More than 1,000 protesters thronged the entrance to a court in Nantes on Wednesday as a hearing began that could evict the last 11 families living along the route of a proposed airport.
Aéroport du Grand Ouest (AGO), a subsidiary of Vinci Airports, is requesting fines of up to €1,000 per person per day against hold-out farmers, as well as the seizure of farm properties and animals.
Around 300 environmental protesters are currently camped out around the site in a long-standing protest that last weekend mobilised 20,000 people for “Operation Escargot”, an action blocking traffic on regional roads, including the Loire bridge.
One Nantes resident facing expulsion, Sylvain Fresnau, a 54-year-old farmer with three children, said he did not believe that evictions would be possible due to the strength of local feeling.
“We are staying in our house because for five generations, my family has always lived here,” he told the Guardian. “We don’t need another airport in Nantes. We already have 145 airports in this country. There has been a tremendous growth in the industry.”
Conservation lawyers say the new court action violates a commitment made by President François Hollande that there would be no more evictions until legal avenues had been fully exhausted. The commitment was made against a backdrop of protests and hunger strikes in 2012.
“The farmers are upset because Hollande did not keep his promise,” Thomas Dubreuil, a lawyer for the campaigners, told the Guardian. “It looks as though the authorities want to accelerate the [construction] process.” The airport, which would cost at least €556m, has been planned for 45 years.
“Personally I don’t think the farmers will leave, as it is their land,” Dubreuil added. “But if they are condemned to fees of €1,000 per day, it shows that [the authorities] want to financially strangle them.”
Campaigners argue that court moves to force the farmers from their land with just one month’s notice could create a fait accomplis, as a separate appeal against the airport’s impact on local biodiversity is not expected until later in 2016.
Construction delays are thought to have caused financial problems for AGO, the firm that brought the case. But the airport issue has also become a symbolic one for French environmentalists, who have mobilised tens of thousands in sometimes violent protests.
Woods and wetlands around the proposed airport site in Notre-Dame-des-Landes are rich in biodiversity and contain several protected species of newts and bats.
One, the Triton Crêté (crested newt), has become a symbol for the “Zone A Defendre”, a community of squatters and activists in an open air space around the airport site. If an eviction or new construction work appears imminent, their numbers could be swollen by supporters from some 200 activist committees around France.
“I don’t know what it is about this struggle that attracts so many people – from grey beards to black hoodies – but it is becoming a focal point for a huge movement,” said “Pennie Black”, a 30-year-old activist at the camp. “It is not just about fighting an airport, but the world that goes with it.”
The judgment in the evictions case is not expected before 25 January.