Victory and Its Consequences (Part I)

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

1. The expression is a play on words of the acronym “zone d’aménagement différé,” an administrative term designating an area intended for urban development.
2. An agricultural area characterized by pastures, which are often humid, separated by hedges.
On the 17th of January, 2018, a defeated French Prime Minister, Édouard Philippe, announced on live television that the plans to relocate an airport from the Grand-Ouest region of France to Notre-Dame-des-Landes, near the city of Nantes, had been abandoned. This announcement marked the end of a forty-year struggle, the last ten years of which saw the emergence of a new political form in France: the “ZAD,” a term which has since entered common use. The zone à défendre (“zone to defend”)1 began as a 2007 occupation of 1,650 hectares of land, occupied against its destruction and led by a small number of squatters whose numbers quickly swelled to several hundred. For years, the ZAD was a focal point for those who hoped for a radical transformation of the world. It was quickly apparent that defending the bocage2 was inseparable from inhabiting, nourishing, and building infrastructure on it, and that all of these efforts were at odds with existing economic and governmental structures. Compared with other Western European squats and occasionally liberated zones, the ZAD crossed a threshold in terms of geographic expanse, number of people involved, duration, degree of rupture with mainstream society, and the ambitious scale of various autonomous projects within its perimeters.

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.

3. This title, chosen by the police themselves, would seem to be a monumental error in communication. In the country of Asterix the Gaulois, a character in the well-known eponymous French comic, the hero frequently defends his village against the troops of… Julius Caesar.
4. At the time, the way in which a public consultation had swiftly killed the massive 2011 mobilizations against the construction of an underground rail station in Stuttgart, Germany, was at the forefront of everyone’s minds.
One must admit that the goal of the struggle didn’t lend itself to half measures: either we win, and the airport isn’t built, or we lose, and it is. The rest is a question of strategic intelligence and firm resolve. The movement saw several victories, in fact. The most flamboyant, of course, was during “Opération César” (“Operation Caesar”)3 in October and November of 2012, when over a thousand gendarmes (French military police) mobilized to evacuate the area destined for the construction project. Faced with fierce resistance from a continuous pastoral guerrilla force and a demonstration of over 40,000 people who gathered to build a village-headquarters in a single day, they failed in their mission. Other similarly decisive moments prove the extent to which the fight against the airport owes its success to its own determination. In 2016, in an attempt to put an end to the affront to national sovereignty marked by the existence of a territory in secession, the socialist government pulled out all the stops: they conducted a local referendum to decide the fate of the airport. The “yes” in favor of the airport prevailed, thanks to the disproportionate resources for propaganda of the project’s supporters and an electoral perimeter judiciously chosen to favor the result. Yet on the evening of the vote, the entire movement, including its so-called “citizen” component, loudly and clearly stated that the game was rigged, and that the fight would continue even stronger. What other struggle in recent memory can boast of evading the trap constituted by this type of “democratic” capture?4

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.

5. After Operation Caesar, dozens of support committees formed across the country. At the beginning of 2013, they numbered nearly 200. These committees played an active role in establishing strategic strength by mobilizing for important events and were vital to the construction of the ZAD itself, visiting regularly for workshops and discussions.
6. Many important elements of the ZAD’s history are treated only briefly here. Readers should consult texts that are already published or forthcoming for a more thorough treatment of the following topics: a detailed summary of strategic and sensible factors that made it unthinkable to imagine stopping the obliteration of the ZAD simply through heroic resistance on the ground (as in 2012); the precise narrative of the articulation of struggle and negotiation in the spring of 2018; reflections on the fragmentation of the movement and a return to the majority/minority narrative at the heart of this fracturing; or further, a manifesto related to the immense political issues that persisted on the ZAD after the victory against the airport. Concerning the last point, we refer the reader to the French text Prise de terre(s).”
The second part is written from a certain distance – from the perspective of members of certain support committees.5 It explores the confrontation of the real ZAD with the concept of the temporary autonomous zone, an idea that is central to contemporary radical imaginaries. It attempts to untangle the following paradox: though the 2019 victory against the airport is a source of inspiration for many other struggles, the overwhelming consensus is that the months following this victory were some of the most difficult the ZAD had ever seen. Though the death of the airport project was eagerly anticipated for years, and there were serious attempts to lay solid foundations for a victorious aftermath, the cohesion and equilibrium forged through a common cause nevertheless, in part, dissolved. The ZAD was torn apart, leaving open wounds. Winning is not enough if we cannot gain a victory over victory. When the hopes that were dashed during the fight are thrown back at the winners, tensions took on a barely tolerable dimension. The challenges of Notre-Dame-des-Landes can help future struggles prepare for this second battle. In order to create a workable revolutionary strategy, it is necessary to bring about a political temporality that can thrive in the long term.6

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.

On Time

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.

7. When the troops retreated after Operation Caesar, at the end of 2012, the government announced the creation of a “commission for dialogue” in order to save face. The commission, which intended to push forward an “improved” version of the airport project, actually ending up stopping any attempts to start work or to evict residents for over a year.
8. The trêve des confiseurs (literally “confectioners’ truce,” also translated as the “Christmas truce”) refers to a period of general inactivity between Christmas and the New Year.
From 2012 onward, the key has also been to neutralize the state’s willingness to embark on a second massive expulsion in time, a venture which would have benefited from the experiences of the failures of the first. The surest way to win after the victory over Operation Caesar was not to reproduce such a situation – a gamble that would have been difficult to make with much certainty – but to first ensure that the tractors and gendarmes did not return. Between 2013 and 2018, at various moments, the government was looking for its window of opportunity, whether after the mediation that occurred in the wake of Operation Caesar,7 the decision to expropriate long-term residents, or the victory of the “yes” vote in the 2016 airport referendum. It could no longer hope for a definitive expulsion without immediately starting work on the airport, including deforestation. It regularly announced a new offensive, sometimes even venturing to give a deadline. Its scheduling, however, was always more or less constrained, either by the electoral calendar or the period when tree cutting is forbidden, by the large gatherings that bring several thousand people to the area every July or by police duties related to the state of emergency, by the winter truce that some of the squatted living areas of the ZAD have attained legally or the trêve des confiseurs.8

9. The movement organized a giant demonstration in Nantes at the beginning of 2014 in order to ward off the threat of the resumption of work. Many attacks against various symbols of the airport took place during several hours-long clashes with police. While these actions benefited from a strong base of solidarity at the time of the protest, they would later cause serious tension at the heart of the movement.
It was therefore an absolute necessity for us to keep pace and announce offensives and massive mobilizations at the right time, whenever necessary. The 2012 operation taught the police that it is difficult to attack and hold the bocage just before a mobilization of several tens of thousands of people. The events that followed showed them that it is just as difficult to start an operation just after Nantes has been turned upside down by a demonstration of 60,000 people and 500 tractors (February 22nd, 2014).9 Preventive strategy does not dispense with the need to seriously prepare for a second battle at the same time – by way of public training for resistance on the ground, the regrouping of defensive logistics, or plans to block regional circulation in case of attacks.

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.

Composition

10. As mentioned above, the government-created “commission for dialogue” ended up preventing any attempts to start work or evict residents for over a year. It’s worth noting that today, power has learned to overcome this setback by assuming widespread and undifferentiated repression.
There have always been moments when the least lucid figures of each tendency tried to look out for their own interests: arguing that resistance to Operation Caesar had essentially been “peaceful,” or that the stalemate with the government was primarily due to the sturdiness of the barricades. It should be obvious by now that both the tenacity of the ZAD and the end of the airport project were due to the simultaneous deployment of different tactics. None of this would have been possible without an incisive discourse that regularly parted ways with the usual militant chatter, nor without an attentiveness to cultivating widespread support and understanding. None of this would have been possible without research, counter-information and legal support, nor without direct, physical resistance. The state is accustomed to dealing with issues separately, constantly playing certain distinct, stereotyped characters against each other: “legitimate activists” with community support vs. isolated, “ultra-violent” radicals. It has a much harder time of things when one of these groups stands in solidarity with the other, or worse, when it is no longer clear who is who. By way of a delicate game at the heart of the community of struggle, it was possible to thwart the fetishistic reflexes that could have rigidly determined certain choices, finding instead a tactical flexibility that adapted to various types of threats.10

11. This was an association founded in 2000 when the renewal of the airport project was announced. It was for years the principal force of opposition to the project and consisted of several thousands of members.
12. A party made up of the inhabitants of the hamlets in the path of the airport, organized into an informal collective of “residents who resist.” They were at the origin of the 2007 call for the ZAD to be occupied as a means of struggle.
13. Their hard work surveying the lands, hedges, and prairies went a long way to providing ecological arguments against the airport project and also offered a more refined understanding and working knowledge of the bocage for its new residents.
14. By “occupiers,” we mean the collection of those who came to squat the ZAD to defend it against the airport project, starting in 2007.
Something precious offered by the movement was the ability to transcend these rigid political identities, systematic and binary conflicts attempting to dictate what radicals and citizens should be and how they should behave, be they peaceful or offensive. What we call “composition” between different groups emerged over the course of the struggle. This included citizen associations with ACIPA,11 local farmers who gathered in the COPAIN collective,12 historical residents and peasants of the ZAD,13 activist ecologists, as well as various occupiers14 and support committees. This composition was based on the willingness to consider unity as our greatest strength. It functioned by way of a search for complementarity, for a possible mutual experience of disruption, and through a taste for heterogeneity. Energized by the momentum of the bonds created during Operation Caesar, it appeared to us that, as long as the state did not succeed in driving a wedge between us, it would have significant difficulty in regaining control and defeating us.

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.

15. No Tav is the name of the movement against the proposed high-speed train between Lyon in France and Turin in Italy.
16. For more on the concept of popular struggle on the ZAD and Val Susa, as well as on composition, see “Contes” by the Mauvaise Troupe collective, published by l’Éclat, or at https://mauvaisetroupe.org/.
17. Vinci is the multi-national corporation in charge of building and managing the airport.
For years, we made fun of trade unionists’ obsession with “getting numbers,” and assumed that close-knit, determined groups, who were at times able to coordinate between themselves, were superior. Even up until 2012, the staggering numbers of protesters mobilized by our comrades of No TAV of Val Susa15 seemed enviable, but totally impossible where we were.16 That is, until we suddenly discovered the vast symbolic and physical power of such a mass of people united to defend a territory. This desirable people, emerging from the woods during Operation Caesar, didn’t just appear out of thin air. This was the result of meticulous outreach and mobilization carried out for more than ten years by various organizations. It reflected the social network of a region and its political history as well as a moment of popular emotion. Continuing to open up to it meant going out to meet all sections of the population. It meant being able to make the link between the defense of the territory and their fields of expertise, their atmosphere and their tools, whether they were airport employees, Vinci17 trade unionists, traditional carpenters, cartographers from Nantes, hikers, climbers, intellectuals, doctors, filmmakers, welders, or lawyers. So many people are often guarded during marginal community initiatives, but with them an encounter was facilitated by everything the ZAD deployed, and by its demonstration in deeds that another life, and in particular another relationship to activity, was possible and desirable. This is all the more so since the ZAD emerged at a historical moment in which more and more people are observing the rapid degradation of our world and the desperate search for “utopian” responses takes on new, widespread proportions.

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.

18. The movement against the installation of a military camp in this southern region of France was one of the most emblematic movements of the 1970s.
Recent Past(s)

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.

19. The newt is one of the protected species named by naturalists as inhabiting the ZAD and must be “relocated” by the government in order for work to begin on the airport. The newt therefore took its place alongside the salamander as a symbol of the movement.
For its part, the movement gained ground because of its far-reaching renown. You don’t need clear analysis or just demands to see this – it was made clear through sensible stories: convoys of tractors emerging from a country road to form a protective barrier around a house under threat, runaways searching for a new world, a giant newt19 in the streets of Nantes, Homeric banquets, shared risks, and mountains of dry socks distributed across muddy expanses and police barricades.

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.

Circulation

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.

20. For example, the multiple attempts to create ZADs ex nihilo with the sole criterion being disregard for the inhabitants of the surrounding area.
The example of certain other ill-fated attempts to create ZADs elsewhere showed that a territorial struggle that is rejected by those who live closest to the territory is doomed to fail.20 After 2012, the immediate neighbors of the ZAD of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, a majority of whom were opposed to the airport, were nevertheless frequently tested by regular troubles and a feeling of estrangement, by the petty theft and skirmishes with the “zadists,” recounted at the village bar or in the local paper. Some of the neighbors, luckily, rose above all this, focusing on inspiring collective visions and finding reasons to maintain solidarity. Many members of the associations and nearby committees highlighted the richness that relationships with a variety of occupiers brought them, as well their experience in the participation of the ZAD as a whole – on worksites, in gardens, in parties, and actions – and their contributions helped maintain an equilibrium.

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.