstrations. Occasionally, they occupied another piece of land to prevent development.
The movement has constantly invoked the local history that precedes it. From the common use of the Breton moors to the abandonment of the Plogoff or Le Carnet nuclear power plant projects in the 1980s and 1990s, from the flow of supplies to the insurgent proto-commune of Nantes in 1968 to the occupation of farms by peasant-workers in the years that followed, we have had the privilege of drawing on a rich past, providing us with points of reference that are more than just beautiful stories of defeat. A victory was possible because others came before us. We could afford to be ambitious because others, before us, had been ambitious as well. It is also worth noting that some of those inspiring “others” aren’t others at all, they are us. Some of the oldest members of the anti-airport movement passed these stories on directly. Michel Tarin, for example, was one of the figures of ACIPA and one of the participants in the hunger strike during the 2012 presidential campaign. He was also, in 1968, a peasant who held meetings with student and worker groups after May, from his farm near the ZAD, and had marched, stick in hand, from Larzac18 to Paris in 1978. The walking sticks of 2016 were also a way of paying homage to him, one year after his death following a long illness.
Holding Ground and the Media Battle
Following Operation Caesar, the state was no longer able to decipher the narrative and put everyone neatly back into their boxes. And since this battle, it has realized it cannot hope to win the physical territory when it is not in control of the narrative, at least in the mainstream media. Preventing it from gaining this narrative control is a constant battle. A struggle that succeeds in sending such a shiver down the spine of power has no choice but to take the mediatic battle extremely seriously. In the interim between Operation Caesar and the cancelling of the airport, Notre-Dame-des-Landes was the favorite topic of the national media. Some local correspondents made weekly visits to the ZAD and its surrounding areas, and the ZAD and its uncertain fate were a constant fixture in polemical pieces and headlines in regional media. At times, the media’s representation was predictably caricatured and hostile, but in many cases, journalists were seduced by the way of life they observed in the bocage, and by the struggle’s singular character. The ZAD’s novelty may have gone a long way – we noticed that in some major media, it was treated more favorably than union strikes, considered “old-fashioned.”
By creating the capacity to react quickly in the media (something which was achieved through delegating a designated team), the messages coming out of the ZAD gained in audience and credibility. Communiqués of those otherwise designated as “ultra-violent zadists” sometimes even appeared directly in response to any new attempt at communication by a prime minister or regional president.
One of the most obviously captivating ways of understanding the specificity of the “lawless zone” is through its character as a well-defined space. An entrenched stronghold, identifiable against the landscape by its watchtowers and barricades, is in visible secession from the state. Yet the force of a representation of being “out of this world” is also a trap that constantly isolates the area and which its enemies try to use to better isolate it, by drawing the most anxious and hermetic portrait possible of this portion of territory and its “watchtowers.” Some media go so far as to use the expression “Zadist Caliphate.” Because of this, it is essential to maintain robust circulation between the area and the world around it to keep it alive, so it is not cut off from its supporters. This has been a constant challenge within the occupation movement itself, made rigid by the force of the myth of an “out-of-this-world” that was constructed with and against it, eroded by the arrogant folklore of a certain “zadism,” with its immoderate penchant for navel-gazing. Without a permanent circulation with other struggles and social spaces, things can quickly sink into the peculiarities of the alternative ghetto.
Facing Critical Passions
The absence of movement and openness in certain fringes of the occupation movement considerably reduces what is possible. Since the collective focus has narrowed brutally, our closest neighbors and comrades have been the targets of short-sighted, incisive anger. Through the lens of this critique, a food garden of a few hundred square meters becomes synonymous with industrial agriculture and the construction of a large collective hut or a windmill become signs of the bourgeoisie. Some members of the occupation movement began to see everything around them as a re-incarnation of the state or of capital. This less than conciliatory attitude towards composition has hardened post-“victory,” and has found sympathetic ears outside the boundaries of the ZAD.
People who live only a few kilometers away came to be considered “outsiders,” under the sole pretext that they do not correspond to the aesthetic and political criteria of this autarchic trend. This polarization has gone so far that, in one instance, when members of support committees close to the ZAD proposed rehabilitating a few hiking trails (in order to reconnect the neighborhood to the bocage and share it more widely), the autarchic group only perceived a threat of invasion, all the while complaining about not having enough support from the population.
The Threat of Implosion
Just after the victory of Autumn 2012 and the successive arrival of new waves of residents, tensions threatened to make the zone implode. We remember the beginning of 2013 as the “spring of troubles.” While the state ended police checkpoints, some roads and paths were still completely blockaded, to the dismay of neighbors and farmers. The mediation process offered a few months of repose before the new eviction effort would begin. Some occupiers prevented peasants participating in the resistance from returning to cultivate their land, because they were opposed in principle to all forms of conventional agriculture using pesticides or motorized equipment—really, any kind of agriculture. The peasants who had opened their homes to us during the attacks now feared they would be deprived of their key form of struggle, and even the possibility of maintaining their farms, by their supposed allies, instead of by Vinci. Even occupiers who shared their produce with the rest of the ZAD were regularly critiqued by others who benefitted from their redistribution. Sabotaged fences and dogs let loose on flocks did nothing to help the mood. Tenacious solidarities and common projects still flourished in spite of all this with a solid band of farmer neighbors, giving consistency to the unusual collective peasantry inhabiting the territory. A line of tension became clear between a tendency willing to organize mainly among “occupiers” and a desire to not totally rely on this community, knowing the importance of finding other forces and accomplices.
The situation was highly charged on the ZAD at this time; spaces that had been central to the organization of the occupation up until then were overwhelmed, and there were instances of violence to which no one knew exactly how to respond. A few unscrupulous individuals tried to profit from this “free zone” to develop various deals and impose their will through intimidation. Individualistic fragmentation threatened to take over the formation of new structures or the sharing of resources.
Meanwhile, the state prepared its return, hoping that its temporary absence would create untenable chaos. Tactically speaking, it is difficult to disagree with this maneuver; historical residents as well as the occupiers, in their great diversity, had no shared cultural or ethical references that could allow them to rapidly establish a common framework. The frequent reference to Chiapas and the Zapatistas could not make up for the lack of first-hand experience in living in a territory without state power, and there was no preexisting indigenous community from which to draw support.
There were nevertheless several attempts to define “limits,” and use structures to bring conflicts under control. From 2015 to the beginning of 2018, the “cycle of twelve” was given the mandate of dealing with conflicts. This group of twelve people was chosen at random from a long list of volunteers from many different spaces on the ZAD, with regular rotations. Yet the lack of common references – even when it came to giving a structure to participation in the group or taking part in certain collective organizing spaces – did nothing to facilitate the work of this formal tool, or to lend it legitimacy. Furthermore, the fear that autonomous forms of conflict resolution might drift quickly into the institution of organs of repression often paralyzed collective reactions, even in the face of flagrant abuse and the endangerment of other residents. So, it was mostly through group-to-group or person-to-person initiatives – or through more diffuse means – that a part of the occupants were able to bind themselves together and maintain connections between everyone who used the territory, from the hermit in his forest cabin to the conventional farmer. This required an enormous amount of energy, and the concern was far from being shared equally by all the residents of the zone.
At several moments during the history of the ZAD since the spring of troubles, the threat of implosion – maybe even more so than the threat of expulsion – almost prevented the possibility of blocking the airport project. This was because of the difficulty of finding practicable ways of freeing ourselves from the hegemonic control of the state and the balance that was needed between divergent positions. It is still this relative failure to find common frames of reference that, even directly following the cancellation of the airport project, made it difficult to gain a victory over victory.