From our anti-airport occupation in France, we send solidarity to the Heathrow 13

Camille Vincent writes on life at the six-year ZAD protest site, and the parallels to the battle against Heathrow expansion, in Red Pepper Magazine UK

‘Vegetables, not asphalt!’ Tractors join the protests against the airport. Photo: laetitiablabla/Flickr

In Notre Dame des Landes, in the wetlands of the west of France, there is a project to build a huge new international airport. Local people have been fighting against it since it first reared its ugly head 40 years ago, and in the last six years people have moved there to live as a way of protesting. There was a huge police mobilisation to evict the squatters in October 2012 but hardly anyone left, and an awful lot of people arrived. We call it home. We also call it ‘la ZAD’.

After the attempted evictions and the battles that followed, the police left the site and haven’t come back. The result is 5,000 acres of what the French government calls a ‘zone de non droit’ (lawless zone) where we are faced with a little slice of reality in terms of what happens when we have to organise everything ourselves. How do you resolve conflicts once you’ve removed the imposed system of laws we criticise so much?

Gambling we’d kill each other

No one would deny that there have been tough times, especially in the months following the evictions. In the autumn of 2012 we lived on a protest site with 80 people who knew each other fairly well. When the police finally left we found ourselves in the same place but with all our homes destroyed, the emotional hangover that went with it, and several hundred new inhabitants with diverse ideas about how (and if) we should organise. It took some getting used to.

Now there are still about 200 people who live here, and at least the same number again who live here some of the time, or pass by regularly. Left alone, the state maybe thought we’d destroy each other, but instead we got organised and even more determined. During the evictions people living around and on the ZAD became so much closer that it was no longer possible to easily distinguish ‘squatters’ and ‘locals’. Also there were hundreds of support committees set up all over France, people who are based further away but support the struggle. The links we have now make it hard to imagine how they’re going to get rid of us.

Since autumn things have been bubbling up again on the ZAD. The government must have realised that they had lost their gamble that we would kill each other, and relaunched the eviction process. In December there was a trial for the ‘historiques’, which is the name used for the last eleven individuals or families who legally live on the site. The lawyers for Vinci (the company building the airport) demanded a 200 euro fine for each house or plot of land for every day that it is occupied after the eviction date. This was especially stressful because it attacks people individually, unlike an eviction by force which is something the movement can react to collectively.

What we did do collectively is protest. Not only were there thousands of people outside the court, but there were numerous actions, road blocks, go-slows, and a huge demonstration on 9 January. 20,000 people cycled or walked along with 500 tractors, blocking the Nantes ringroad from three different start points. Everyone joined together on a bridge for a huge picnic. Most people left in the early afternoon, but there were also around 1,000 people and 80 tractors that stayed and blocked the bridge well into the night, until the arrival of a truly incredible police convoy. We made a chaotic exit in a cloud of tear gas.

We finally got the results of the trial on 25 January and thankfully there are no daily fines, but some people are immediately evictable and others have only two months to leave. It is not as bad as we feared, but it still means that from the end of March this year, for the first time, everything and everyone on the ZAD can be legally evicted.

Not going anywhere

Running concurrently to these court cases was the trial of 13 members of Plane Stupid in Britain, who are also fighting the onslaught of the aviation industry alongside local residents. Banners linking the two struggles were held outside court in France and the UK, and messages of solidarity passed back and forth.

These struggles are linked beyond the obvious airport connection. Any project that places profit over life and continues the burning of fossil fuels, be it fracking, coal, aviation or oil, is a red line that must not be crossed. In Paris we drew our red lines for a just and liveable planet, and marked the targets for 2016. Now it’s time to hit them. Notre Dame des Landes and Heathrow are major targets, symbols of the fossil fuel age that we must bring to an end.

At the ZAD, just like Grow Heathrow and the local residents, we’re staying active and we’re not going anywhere. At the end of January a weekend of construction projects was organised to counter the call for contractors to start the works for the airport. Around 1,000 people came and worked on 40 different projects, from putting up a greenhouse in a collective garden and clearing paths in the forests to building a cabin, putting new signs everywhere indicating the routes, and tidying up the roads. Meanwhile, Grow Heathrow is preparing to celebrate its sixth birthday with an invigorated anti-aviation movement.

There are very regular actions and another big mobilisation planned for 27 February, which will be synchronised with an action in the UK. The thousands of people from all over who come to the demonstrations each have a different reason for why this struggle is important to them, but it has become a symbol and focal point that unites people to speak up, organise together and fight against a world that imposes projects like this on us. A similar and equally determined movement is flourishing against Heathrow. Together we can stop them both. Together we can stop them wherever they try to build. Together we are unstoppable.

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