About 30km north-west of the French city of Nantes lies the sleepy little commune of Notre-Dame-des-Landes. This small, sleepy town is surrounded by tiny farms, fields and hedgerows – a throwback to the ancient field patterns which once covered most of France before falling en masse to agricultural modernization in the 1960s. Just south of the town lies the proposed site of the Aéroport du Grand Ouest, which for about forty years now has been the subject of locals’ protests. Seemingly defeated in the 80s, the idea was recently revived as a “gateway to Western France” with support from some of the highest officials in the French government (yes, even the “Socialists”).

Construction on this reviled megaproject was to begin last year. It didn’t.

For years residents had attempted to fight the proposal through community groups like ACIPA, to little effect. With numbers starting to dwindle as neighbours gave in and sold their land, those who remained decided to try something different. In 2009, the area was chosen for a “Climate Camp”, a convergence of activists like those which had protested airports across the UK. As usual, activists busied themselves pitching tents, holding workshops and disrupting the local airport (Nantes already has one, by the way), but instead of packing up at the end, the locals invited them for an extended stay. Taking an old bureaucratic acronym for the site from the 1970s, meaning “Deferred Development Zone”, it was renamed the “Zone À Défendre”, and the ZAD was born.

Over the next three years a steady stream of dreamers, outcasts, activists and anarchists arrived to make the ZAD their home. They moved into farmhouses abandoned by families who sold, built their own off-grid homes or took up residence in Rohanne Forest. Though relations weren’t always easy, farmers and squatters managed to work together and created a 4000-acre autonomous zone on the threatened lands. In the spirit of anarchist and mystic Hakim Bey’s classic essay about Temporary Autonomous Zones, they carved out a free space large enough for a self-sustaining community, right in the middle of Western France. What emerged was a mix of traditional French country life and radical experiments in sustainable living, from dirt-cheap eco-building styles to permaculture farming – a present-day, post-apocalyptic utopia, of sorts.

Obviously, such blatant disobedience couldn’t be tolerated, and the French government eventually ran out of patience. On October 16th of last year an army of 1200 riot police converged on the ZAD, hoping to “cleanse” the area in time to begin surveys the next month. With bulldozers and tear-gas, they drove inhabitants back and began to demolish their homes and gardens. At one point they reportedly fired at least 250 cans of tear gas into Le Sabot, the market garden which had fed 100 “ZADists” a week, seemingly in an attempt to contaminate it. Defenders responded by building barricades and digging in. Nine of the twelve squatted homes were razed and numbers reportedly dropped to a few hundred at best. All seemed lost, were it not for a year-old, half-cocked plan to “re-occupy the Zone” four weeks after the first evictions.

Four weeks later, the “re-occupation” arrived. A massive convoy with an estimated forty thousand demonstrators and four hundred tractors arrived bearing mountains of supplies. Human chains of people delivered stacks of lumber as effortlessly as ants carrying away a picnic, and the farmer’s union encircled the remaining encampment with their tractors to protect it from police bulldozers. They filled the Zone with a whole new generation of inhabitants and began the rebuilding process. When police attempted to expel them, masked youth fought back by slinging rocks, mud and occasionally worse. They managed to drive the police out of the zone, who fortified at “checkpoints” on major roads, though they still return regularly to menace the ZADists.

In the months since, the ZAD has endured in an uneasy standoff behind police blockades with the occasional exchange of rocks, tear gas and concussion grenades. The government is still pledging to get work under way, but behind the barricades, the occupation lives on.

This struggle has seen almost no attention in the English-speaking world, even in social media, which is really unfortunate. As far as environmental struggles go, this one is right out of Tolkein, complete with hobbit-homes and medieval siege warfare. It’s the largest squatted community in Western Europe, and represents a whole host of crucial experiments in off-grid living. The massive scale of the ZAD allows them to be largely self-sufficient economically and nearly impossible to fully evict, something which most European squats or even squatted neighbourhoods like Copenhagen’s Christiania haven’t been able to manage. Thus, the ZAD grew into more than protest, an occupation or a squat – a living, breathing microcosm of a different world – and one without airports, governments or capitalism.

ZAD.nadir.org – ZAD Homepage (English)
Rural Rebels and Useless Airports: La ZAD, Europe’s Largest Postcapitalist Occupation (Part 1, and Part 2)
Against the Airport and Its World – A collection of translated texts from the struggle.
Breaking Concrete: Selected Texts From Lèse-Béton – More translated texts from Lèse-Béton, one of the main ZAD publications.