Until recently I had known very little about la ZAD, aside from the fact that it is an occupied area of land in Brittany where a new airport is proposed at Notre Dames des Landes. Happily, this changed this weekend when myself and two of the other Heathrow hooligans decided to visit for a little holidarity (or hoolidarity, to be more precise). It was an inspirational experience which demonstrated the similarities between the UK and French political contexts on multiple levels. For one, the resistance to airport expansion: Grow Heathrow could learn a lot from the occupation tactics and mass mobilisation abilities of La ZAD. The level of support from all sectors of society in the local area is amazing, and a fantastic example of a unifying struggle – la ZAD encapsulates the fight against new runways, against capitalism, against land grabs, against environmental destruction, and attempts to build a new, more inclusive and compassionate future. Although there are many reasons why la ZAD is so interesting and iconic in the French context, some stand out particularly. La ZAD represents a resistance to the status quo, the repression of the state, and to capitalism. More than this, the ZADists are building a better alternative. It is a collective project, which means there is huge, far-reaching support. This support extends beyond France, too: la ZAD is outward looking as much as it is inwardly focused. On a wider scale, it has become even more apparent to me of late that we must strive to link up our battles to sustain a unified attack on capitalist exploitation across the world: the relationships and connections we build are crucial to success.
The feeling of excitement that I felt when we got to la ZAD was similar to the buzz underlying an activist camp like Reclaim the Power or Climate Camp – that same sense of lawlessness, restlessness, and boundless productive energy of people actively working to create positive change. On the one hand, the mood of resistance is palpable as the threat of eviction is omnipresent: the Gendarme set up checkpoints and raid occupied buildings regularly. This weekend, another Farm was re-occupied after it had been evicted some years ago. On the way back to Nantes station we passed seven or eight vans of Gendarmes on their way to la ZAD, probably to evict the squatters again. It is therefore very much a live battleground, and you can feel it: everything feels sort of semi-finished, rough around the edges, and impermanent. Despite this, there is an amazing creative energy. The way veteran ZADists talk about la ZAD is always in terms of “projects” – people are always trying to create things, build things, and change things for the better. It’s that energy that will allow us to create a new world in the shell of the old, and la ZAD feels like an experiment that might actually work. Even though of course it has its flaws, it is admirable that people are trying to create an alternative reality that works on principles of equality and collectivism rather than individualism and exploitation.
If there was a theme that I had to say underpins the entire ZAD struggle, it would be collectivism. Everything is organised in collectives: each occupied farm or building is run by a collective, and la ZAD as a whole is run by weekly meetings of their members. The farms are run collectively as well: take this for an example. In 2012, Bellevue, one of the farms, was evicted. A group of local farmers got together and re-occupied the land, and now run the farm together, allowing it to stay a functioning farm that produces food for its occupiers and la ZAD more broadly. Food production and land struggles are woven into the fabric of la ZAD – after all, it is an agricultural area and much of the local support for the occupation comes from farmers. But la ZAD has much broader support, because its issues are not just local ones. Resistance to the proposed NDDL airport has been simmering for forty years, and the struggle has become iconic across France. It has inspired widespread collectivism, far beyond the Breton countryside. Across France (and Europe), ZAD committees organise and support the project. When we were there this weekend, a 100-strong meeting in a local village comprised mainly of committee members from across France; in fact only around 15 of those people were actually local. It demonstrates the enormous support la ZAD has across the country, and goes some way to explaining why they have such huge mobilisation power. On Saturday 27th February, a massive demonstration was called (which was ostensibly the reason for our visit – we got a chance to address the crowds from the back of a tractor; amazing), which attracted something like 50,000 people to shut down two major highways around the proposed airport site. In January (bearing in mind that Brittany in winter is wet, muddy, and rainy – even more so than England – and la ZAD is essentially a swamp) about 1000 people turned up in response to a call-out by la ZAD to help with a work weekend. 1000 people! It’s astounding. The ability they have to mobilise seems to me to come from a) the culture of resistance and trade union membership in France b) the length of time the struggle has been established over and c) the broad coalition of groups who support the movement. This last point was evident at the demo on Saturday – as well as the classic anarcho contingent you’d find at any UK demo there was a massive amount of ‘normal’ people, lots of farmers (driving tractors), many more older people than I am used to seeing at marches, and generally a very broad spectrum. Protest is part of French culture, and it is evident.
Although the French political context is different, there is a lot we can gain from internationalism. The similarities between the anti-aviation campaigns in the UK and France are striking. Both are resisting capitalist exploitation of people and of the environment. Both are campaigning against the extraction of profit from the land for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many. Both are instrumental in preventing climate change as a result of airport expansion and land degradation. Both are resisting state repression. Both governments wish to suppress these movements because they threaten the profit-making ability of the elites that run these countries. The common ground is enormous, and the differences are circumstantial. Yes, the French have higher union membership and are more used to taking to the streets to protest, but also their political climate means that these forms of ‘legitimate’ protest are safer and more acceptable. The military police in France are so much more violent than in the UK – they can use tear gas and rubber bullets for one thing, and don’t seem to regard the safety of peaceful protesters as something worth worrying about. This means that direct action, which has a long and colourful history in the UK, doesn’t happen in anything like the same way. In short, it’s much more dangerous to lock yourself to something because they don’t seem to care if they break your neck or not while removing you. Nonetheless, there is a lot we could learn from each other: a sustained campaign of non-violent direct action such as is undertaken by groups like Plane Stupid could be an incredibly effective form of protest at la ZAD. Similarly, the tactics of occupation, the construction of structures, and mass mobilisation strategies could be readily applied in the UK.
We went as members of Plane Stupid and of the Heathrow 13 to extend our solidarity with la ZAD and to form linkages between us. We found that there are many shared experiences and that we can learn from each other. Airport expansion is another symptom of a capitalist agenda that seeks to extract maximum profit from the environment and people to concentrate in the hands of the few in power, at the expense of the majority. We must do everything we can to resist exploitation on all fronts. Solidarity forever! La ZAD partout!