Life After a French Revolution: What Next for the Protest Camp That Won?

by Greg Frey

Two things are clear when entering France’s infamous Zone to Defend, or Zad: this is a reclaimed space and a divided territory.

The handmade cabins, the welcome messages scribbled over road signs and the empty tear gas canisters littering the fields show how these 4,000 acres have been salvaged from the states’ plans to turn them into an airport. Under this central struggle another one lurks. The defaced map of the zone and the spray-painted message ‘Zad for Sale’ on the lighthouse, show how the end of the airport project has divided the Zad’s inhabitants. When I asked a long-term inhabitant, he described this as the latest feature of the zone’s ongoing “civil war”.

Watch our Novara Doc ‘Return to the Commons’ on life in the Zad:

On 17 January 2018, French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced on national television that the government was abandoning the 50-year-old Aeroport du Gran Ouest project. In the same breath, he promised to restore law to the airport’s designated zone. The diverse inhabitants that had built their community there for the last 10 years would need to legalise or be evicted. The Route de Chicane, a three-kilometre-long barricaded road symbolising the movement, would need to be cleared immediately.

With this single announcement, the Macron government both declared the anti-airport movement victorious and created an existential problem for its frontline. The year since has been a test of the bonds woven by a community in a shared political battle across enormous ideological differences. Another inhabitant described it as her hardest year in the entire occupation.

Since 2009, the Zad has grown into an extraordinary community of resistors, opposed not just to an airport but to a way of life which destroys the natural world and alienates individuals from one another. In the ten years since activists at a Climate Camp were asked to stay defend it, the Zad has evolved into a complex and inspiring political community. It has become a locus for people living on the margins, hoping to live more spontaneously and closer to the non-human world. And yet it is not just for radicals and freaks: the Zad’s strength is its diversity. Farmers, teachers and middle-class families have lived with punks, anarchists and radical ecologists – a rare thing in French society, which is typically very segregated.

But when the airport was cancelled cracks began to show almost immediately. On 18 January, the day after the Prime Minister’s declaration, a general assembly was called. By all accounts, this was a mistake. After almost a decade of occupation, the evening’s celebrations had left many worse for wear, and there had been no space to process the victory. The Route de Chicane, obstructed by huts, cars and gardens, cutting through the heart of the Zad, quickly became the main issue. Many local citizens and farmers, disrupted by the road block, argued for it to be cleared. Many of the other occupiers refused to destroy something that had become symbolic of their rejection of a mainstream capitalist existence. A break was called, and on return a large cohort of farmers and citizens had decided not to seek consensus. The road would be cleared.

A majority agreed not to let the police do it but to clear the road on their own terms. In practice, this meant squatters evicting squatters. The assembly’s facilitator, Isa, described it as a “traumatic” event. For her, the road was “a certain image of the resistance that was extraordinary”. Destroying the road “also meant the destruction of a whole approach to life and to nature”. The wounds opened alongside the road still fester.

(Creative Commons: wikipedia user Bstroot56)

After this divisive event, negotiations could begin. The state has been intransigent, rejecting all of the proposals for the Zad’s inhabitants to declare themselves as collective users of the land. The government insisted on individuals signing individual contracts declaring individual activities. This was anathema to the culture of collaboration that has been cultivated on the Zad for years.

The state is not open to compromise. In April 2018, it performed a display of force far more severe than any previous eviction attempts. 11,000 tear gas canisters were thrown by 2,500 riot police, four armoured tanks trampled the bocage while a helicopter offered air support. The entire eastern part of the Zad was razed to the ground. Ingenious homes, cabins, huts and treehouses were all unsympathetically flattened. The message for Isa was clear: the state was saying, “we will do everything we can to save face. We will not be humiliated further. You sign this or you get destroyed”.

For many, legalisation was the only option. But they couldn’t follow the state’s individualistic criterion. Though they weren’t allowed to fill it in as an organisation or group, they “hacked” the form so that the fields described as under a person’s usage were actually interwoven with each other, covering as many buildings as possible. Those who refused to sign were the targets of the second wave of evictions in May and June, most were evicted. Resentment between the legalisers and the rebels is one of the most severe dividing lines on the Zad today.

But giving in to the temptation to focus on the dramatic tensions risks missing the quieter, stronger unity which prevails. Dedicated individuals have been working together for months, trying to carve out a future for the zone. One group submitted a request to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre for the Zad to become a listed site. UNESCO replied reminding the applicants that only states could submit proposals, assuring them that they would seriously consider it if the French government supported it. No one is holding their breath for that.

Others are looking externally to other examples of collectively managed territories in France. They are few and far between. The French Irregular Patrimony (PIF) organisation presented their work preserving artist and architect Jean Linard’s Cathedral as a possible precedent. Like the Zad, Linard created this building to be re-created by its inhabitants, working with and alongside the forest in which it was situated. When he died the PIF stepped in to stop it being demolished, turning it into a museum. In a group discussion on the possible implications for the Zad, an elderly naturalist pointed out that preservation has gutted the Cathedral of its original purpose. It’s no leap of the imagination to see how the Zad risks the same entombed fate.

The solution most of the inhabitants are backing is the formation of an endowment fund. This fund seeks to raise enough money to buy the land back off of the state once it is on the market again. They estimate they will need three million euros to do so. Once this endowment fund owns as much land as it can, an elected board of six will let people use the land as they see fit as long as they do not destroy it.

If this works, the Zad will remain a rare example of a radical alternative to managing resources known as ‘commoning’. This is a practice outlined by the Nobel prize winning economist Elinor Ostrom in 1990. She debunked the idea that resources can only be effectively managed privately or by the state, refuting the infamous myth of the ‘tragedy of the commons’. The Zad is a living example of this alternative in practice.

Summarising the Zad’s practice of commoning is hard. The inhabitants of the Zad are organised into diverse collectives living around abandoned farm houses. They share most resources. And though they are different – some are clean and efficiently organised, some more laidback, others vehemently reject structure and order – they are all connected by a deep network of friendship and solidarity. An enormous communal garden in the east with a neighbouring bakery provides sustenance to the zone. Chantiers (collective building workshops) pool labour. But beyond that, parties, talks and shared meals bring people together. Perhaps one of the nicest examples is a donation based five-course banquet, hosted every Friday afternoon by retired chef, Petit Claude, in the west of the Zad.

The faces that gather around his tables prove the territory’s enormous diversity. Weather-beaten farmers, dreadlocked hippies, leather jacket clad unionists and gilets jaunes all feature. The range of ages is also remarkable. In one lunch, I saw people born in seven different decades. This lends the community a kind of legitimacy; the Zad is not a collection of lazy drop-out kids. The feast drags into the afternoon; the experienced don’t plan work for the rest of the day.

There is a deep, ineffable social fabric on the Zad, whether it’s lending tools, sharing work or showing support outside of a police station for those charged during the evictions. But the end of the airport has left a vacuum. In their book written about the Zad in 2016, the Mauvaise Troupe Collective lyrically observe that “as with any love story, a territorial history that no longer did anything but refer to itself, that no longer sought to confront the world together, would quickly end up buried under its own weight. One is never nourished by oneself, but rather by one’s surroundings. And in this regard, the Zad is lucky to be a territory irremediably in struggle. Without the opposition to the airport, this territory would not exist such as it is…” It seems that this ‘luck’ has run out. The Zad has survived its victory for now, but desperately needs to reorient itself towards another political aim.  

Life after this French revolution has been hard. It has drained both those that have rejected the legalisation process and those navigating it. But, despite the fatigue, the Zad remains a welcoming place. As John, another long-term inhabitant puts it, the Zad has an “aura”. The young and curious are still turning up to stay, help and learn. And here could be a clue as to what the Zad might become. There are dreams of the zone becoming a kind of school for future activists, teaching art, tactics of civil disobedience, and how to cultivate a spirit of resistance that is sustainable. The sooner energy can be diverted towards these outward looking projects, the sooner the Zad will regain a unifying project.

It is clear that the picture isn’t rosy. The Zad isn’t a perfect utopia. In fact, being on the Zad forces a confrontation with the very idea of a perfect utopia. The winter months are wet and cold, the government regulations are exhausting and the divisions can feel interminable. When asked what gives him hope, John said “for me, hope is something one has to not project into the future. I think hope is a presence. It’s a presence in the present, in the now. When you think you know the future you actually enclose it.”

For now, at least, there is presence on the Zad and with this, hope. The future is as always unknown and that deserves our attention.

Published 30th May 2019

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