This is the second part of a text published in two parts, and which is featured in Liaisons’ forthcoming book, “Horizons.” In this second part, our friends consider the extent to which the ZAD (zone à défendre, or “zone to defend”) – an occupation in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, France, against the construction of an airport – can be conceived of as a temporary autonomous zone, along with the paradoxical nature of the movement’s victory. The first part, which can be found here, examines key moments in the ZAD’s history and addresses 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.
II: Not Losing the Victory
The battle against the airport lasted forty years, and a good part of those opposed to the project gave the fight several decades of their life. Yet following the announcement of the project’s cancellation by the Prime Minister on the 17th of January 2018, the euphoria of victory only lasted a few hours. The ZAD awoke on the morning of January 18th with a weight more perilous than a squadron of gendarmes on its shoulders: how to not lose the victory.
1. The “Six Points”
bring the following ambitions to the heart of the movement: to defend living spaces (for both “historical” residents and occupiers); to prevent the preserved land from being extended; to continue to take care of the bocage
; to maintain the various forms of experimentation in life and struggle; and to take collective responsibility for the territory. The 6 points were validated by the different components of the movement and diffused massively, profoundly altering the movement’s scale.
Not only do we lack practical experience of the matter, but the vast majority of historical experiences are formal: defeat or betrayal, with so little space in between. Too used to lost causes, we underestimate how disorienting it is to be suddenly vaulted outside of the realm of the “history of the oppressed.” The “movement,” however, anticipated this magnetic inversion of the political poles. Starting in 2014, open assemblies concluded with the slow elaboration of the famous “6 Points for the Future of the ZAD,”1
which sought to create a basis for unity after the project’s cancellation. These six points detailed the creation of common values, based around sharing the territory over the long term, and no longer simply unifying on the basis of a struggle against the airport. In 2017, the process of the assembly of uses (assemblée des usages
) was launched with the goal of concretely putting into practice the various hypotheses of how to maintain the collective experiences gained in the bocage
over the long term (including questions of tension, adaptation, or possible inventions in relation to legal frameworks). In the weeks leading up to the airport’s cancellation, the fact that it was necessary to negotiate with the enemy in order to attempt to guarantee that everyone could stay on the zone was agreed to almost unanimously in the assembly.
On the 18th of January, however, nothing that came out of the special general assembly held under the Wardine hangar in the center of the zone could replace the tacit promise that had, for better or worse, held the “movement” together up to that point. “There will be no airport”: once these words were uttered by the Prime Minister, there was no longer a promise of fighting together, only a simple fact. This same Prime Minister hoped that this costly cancellation would at least guarantee that a large portion of those who had defended the ZAD for years would leave, so that finally, evictions from the zone could be undertaken successfully and this offensive “lawless zone” could be erased.
It is the prickly question of road D281, the so-called “route des chicanes” (“road of obstacles”) that reveals the movement’s explosion. The clearing of this road, which crosses through the center of the ZAD and which has been covered with a constellation of debris and semi-barricades since 2012, was the sole condition put forward by Édouard Philippe when the airport cancellation was announced. The refusal of this condition would result in a police intervention. The occupiers who lived beside the road were largely uninvolved in the movement’s decision-making processes and have few connections to the movement’s other components. Among these other components were farmers and residents of nearby towns who had long been asking for the road to return to use. No compromise emerged from the assemblies; the majority agreed the road should be cleared “internally” in order to avoid giving the police an excuse to intervene. This majority imposed this choice, acting from the principle that the movement must manage its own conflicts, and that it would have been too destabilizing at that stage to leave it up to the state. Seen from the outside, this marked the end of “the movement” as a unified entity that could decide on common directions through assemblies, or at any rate, at the level of those opposed to the now-defunct airport.
The discord was then of a strategic nature and prolonged the differences of interpretation regarding the victory against Operation Caesar: against the fantastical argument that the route des chicanes was the best defense against the gendarmerie, those who wanted to clear the road responded that the capacity to resist depended largely on the political support of farmers. Barricades are ineffective without the widespread support of the local population, and this means knowing how to put them up during a police offensive, while being ready to put them up again and defend them together at the right time.
Nevertheless, the conflicts over the use of the road had already embroiled the movement for years, and were exacerbated by the hostility of certain barricaders, as well as the regular re-appearance of obstacles in the way of agricultural vehicles (even in moments when no police intervention was imminent), or the establishment of drug dealing spots. These conflicts remained unresolved throughout the multiple mediation processes because they manifested profound differences of opinion and different visions of the world as well as what constitutes the real foundation of a territorial struggle. We can therefore offer the hypothesis that if these efforts at mediation had found a resolution to the question of the D281, the tensions that tore the ZAD apart would have found another weak point from which to do their damage in the months that followed. There is nothing contingent about the questions opened up by victory and its responsibilities. They reveal, however, an eminently political problem: How to last?
* * *
2. ACIPA 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.
Before addressing this question, it may be useful to relate what seemed to us to be the different types of reaction toward victory at the heart of the anti-airport movement. A small minority, notable chiefly because among them there are a handful of important figures of the struggle, decided not to be faithful to what allowed for victory
. This is what opened the door to ACIPA’s2
self-sabotage: several of these directors succeeded in dissolving the association of those who had long been opposed to the airport even while the great majority of the members wanted to continue. This resulted in the creation of a new association, “Poursuivre ensemble”
(“Continue Together”), which reconstructed its network and logistical capacity. If the fatigue and the necessity of taking a step back are understandable, the lack of accountability to those who had supported the “6 Points” is much less so, and it is more difficult to forgive not giving up the fight, but actively working to make it go away.
A second, substantially larger faction did not want to accept victory. For a significant number of occupiers and support committees, as well as several sympathetic media figures, winning was tantamount to going over to the dark side. In order to maintain membership in “the party of losers” (in their own words), it was necessary to increase internal conflicts to the point of creating two blocks, a defeated group and a doubly victorious group (against the airport and against a minority of zadists). The occupiers near the D281 were invoked to embody, sometimes in spite of themselves, a betrayed purity on whose back victory was won. The saddest part of this celebrated, binary fable of the “truly radical occupiers” against the “traitors to the struggle ready to sell themselves for their legalization,” is that it confirms the governmental narrative meant to prepare the public for a “surgical” intervention against a “handful of incorrigibles,” a narrative that legitimizes the force needed to evict everyone.
3. Since the 2006 social movement against the Contrat Première Embauche (First Employment Contract), the slogan “against […] and its world” has become the rallying cry of multiple radical tendencies in different French movements.
Some partisans of defeat argued that the cancellation of the project did not actually constitute a real victory: as we had always said, it was “against the airport and its world!”3
This supplement of political spirit is waiting for the simultaneous defeat of capitalism, the state, racism, the patriarchy – meaning that nothing is ever really won. This can also be manifested as a strange attitude of going “to the bitter end” in negotiation, demanding 30 km/h zones and amphibian crossings on and under the route des chicanes
. In any case, the important thing was affirming that we DID NOT win at Notre-Dame-des-Landes. It would certainly be profitable for the intelligence of future struggles to trace a genealogy of this symptom of the poor winner, but that is not the subject of this text.
Let’s pursue, then, our typology of attitudes for the rest of those involved in the movement, which confronted the implications of victory with varying levels of self-awareness or naiveté. One of the difficulties lies in the fact that victory threatens to escape at both ends, by way of both the existential and the political.
4. In addition to the 2,500 mobile gendarmes sent to evict the ZAD between April 9th and 15th of 2018 (i.e., 20% of the gendarmerie’s police force), about 1,000 CRS (members of the Compagnies républicaines de sécurité, or the Republican Security Companies, which are the general reserve of the French National Police), or 10 companies (out of a total of 60 in France), were present in Nantes for the demonstration in support of the evictions on April 14th (which did not prevent them from being greatly overwhelmed by about 10,000 demonstrators). The gendarmerie, among others, trained and prepared themselves for six years to take their revenge after Operation Caesar. In addition to the number of agents mobilized, such a use of tanks, drones, and the massive use of grenades was still quite unprecedented for an operation to maintain order within the national territory.
5. The destruction of Cent Noms (a collective farm on the ZAD) and its sheepfold, despite the prefecture’s declaration that it would not attack the “agricultural projects,” was a wake-up call to the rest of the movement concerning the extent of the ongoing destruction.
6. Despite the scale and brutality of government repression and the movement’s initial hesitation, the forces of law and order would face a front as inventive as it was relentless throughout this first week leading up to Sunday evening. For a more complete account of the first wave of expulsions and its aftermath in French, see “La revanche sur les communs”
and “Tank on est là.”
On the one hand, attachment to the territory, to comrades and collective dynamics, made it so that for many there was no question of either settling for the fact that “we won here and now it’s time to go fight elsewhere,” or being isolated solely in the position of waging a desperate battle against a tenth of the French forces of order.4
Staying on the territory necessarily involved finding a stable point of equilibrium in the relationship with the authorities, negotiated more or less explicitly. To be specific, this negotiation, like any good negotiation, was never considered a substitute for struggle. It was necessary to fight fiercely outside the offices of the prefecture in order to assure that the future of the zone was not decided by a steering committee put in place by the state after the airport’s cancellation, therefore excluding the great majority of those who made up the movement – and particularly the occupation – whom the authorities had designated as domestic enemies. The main issue was always to defend the demands that came out of the “6 Points” – notably, the collective management of the land of the ZAD – in contrast to the state’s desire to individualize each person within the bounds of their own occupation. All of these factors were at play during the first phase of eviction in early April 2018, which resulted in a certain imbalance of power; the failed agreements between the government and the movement left the first efforts at negotiations after the cancellation at an impasse. In this context, the repeated sabotage of repairs to the D281 were used by the government to legitimize their deployment of police. Furthermore, the feeling that some occupiers were closing themselves off in an enclave of dead-end logic destroyed a good part of potential local support during evictions in just over a few weeks. The state chose this moment to demonstrate its striking power and destroyed a third of the cabins on the zone in three days, expanding the area of announced evictions.5
On the territory, however, resistance was fiercer than anticipated, and the situation was extremely tense. Solidarity actions threatened to blow up on a national scale.6
On the fourth day, the government announced that the operation would be suspended, and offered a facilitated, large-scale process of regularization (in the form of individual files for occupiers and the declaration of agricultural installations), the result of a state ultimatum. People responded by “hacking” this plan for creating individual files, so that it could be used as a cover for various interlocking collectives and spaces, who insisted they be accepted as a block. Occupants also included non-agricultural activities in their files, activities that the government had insisted must stop. This strategy received support from the majority of the remaining spaces. A common file was generated during a few days of feverish optimism. A second phase of evictions would come in May, targeting exclusively those spaces that had chosen not to join one of the collective agreements.
Despite the divergence in strategy, those who had wagered on negotiation nevertheless came out to try and prevent the destruction of the dozen or so spaces targeted in this second wave, even if the direct confrontation was not (and could not be) at a level that could block this new police operation.
On the other hand, not losing the victory means defending it against inevitable re-writings that would empty it of its fundamental political substance: the fact that it was a victory of struggle, and not because the government woke up and realized the uselessness of the project.
But it is worth taking note of the tension between these two necessities: defending the importance of force at the very moment when an attempt is being made to temporarily immobilize it by means of an end-of-conflict agreement on certain points, particularly ones concerning military action.
If what remained of the movement after the harrowing year of 2018 is still looking for ways to respond to this double necessity, it is worth underlining that with a bit of perspective, the political scope of the victory is relatively established. The 2018 union protests saw numerous references to the ZAD on postal workers’ signs, and on nurses’ uniforms (“ZAD of health,” “public service to be defended”). The ZAD became a symbol of combativeness and the possibility of winning.
Bruno Retailleau, a Republican senator, former president of the Pays-de-Loire region, and principal political enemy of the ZAD, even dared to make a direct connection to the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests): “Notre-dame-des-Landes is where this authorization to destroy comes from, and the implicit idea that in France you can win through violence… Look at the destruction on the Champs-Elysées, the smashed up store fronts, the attacks on police and gendarme vehicles… it’s Notre-Dame-des-Landes on the Champs-Elysées.”
It is true that in the traffic circles occupied by the Gilets Jaunes a few months after the victory in the anti-airport struggle, you could see numerous pirate constructions, and roughly-made cabins occupied permanently as a practice of diffuse blockading – as if all the styles of action used at the ZAD had suddenly been accepted by the entire population of France – a population which, by the way, did not always manifest their interest in the battle for the ZAD.
Zone of Definitive Autonomy?
“In short, we’re not touting the TAZ as an exclusive end in itself, replacing all other forms of organization, tactics, and goals. We recommend it because it can provide the quality of enhancement associated with the uprising without necessarily leading to violence and martyrdom. The TAZ is like an uprising which does not engage directly with the State, a guerrilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it.
As soon as the TAZ is named (represented, mediated), it must vanish, it will vanish, leaving behind it an empty husk, only to spring up again somewhere else, once again invisible because undefinable in terms of the Spectacle.” — Hakim Bey, TAZ
When he devised the concept of the TAZ (temporary autonomous zone) in the 1990s, Hakim Bey, in good post-situational form, was most certainly drawing from the art of détournement for the name of his work. Though if the expression undoubtedly evokes the cold technical vocabulary of territorial management of the decade, the American author could never have expected that the concept of the TAZ would resonate so successfully across the ZAD.
7. An agricultural policy introduced in France in the 1960s regrouped farms into large plots of land in order to promote industrial farming. The regrouping often led to the uprooting of hedges that formed the structure of the bocage.
The zone d’aménagement différé,
a designation created by the government in 1974 in anticipation of the airport’s construction, is itself a kind of suspension of time, with its anachronistic countryside paradoxically saved from the adverse impacts of land regroupment7
by a project that blocked every manifestation of Progress for forty years. Thus, the occupation movement leaped without hesitation into the breach and consolidated it, suspending secular power. All aspects of the TAZ were present in a space of a few square kilometers: the multiple and sometimes newsworthy teenage runaways, the flowering abandoned cars of the D281, the wild parties, the Huckleberry-Finn style cabins, society’s casualties, the strange rhythm that ebbed and flowed from frenetic to languid, the young thugs, etc. It was full speed ahead with the pirate imaginary, emboldening some to the point of boarding a truck full of merchandise that had gone off road in the rue des chicanes
, or even holding up a few cars.
Between the first squat in 2007 and the abandonment of the project in 2018, a feeling of immense possibility floated over the ZAD. Thousands of people felt that famous sigh of relief when passing the invisible frontier of the road of Les Ardillières, like the lifting of everything that weighs on their shoulders outside of this space.
The myth of the TAZ magnified the zone to defend; in a certain way, it even made the ZAD possible, by creating a shared understanding in a long and glorious history. If the ZAD was beautiful, boundary-breaking, and inspiring, it was because it incarnated in such an explosive way the idea that freedom is a totally open situation, a space-time where anything is possible. Yet, in an equally crucial way in the theory of the TAZ, this freedom has a price: its ephemeral nature.
Ten years is too long for a TAZ. Those who put into action Hakim Bey’s work (the Republic of Fiume or the Buccaneers of the “New” World, for example) rarely last for more than a few seasons. Choosing to negotiate with the enemy rather than “leave an empty shell behind” surely marked the official end of the ZAD-as-TAZ in the beginning of 2018. It is worth remembering, though, that the hybrid force that defended and gave life to the bocage was not aligned with the model which must necessarily disappear – nor, by the way, with the need for media attention—and this was the case well before the first interviews with the Prefecture. The new meaning of the acronym ZAD, “Zone d’Autonomie Définitive” (“Zone of Definitive Autonomy”), which was thrown out as a challenge after the failure of Operation Caesar, voiced it clearly: the ZAD decided to give itself a name (even multiple names) and staunchly refuses to disappear.
8. The term “utopia” is not really appropriate in this case, if we are true to its etymology; what the TAZ is missing is not a place, but a kind of temporal inscription. The term “uchronia” would be more appropriate, if it did not already mean something else. In this sense, if we can affirm that the experience of the ZAD opened horizons for thousands of people, far beyond what they had ever experienced, it is because it was always something more than simply a TAZ.
9. Because the ideal TAZ can never grow old, it can also never die. It disappears, evaporates. This disappearance is not cause for grief – if we follow the theory – just as we should not fight to postpone its demise. The TAZ’s most honest partisans on the ZAD stuck to these principles; many living spaces put up no resistance when they were cleared out by the gendarmes. Though if the end of the ZAD-TAZ was such a traumatic experience, it is because in practice it is difficult, if not impossible, to untangle what made the temporary autonomous zone so beautiful, as opposed to what made it possible and lasting: the creation of a powerful force devoted to the territorial struggle against the airport. If we want to mourn the ZAD-TAZ in a way that makes sense, it is only from the perspective of a certain fidelity to what made it something else.
It was clear that the force of the anti-airport struggle came not only from its utopian magic, but because it knew how to be faithful to its initial promise: to never give up as long as the airport project was still on. And this also required something other than evanescence and nomadism – necessities that of course created friction with the new arrivals who came to Notre-Dame-des-Landes looking for the possibility of a space outside of time (likely doomed to an apocalyptic end). Yet these two aspects – the TAZ and the deeply-rooted struggle – are not opposed; they made the ZAD what it is. It is not a contradiction that the fierce resistance of 2012, which was so against avoiding conflict with the state, allowed the pirate utopia8
to flourish. The creative tension between these two poles was shaken by the cancellation of the airport. The cancellation marked the end of a process that had been going on for a long time: the occupation of the bocage
changed from being a means to being an end of the struggle. It is as if the TAZ, which persisted due to its symbiosis with the territorial struggle, was now aging rapidly, and we were confronted with the disappearance of this utopian zone so quickly after the joyous news of the airport’s demise.9
The period of mourning was difficult, for we hadn’t really anticipated it. In the discourses about a post-airport future, there was always the question of the ZAD’s survival, but very little about what we would lose. It also took several months of internal rupture, and two eviction operations that would mobilize the best troops of the Gendarmerie Nationale
, in order for everyone to agree that some part of the ZAD really had died in early 2018. On this subject, it is worth checking out two texts that were published the following summer, with surprisingly similar titles given their relatively different points of view: “La zad est morte, vive la zad!”
(“The ZAD is dead, long live the ZAD!”) and “La fin de la zad, le début de quoi?”
(The end of the ZAD, the beginning of what?”). In addition, there are other texts and multiple efforts to create a desirable future for the ZAD post-cancellation.10
We could name some other desirable futures: fighting against land grabs by industrial agriculture; self-built housing that frees itself from urban planning; the invention of forms of collective property in the service of the commons; assemblies managing a territory by bringing together its inhabitants and users; long-term experimentation with cooperative modes of production that disregard market logics as much as possible; the creation of a welcoming place for networks of resistance from all over the world, etc.
In the summer of 2019, when everything seemed to point to a continuation, what remained of the ZAD constituted a density of collective experiences that was fairly exceptional for this part of the world. Over 300 hectares have been cultivated (already more than before the cancellation), with projects including vegetable farms, fields of grain, livestock, orchards, and forestry. There are forty living spaces with their respective workshops, creative spaces, workout areas, party spots. There are solid ties to the territory, as well as the will to continue fighting. For numerous groups already present on the ZAD, the decision to stay depended heavily on the possibility of continuing the material and political foundations, and on the ability to use it as a springboard to strengthen struggles in the surrounding areas: from the traffic circles of St. Nazaire to migrant squats, from unrest in the streets of Nantes to youth climate strikes.
* * *
If the shock created by the end of the ZAD-TAZ caught the movement by surprise, the question of what part of the ZAD could last, or rather what was and is still in the making, has been the subject of intense discussions across the zone since 2015. It was at this moment that the forces who were for the cancellation of the airport joined to defend the ZAD’s future. Many had defended this future as something beyond a simple continuation of the status quo – which, anyway, was impossible to maintain over the long term – or a simple reintegration into the logic of territorial management (in the form of traditional agriculture or a nature reserve). This necessity of elaborating a desirable future, immediately, while taking into account a concrete current reality, is fairly unique. It allowed for a sketching out of horizons from other imaginaries than those of defeated revolutionary movements, or those promoted by the dominant capitalist utopia.
11. Unlike in North America, where the term is used to describe a variety of collective practices, in France the term is more strongly associated with the Paris Commune of 1871.
12. Meetings on the theme were organized in June 2016 to bring together experiences as diverse as the brief but vicious commune of Nantes in 1968, self-management in Aragon in 1936, the communal practices in the Breton countryside over centuries, and various efforts at collective life in groups of a few dozen people.
13. “La semaine sanglante” (“The Bloody Week”) is the name given to the repression of the 1871 Commune in Paris, from May 21st to 28th. The song of the same name was also written that year.
One of the attempts to give contour and content to these horizons mobilized the idea of a commune11
as the beginning of a response to this lack of imaginary.12
What makes this statement so powerful is that it appeals both to the long and cyclical time of medieval communal functioning as well as to the historic and bright time of insurrectionary Communes. This power is also ambiguous; the imaginary of the Paris Commune, for example, is used both to give a revolutionary movement a certain degree of institutionality as well as to reference the romantic paradigm of the uprising that can only meet a bloody end. On this subject, the undeniable success of the song La Semaine sanglante13
leaves no room for doubt: apart from the effective versification by lyricist Jean-Baptiste Clément, which ensures that anyone who begins to sing it, in militant company, will be joined by an enthusiastic choir – chiming in with “sauf des mouchards et des gendarmes
” (“except for snitches and gendarmes
”) – is perhaps so secretly enjoyable because the narrative of abuses suffered by the Communards provides the ultimate proof of their belonging to the camp of the just. There is certainly the “et gaaaare à la revaaanche!
” (“and beware of revenge!”) in the purest teleological tradition, which refers the final struggle to a future that is as certain as it is temporally indeterminate. But who really believes it anymore, beyond a certain nostalgia for a time when the revolution was promised?
There was a sacrifice to be made: ironically, the sacrifice of not sacrificing everything. Winning meant keeping the spaces, the living places, the projects, and the future plans – at the price of going down in a martyr’s burst of flames. A part of the ZAD never wanted to disappear into the halos of the sainthood of the defeated. What we must hold on to from the Commune is not simply the blood that was spilled, but multiple concrete sketches, which are the most solid thing we have to nourish our after-imaginaries (after capitalism, western civilization, etc.) despite their obvious limits in terms of scope. Perhaps today it is justified, after the ZAD, to speak of the notion of the “commons,” which we could term a kind of partial putting-into-practice of what a Commune might be.
14. You can read passages from her comments in French here
15. Other texts will have to do the work of analyzing the successes and failures of the wager of the ZAD’s legalization measured in this way, keeping in mind that this wager had only one alternative: pure and simple disappearance. It should also be noted that only a part of the agricultural and non-agricultural practices that continue to exist on the ground have been legalized, and that only a fraction of the resources that the ZAD has equipped itself with, such as various practices, have been integrated into an administrative and regulatory framework. See this article
for an analysis on this subject.
It was by following this lead that in 2018, the philosopher Isabelle Stengers was invited to the library of the ZAD to exchange reflections about this idea, or more precisely the “practice of the commons” (“commoning”).14
It was not without a certain provocation, to which the grief of the ZAD-TAZ was still sensitive, that Stengers pronounced a particularly painful truth: the condition for the possibility of commoning is not “everyone does whatever they want.” Because the functioning of the commune is labor-intensive, it is incompatible with any form of liberalism (with the understanding that liberalism, as it is practiced, only calls itself “free will” in order to better mask the mechanisms of governance). The commune cannot exist without certain obligations. Consider, for example, the tequio
of the Zapatistas, collective work sessions in which each member of the Chiapas community must participate. Among the field of absolute possibility, the commons involve realizing some possibilities and not others. Building structures on as yet uninhabited areas of the ZAD was meant to have been the subject of a collective decision-making process, following the agricultural and ecological decrees, a few months before the cancellation. Working in common is the opposite of freedom as the maximum of possibilities, which is always subject to a certain temporal suspension. What must protect this practice from authoritarianism and centralization are, among other things, the ability to be affected by time and experience – and by unavoidable internal tensions, as well. In the work of Hakim Bey, repression leaves lingering doubts about what actually causes the disappearance of the TAZs: exhaustion, the mistake of looking for something that could last, or inversely, having established an enduring structure. The relationship with an external authority, therefore, is secondary. In summary, this is equally the case with the process of legalization in the disappearance of the TAZ of Notre-Dame-des-Landes. The signing of a few long-term leases for collective projects, which protected around 170 occupants who still wanted to live on the zone (according to the most recent estimate), as well as its use by so many others, necessarily implied constraints that were in some cases severe. They are not to be dismissed lightly, and we know the risks of being swallowed up by normative and economic mechanisms all too well.15
They do not, however, fundamentally change the relationship of the ZAD to the authorities. Now as before, it is merely a question of gaining some room to maneuver in a game where the rules don’t change, and that no one can change by simply snapping their fingers. After all, if the ZAD had not been crushed between 2012 and 2018, it is only proof that in a “democracy” rulers avoid massacring their own population, and that the showdown almost pushed them beyond this limit.
At the same time, something has truly changed – but this something is not a result of the inevitable recuperation that awaits any victorious struggle. This something in the background was not at play at the time of the airport’s cancellation. What has changed, little by little, since Operation Caesar, is the ambition of the ZAD: from being an ephemeral zone beyond the law to becoming a lasting experiment in practices of commoning at a medium scale. This change involves a shift in its internal functioning as well as its relationship to the authorities. It means, in a certain sense, an important complexification of the concept of the TAZ; instead of disappearing, purely and simply, the temporary autonomous zone won the possibility of transforming itself. It is capable of more than sporadic bursts into the plot of history, and this implies consequences that still remain to be discovered.
* * *
16. In this respect, we can compare this image with its inverse, that of a “thick present,” borrowed by Donna Haraway from the Yarralin people of northern Australia by way of the anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose, who evokes the ensemble of stories, events, and experiences that populate and densify an indigenous conception of time.
The only victory the TAZ can have is its own fleeting existence. Its glory and its limit is to be fully in the here-and-now. The ZAD, in its victory against the airport, became the confirmation of another possibility: existing in the long term. In his recent work Défaire la tyrannie du présent
(“Undoing the Tyranny of the Present”), historian Jérôme Baschet proposes that our time is no longer modernity, with its arrow of progress pointing resolutely towards the future, but instead a kind of presentism
. Stuck in the frenetic rhythm dictated by digital communication, we are at once dispossessed of our grasp on the future and of the possibility of using the past, but also prisoners of a present that is so “compressed” that it is totally uninhabitable.16
The book is a plea for the invention of a new political temporality, inspired by the Zapatista way of composing times. Maintaining something from the ZAD is a way of trying to respond to this need. It means, very concretely, creating the possibility of projecting ourselves out of a certain ecological, existential, and political presentism.
We saw how the defense of the Rohanne forest was a major issue in the defense of the airport. When it was saved in 2012, this changed the course of the struggle. Yet the forest’s future only progressively became a concern for the movement: notably, through the creation of the group Abrakadabois, which intervened regularly in the relations between inhabitants and the woods, in activities ranging from forest maintenance to timber construction. This responsibility was itself a challenge, because it was difficult to situate ourselves in relation to the time scale of a forest when we were threatened with eviction every six months. It is also hard to imagine caring for a tree in order to turn it in to a structure in fifty years when we were raised in a Western way of life in the twenty-first century.
Leaving aside the question of the long temporality of ecosystems, the lack of perspectives the ZAD seeks to take on are situated at the scale of human lives. It is rare to see struggles that envision the possibility of aging within the movement. The anti-airport movement does this, perhaps due to its inter-generational nature. The eternal youth of activism is a sad illusion: generations are as fleeting as fashion for not knowing how to trace singular trajectories that can be practiced on a mass scale and that aren’t a dead end. Raising children, easing the pressures of economic imperatives, imagining the dependence of old age as a continuation of the social ties that make up a life instead of as a burden on society: all of this requires collective spaces, which at Notre-dame-des-Landes were elaborated in the struggle, there where too often these concerns required people to step back and abandon the terrain of political conflict.
17. The “cortège de tête” is a group at the beginning of a march, in front of the unions, that is made up of those who want to give a more offensive character to the demonstration: the black bloc, more combative union members, high schoolers, and some others who resist easy categorization. The term was born during the 2016 movement against changes to the labor code.
Finally, by existing for over a decade and through the precedent created by victory, the ZAD has already contributed a certain depth to the politico-historical terrain. It introduced continuity where the regular but spaced succession of “high points” of French politics marked by social movements – with their predictable rhythm of “ascent/peak/collapse” – seemed doomed to starting over, or almost starting over, at zero – one reform and one generation after another. The ZAD’s existence and its many offensive manifestations since 2012, for example, likely played a role in the emergence of the practice of the cortège de tête17
in 2016 and its spontaneous adoption in later social movements.
It becomes conceivable, then, to renew deep ambitions of constructing a revolutionary movement. A movement that is not guided by any inevitable historical necessity – as was the workers’ movement – but one that branches out through an organic sprawl, opening up its own path according to the situation. The existence of such a movement is perhaps the only way of validating “partial” victories – it is otherwise certainly the best way to make something of our defeats. We could define this notion of “partial victory” as the ratification of a favorable balance of power, which pushes its advantage to the extreme, without risking defeat, in a context of asymmetrical confrontation. A certain historical vision is necessary to understand this temporality as an offensive strategy. This kind of historical vision, neither linear nor presentist, and which involves building on the ruins of revolutionary progressionism, with experiences like the ZAD, with Jérôme Baschet and, if Walter Benjamin would like to pass the expression on to us, with the elaboration of a certain “history of victories.”