A winning battle during the occupation of the ZAD in France – The Scarlet and Black
The ZAD is a well-known anarcho-ecologist occupation. It is infamous for its dispute with the government over an airport construction project which, if built, would destroy a large area of environmental significance. ZAD means “zone to defend”, irony of the French term “deferred development zone”.
I arrived in Nantes, France, 36 km south of the ZAD, after an all-night bus ride from Brussels. My confused wandering led me to come across a young woman smoking nonchalantly in her car, who insisted on driving me where I needed to.
She explained to me on the way to the ZAD that she was returning to Paris from Morocco where she had discovered herself again. My generous driver had felt it was fate to help a stranger get to their destination that day, so she was more or less happy to go out of her way to help. She had even prepared croissants in advance. The young woman dropped me off at the ZAD and spoke with a Georgian refugee in that country’s native language before continuing her journey home.
I was lucky to find myself with someone at the ZAD who knew English; everyone spoke French. I helped raise a barn and explored part of the 4,000 acre grounds, marveling at the ruins of previous police raids.
And there was mud. Lots of mud. The region is an important watershed. The ground is hard clay and the water does not flow. The occupants of the ZAD proudly call themselves the mud people. It’s an old adage in French, and it’s literally true for them.
There are several communal operations at the ZAD, such as a bakery, a cheese factory and a bar. It was during a visit to the latter that, to my great surprise, I met an American with whom I exchanged with pleasure on our perceptions of this isolated place.
The location of the ZAD is historic due to its small farms and hedgerows which have been left relatively undisturbed for hundreds of years due to the low desirability of this wetland. Protests and squats have been happening here since the 1960s, when plans for an airport began. Things picked up speed in 2012, when the government announced a new construction effort. The protests escalated to the point where hundreds of tractors were driven, along with thousands of people, into Nantes to block the main bridge.
The squatters ended up taking over the main road that ran through the ZAD, and the towers and gates of the building in the middle of it. Police evictions have occurred on several occasions and thousands of tear gas canisters and stun grenades have been used to harass squatters in an attempt to evict them. Hundreds of people were injured. Protesters fought these raids relentlessly, cutting down trees with chainsaws to slow down the police attack.
Government officials abandoned the construction project in 2019, declaring occupation of the ZAD legal. The ZAD now faces the new struggle to find a way to navigate legalization. People have a right to land, but only as a conservation area. They can farm but are not allowed to live there or build anything new.
Of course, the people of the ZAD will continue to squat the neighborhood and live as they see fit, and the government will have to decide how to react. There were meetings while I was there to create a legal document advocating for their right to exist on the ZAD.
The ZAD is not without struggles. I did not ask about self-government while I was there, as the ZAD is known for its extreme conflict over leadership and consistent vision. Part of the beauty is in the diversity, however. There are sections of the ZAD where people hack electricity from the grid and others refrain from using electricity or machinery. Another place houses the homeless and people with substance abuse issues. The ZAD is a mix of people who work together to preserve their collective but separate right to exist outside of government control. It is an inspiration for a life that can be lived with respect for the environment. They are almost free. I hope they will win their fight.