‘La ZAD partout!’ and Heathrow expansion
The ‘Zone À Défendre’ – the zone to be defended - is a 4,000 acre land occupation to stop the development of a new Nantes airport near the village of Notre-Dame-des-Landes. The ZAD has become much more than a negative protest, though, because it is also saying a resounding yes to a different society with a radical economy. Putting the principles of ‘degrowth’ into practice means living within ecological limits with open, localized economies and resources more equally distributed through new forms of democratic institution. The slogan runs that the ZAD is ‘a struggle against the airport and its world’, and he occupation exists as a vibrant alternative to the outdated model of development that the airport represents.
Hosted by the La Rolandière collective, one of around sixty dwelling places that are home to the more than three-hundred people who have settled in the ZAD alongside the traditional farming community, I get the guided tour – ‘the zadfari’ – from collective member Yoann Le Guen. The project at La Rolandière is to convert a deserted house to create ‘a convivial landing’ for people arriving in the ZAD, activists, local support committees (many of whom are retired) and simply people driving through. La Rolandière will be a welcome point and information centre with a library and café. Other collectives on the ZAD include horticulturists, bakeries, a brewery, an engineering workshop, a pottery, a radio station and a weekly newspaper. Following a government consultation, the latest deadline for evicting the ZAD is October and I wanted to know how the occupation dealing with that threat. With airport expansion in London imminent, I was also curious about whether the ZAD experience was relevant to the fight against Heathrow: How might the two struggles support each other? Could there be a ZAD in Britain? Two members of La Rolandière, Isabelle Frémeaux and John Jordan, took a break from their building work to discuss such questions.
Seeing off Cesar
Unlike Heathrow, a new Nantes airport cannot be in any way be justified by citing high volumes of air traffic. Au contraire, the development is intended to stimulate economic growth in the region that, in turn, increases air traffic to boost airport profits. Opposition dates back to the 1970s and at the core of the controversy is land, the farmers working it and the communities who live there. The ZAD is on almost 5,000 acres of wetland, and rural life is the heartbeat of the struggle. A militant cadre of farmers from all over France stand ready to provide physical support if the government presses ahead with eviction. The logic of the airport plan is clearly outdated, say Isabelle and John, not least when the impact of the aviation industry on the climate is considered. Nevertheless, lobbied by the developers, Vinci, a mega-corporation with operations in over one-hundred countries including the UK, French authorities appear determined to proceed. In the face of overwhelming force, the ZAD will resist with awe-inspiring conviction: ‘Our first victory is that we defend ourselves despite the fact that nothing enables us to foresee victory.’
‘The logic for a new airport is expanding the metropolitan economy.’
In October 2012, the government, directed by then Minster of the Interior, now Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, launched its previous manoeuvre to evict the ZAD: ‘Operation Cesar’. Two thousand armed police spent several weeks in the attempt, deploying tear gas and demolishing a dozen dwellings.
Isabelle: ‘Almost by definition, radical movements always come unannounced. And always you have the feeling that the terrain is not prepared. Even here when the reoccupation demonstration happened, organisers were saying if we have five thousand people, we’re going to be really happy. And those who were saying there’ll be ten thousand were being told that they were stupid. Forty thousand people turned up! And everybody was just stunned at each other’s presence. I remember the climate camp in Heathrow - no one imagined there would be so many people. You never quite know what is going to be the trigger.’
‘Almost by definition, radical movements always come unannounced.’
In the face of such massive opposition, Operation Cesar was abandoned. Before the forty thousand defenders returned to their homes, however, they built a hamlet to replace the homes and farms the police had destroyed. Farmers protected the undertaking, circling tractors around the hamlet and chaining them together. On our bicycle zadfari, Yoann observed dryly that Cesar may have been a poor choice of operation name in a region where Asterix and the indomitable Gauls regularly defeated and embarrassed the Legions attempting to take their land. On the downside, the ZAD has likely made a powerful enemy in Manuel Valls. When considering the airport, the Prime Minister may be driven by revenge rather than reason.
Everyday resistance, everyday life
Isabelle: ‘The ZAD is a brilliant laboratory of experimentation in production, social relations, conflict resolution and resistance. What I find extraordinary, inspiring, especially to live every day, is that, because the resistance has been so strong, it has been given a few years to develop and that means it hasn’t just been a flash in the pan where you think: Oh well yeah, we’ve tried social relations for ten days, where it’s really easy to do things differently because everything is suspended. Like it’s very easy to be totally relaxed when you’re on holiday but really difficult when you go home.’
John: ‘One of the most beautiful slogans of the struggle is ‘against the airport and its world’. I think there’s been an evolution of all these people who began as an eco-protest or a protest about keeping farmers’ land and then start to make the link between more systemic questions of the world, questions of domination and capital. To be able to merge resistance and the creation of alternatives is the most key thing we have to do.’
‘Everybody was just stunned at each other’s presence.’
In the shadow of imminent eviction, I wonder how people find the will to keep making their lives, their relationships and their homes. Isabelle tells a story of a squatted collective in Barcelona where she asked a member. ‘How do you keep going when you know that maybe tomorrow you’re going to lose everything?
Isabelle: ‘He replied that’s what squatting is about: You build as though it’s forever, you fight to keep it, but you know that it can stop tomorrow. It’s a good preparation for the impermanence of life, anyway. That did change my life. ‘I can’t sacrifice liberty for security’ is a beautiful slogan, but when you actually introduce it into your everyday life it takes a different kind of texture. You have to learn to build a home without the accumulation that it means in capitalist society, because it could all go. And yet you still build a home and you still do the work that it entails.’
‘I can’t sacrifice liberty for security.’
John: ‘The government announced that in October they will come and expel the zone. And yet, there’s people who’ve just done the harvest and others setting up for making cheese in the winter; there’s a friend building a barn for a pharmacy, others building a place where they’re going to have a brewery and grow hops and wheat, and someone building a new house with solid foundations, saying ‘we’re not confined to building huts’. And I think every one of those acts is an act of resistance, a kind of magic ritual, an act of hope.’
Isabelle: ‘That very attitude (building in the face of threat) works as inspiration. By doing this you also build your capacity for resistance because the more you build the more you’re prepared to struggle for it, for the relationships you build. The solidarity here is amazing. Whatever you do - collect wood, bale hay - it’s never just for you. And the more you do it, the more strength it gives you to do it.’
A Heathrow ZAD?
John: (comparing the ZAD with opposition to Heathrow expansion) ‘For some of the earlier people who came here, inspiration came from the anti-roads movement in the UK in the 90s. Then, a climate camp came here, in the field next to La Rolandière, inspired by the British camp. After the climate camp several dozen people stayed to squat the land. There has been this very nice UK influence. Of course the UK, since the 90s, changed the laws around squatting and direct action. But with fracking camps, something like the ZAD is already happening again. Perhaps they don’t have the villages being destroyed that you could actually build an alternative world in. But around Heathrow, there’s plenty of villages that could happen in.’
‘The more you do it, the more strength it gives you to do it.’
Isabelle: ‘It would be a mistake to forget how much long, painstaking work it’s been to build the kind of relationships that there are in the ZAD. People didn’t arrive here and everyone was welcoming them and everybody thought it was a good idea. Actually, quite the opposite!
John: ‘It’s the same at Sipson, all the work that’s been done by people like John Stewart (chair of Hacan Clearskies anti Heathrow coalition) and Plane Stupid with Adopt a Resident. All that work that was done to open people up to direct action, like climate camp and, of course, the Grow Heathrow occupation. Maybe the terrain is even more prepared than it was here. The mantra here is, ‘no airport here or anywhere else’. There’s always been a resistance to NIMBYISM, which I think is also the case with the community in Heathrow.’
Isabelle: ‘It seems to me that the difference is probably the relationship to land that you will have because of the farming infrastructure. But I don’t think there is any less potential for a ZAD in Britain.’
‘It doesn’t take a lot of people to start something like this.’
To resist Heathrow expansion, Isabelle and John believe, will mean networking and mobilising grassroots struggles across the UK and beyond, including anti-fracking camps. The mobilisation could also include the squatting community and housing activists.
John: ‘It can become a thing about housing. In the midst of a housing crisis, you’re destroying how many houses?! And to build an airport is going to destroy people’s homes in the global south too because of emissions and climate change.
Isabelle: ‘When you manage to get the trade unions involved, it shifts the general image of the struggle because then they can’t make it out as naïve eco-activists versus the harsh reality of working people. You need trade unionists prepared to say ‘this is bullshit, it doesn’t create more jobs!’ In France a number of unions oppose the airport, including Vinci’s own construction workers and the pilots.’
Above all, resisting Heathrow expansion may mean mobilising a critical mass of London, the dissenting London that voted to remain in the EU, the London of the Occupy Movement and Radical Assemblies…
John: ‘If our struggle wins and becomes a big story, then it’s going to inspire people at Heathrow. It doesn’t take a lot of people to start something like this.’
In the ZAD, John, Isabelle, Yoann and everyone are preparing to get together ‘une grande mobilisation’ against the airport and its world for Saturday 8th October.
The ZAD occupation and mobilisation
Reclaim The Power