Creating autonomies in the ZAD: Notre-Dame-des-Landes

The significance of the Notre-Dame-des-Landes ZAD in france is reflected below in two texts, excerpts from longer essays/collections.  The first is from a french publication entitled Défendre la zad, by the Collective Mauvaise Troupe (2016), and available in an english translation online.  And the second comes from a reflection and analysis by the  CrimethInc Collective (09/04/2018).

With all of our strength, to inhabit the zad (excerpt)

Within this effervescence, in this unique situation at the zad, and the power vacancy, a rare opportunity is offered up, where we have to grapple directly with the things that condition our everyday life both materially and affectively. Faced with the challenge of sharing our lives together on the zone, we step into another battle, this time against and within ourselves. It’s no longer about confronting power in its most obvious form, but to struggle against that which is embedded deep within us. There is always, in all of us, a bit of those separated individuals, stuck in their social, cultural and political identities. The defeat of a police operation will never be enough to destroy what remains of the grip of consumerism within us, the devastating addictions, the prejudices, the everyday sexism… How do we free ourselves from the cowardly habit of wanting to delegate everything, which sits so well next to the deadly desire to control everything ? The conflicts that emerged in the bocage, whether they were about the uses of property in common or a political disagreement or physical assault, are not so different from those that appear in a neighbourhood or village. Except there are no superior and hegemonic body to arbitrate or intervene. We have to get to grips with the all these complex issues that normally we swiftly silence or entrust to whatever expert institution : The police, courts, psychiatric hospitals, local council, chamber of agriculture…

For months we dedicate ourselves to acquiring the fine art of give and take which enables us to transcend differences and disagreements, without ironing out our ethical arguments and fertile tensions. In the spring of 2013, the squabbles that erupted over access to agricultural land, perfectly illustrated the difficulties of such a steep learning curve. A few conflicts around rights of use gave rise to a clash of perspectives : that of the earth as a tool of work and that of a nature as something to be left alone and protected from the degradation of human activity. If this opposition was first experienced as utterly unreconcilable, we eventually move on via the tortuous paths of experience. Step by step, we were able to combine the collective reclaiming of the territory by its inhabitants, the sharing of some of its resources – agricultural land, woods, roads and lanes, etc..- and an attentiveness to the importance of saving areas for their own sake, and not just because they answer to human needs. This was how, through conflicts, the harshness of which no one can deny, and out of the confrontation of our different sensibilities, that a certain collective intelligence emerged.

In the by-monthly assembly of “Sème ta zad”, the idea for which came out of discussions between farmers and occupiers on the barricades at the Rosier in the autumn of 2012, we discuss the agricultural usages of the zone’s lands. We talk about the collective gardens and what they need in terms of materials and helping hands. We define which are the plots that are for free use, which will then be destined for open field crops from which we expect several tonnes of onions and potatoes. We argue over the dependence on fossil fuels of mechanised agriculture or over the exploitation of animals. We equip ourselves with a Coopérative d’Usure, Réparation, Casse ( Cooperative of Use, Repair and Scrap) and potentially also Utilisation de Matériel Agricole (Use of Agricultural Machinery) the C.U.R.C.U.M.A. [10], a collective space that looks after the ageing tractors that have been donated to the struggle. The “cow” or “cereals” working groups put in place crop rotations of wheat, pasture, fodder and buck wheat. One of the local farmers who has refused the compulsory purchase order suggests including some of his fields into the cycle, whilst some of the occupiers prepare an experiment with pulses and leguminous plants together with the dairy farmers of COPAIN. The result right now is that bit by bit we are collectively reclaiming 500 acres. We come together every week around what you might believe is a market – although nothing is sold and every thing is by donation, i.e people giving what they can – which enables us to open up to sharing some of the produce of the land. The surplus is used to feed other struggles, street kitchens or migrant squats in the city of Nantes.

A myriad of other experiences in autonomy are flowering, outside of the logic of management and the market. That which was already germinating before the evictions has taken on a new dimension. A sewing and textile workshop appears or a bike maintenance project, a place to make preserves, a micro brewery, a new bakers, a restaurant in a wooden carriage, a flour mill, a space for writing and recording rap songs, a dance hall and lessons in self defence… We are working on taking back control of our health via medicinal herb gardens and medical trainings, especially first aid for those injured by the police’s weapons. We aim to build our own communication network, from our web site to the FM radio. Every week we put together a news letter, which brings together a calendar of events, minutes of meetings, stories and rants. It’s delivered by “postmen” on foot or bikes, to the sixty places where people live on the zone. We explore different ways of partying, a million miles away from the trendy clubs and the entertainment industry : A fest-noz (traditional breton dancing) to inaugurate the arrival of a new barn, which despite being banned by the authorities, made its way from the Finistère, on the far western edge of Brittany. To celebrate the end of the threshing season we hold a sixty metre long banquet amongst the hay bales and wheat dust. At night we fall into trance in barns covered in grafitti, to the sounds of experimental music or the bewitching voice of an opera singer… We look after parts of the hedgerows, the lanes, the electricity grid and the water supply via fairly regular collective work days. We multiply the constructions, without any planning permission but with tonnes of architectural creativity, using recycled materials, earth, straw or even sometimes timber from trees felled on site and cut up a mobile saw mill some friends have brought halfway across France. We doggedly strive for ways to agree on the uses of our commons, expanding the possibilities of what could be shared and densifying the bonds that hold us.

The autonomy that is being experimented in the bocage, can’t be reduced to our food and material elements. We are not interested in self sufficiency for itself. What is happening here is political autonomy. What we are inventing, through trial and error, is the capacity to collectively decide our own rules. But the way they are established and evolve with the rhythm of our shared lives relates more to common uses and customs than any written laws of the Republic. The legitimacy upon which they hold is that of grounded life stories, of experience, nothing to do with any kind of transcendent belief – public interest incarnated by the state, the markets or divine will. A multitude of decision making spaces, of autonomous deliberations and organising have poured into the cracks that were opened up by the withdrawal of power, a power which is thus being sapped little by little.

Amongst these spaces are the weekly meetings of the occupiers and the assemblies of the movement , which follow one another with such a reliability that it resembles the steadfastness of traditional institutions. The official structures such as l’ACIPA, l’ADECA, COPAIN and certain local committees rub shoulders with more informal self organised groups, that converge and dissolve. To these decision making spaces one can add dozens of the living collectives where everyday life, love, friendship and political affinity is shared, and the beautiful encounters, the bedrock of daily solidarity that has held the zad together for so many years. Whether it’s to do with life on the zad or demonstrations to keep the pressure on the airport builders, organising solidarity with Kurdish communes [11] or with those charged for their actions against the agro-industrial farm of a thousand cows [12], there are thousands of initiatives, some springing from a fireside chat, others from a collective decision during an assembly. It is this constant effervescence that conspires against the possibility of taking power. It is what makes it impossible for an element of the struggle to become hegemonic, or that any leader holds in their hands both the fate and messaging of the movement.

“ I got used to this bubbling up, because there is a massive cauldron here, even if it has several fires under it, which don’t even heat everything up at the same time… It would really piss me off if all this suddenly ended. We all want to see something come of it. I want this place to remain a nursery for other ways of thinking and living, that an experimental zone remains open and finds its own equilibrium, an area without control, without looking to make profit, somewhere un policed, a place where we recognise those whom we run into and where we say hello to each other. I will have won my personal struggle when we win that. This struggle must leave an open space, as wide open as possible.” 
Dominique, from Notre-Dame-des-Landes and spokesperson for ACIPA.

There is something of the commune in what we are weaving together at la zad. Something of the Commune of 1871, when an irresistible collective feeling seized the inhabitants of Paris, who became, behind the barricades, masters of their own histories and daily life, giving rise to huge revolutionary hopes and sparking off uprisings in many other towns. There is something of the medieval communes who managed to rip themselves free from the grip of feudal power and defend the commons, these lands, tools and resources to be used in common with others. There is something of the short lived 1968 commune of Nantes, during which students and workers occupied the town hall, brought the region to a standstill and organised supplies for those on strike with local farmers. Something which, from now on, is both the means and the meaning of our struggle, and that we have to continue to deepen. These imaginaries feed the bocage of Notre-Dame-des-Landes in the quest for a desirable present and a possible future.

[Notes]

[10Meaning the spice tumeric. Also a play on words, CUMA means “Coopérative d’Utilisation de Matériel Agricole” (Coopérative for Uses of Agricultural Equipment) and is a structure to mutualise equipment widely used amongst farmers.

[11The Kurdish revolution has created a de facto autonomous region in northern Syria, know as Rojovan, the West. The region gained its autonomy in November 2013 as part of the ongoing Rojava Revolution, establishing a society based on principles of direct democracy, gender equality, and sustainability.

[121000 cows farm is a mega farm project that has been fought by farmers and ecologists. In may 2014, members of the radical farmers trade union Confédération paysanne dismantled the milking hall and brought some of the elements to the Minister of Agriculture. They were sued and sentenced to suspended jail sentences.

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La ZAD: Another End of the World Is Possible (excerpt)

Learning from 50 Years of Struggle at Notre-Dame-des-Landes

On January 17, 2018, the French government announced on television, via the voice of Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, that it had given up on pursuing the highly controversial project of building a new airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes (NDDL). This decision capped five decades of political, economic, legal, environmental, and personal struggle. The airport was to be located approximately 30 kilometers north of the city of Nantes in western France; instead, the site became la ZAD—the Zone a Défendre (Zone To Defend). What began as a small protest camp grew into a world-famous space of autonomous experimentation that lasted almost nine years.

At the very moment we are publishing this article, a massive police operation has invaded the ZAD to evict it. The French government was prepared to lose the fight to build an airport, but no state willingly cedes autonomy to anyone within its territory. The ZAD’s moment of triumph as a single-issue struggle may have spelled its doom as a space of contagious freedom.

Yet the state alone could never destroy such a vibrant project. As we will explore in detail below, dynamics that emerged from within the occupation enabled the police to resume the offensive. In some regards, this pattern is built into the life cycle of movements based around concrete objectives; but in other regards, what took place at the ZAD is avoidable, and we should make a point of learning from it if we hope to create permanent autonomous zones.

The similarities to the story of Standing Rock are obvious. In the US, starting in April 2016, thousands of people mobilized to block the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through North Dakota. Following months of clashes with the police, President Barack Obama announced that the Army Corps of Engineerswould deny the permit for the last leg of the pipeline; protesters declared victory and many left the camp. Within a couple months, Donald Trump’s administration reversed the decision, the police evicted the last stragglers in the camp in a brutal raid, and the pipeline proceeded after all. The ZAD and Standing Rock offer cautionary tales about the perils of victory.

As one zadist wrote presciently to the occupiers of Standing Rock at the peak of the latter movement,

“All the things you dream of: do them now, while your enemies are reeling, trying to figure out their next angle of attack. There won’t ever be less repression, less police and private security, less drones and dogs. I personally regret not pushing harder before our possibilities shifted, not taking things to the fullest expression they could have reached. I hope you won’t have these same regrets.”

Opening New Horizons: Reflections on the ZAD at NDDL

Destroying the Myths behind the ZAD

Throughout the years of struggle against the airport project, the ZAD of Notre-Dame-des-Landes acquired a reputation—not only among anarchist circles worldwide but also among liberals and mainstream environmental activists. However, it is almost inevitable that when a struggle receives a lot of attention, its image tends to be idealized and consequently falsified.

Unfortunately, the ZAD is no exception to this rule. After years of effort and collective work to build a new kind of reality outside of the destructive, exploitative, and authoritarian world we all know, the government’s decision and the official victory celebration from part of the zadists revealed the long-suppressed conflicts between the different political tendencies of the participants.

Whether in a small countryside community like the ZAD or in our oversized cities, living with others involves quarrels, agreements, conflicts, friendships, fights, love, and all the other complexities of human relations. Refusing to acknowledge this reality in order to maintain the pure and virtuous image of a united political struggle is dangerous, as it divorces people from their own individuality, differences, and autonomy. Moreover, making the conflicts within a struggle invisible does not help us to learn from them in order to be better prepared for future struggles. With the survival and the legacy of the ZAD at stake, we consider it important to share some articles written by dissident voices on the situation within the occupied zone following the government’s official announcement and the “historical victory of the movement.”

On January 19, 2018, two days after the government’s decision to drop the airport project, an article entitled “NDDL: La lute continue! Une réalité cachée” was published on Indymedia Nantes. The article explains that contrary to the image depicted by some zadists in the national media, the actual situation within the ZAD in the aftermath of the so-called “victory” was catastrophic. According to the author, some “dream-seller productionist capitalists” had also settled in the ZAD and were working on evicting the “less desirable” activists from it. After the official announcement of the “victory” against the airport, some zadists close to political organizations (Front de Gauche, NPA, Europe Ecologie Les Verts), collectives, committees, and associations (ACIPA, COPAIN44, ADECA, ACEDPA) were attempting to transform the Zone To Defend into a legalized alternative occupied zone.

According to the author, in order to do this, they agreed to collaborate with the authorities to find a common agreement on the future of the ZAD. In the process of seeking to legalize the occupied zone, they dissociated themselves from more radical or autonomous individuals, denying their longtime involvement in the struggle against the airport and their contributions to life at the ZAD. Finally, the author adds, even if the ZAD is an important case within the recent history of international autonomous struggles, it is important to acknowledge that the collective life within the ZAD was complex, difficult, and not without issues—including violence, drug and alcohol use, and even informal militias. Moreover, regarding the myth of unity at the ZAD, the author asserts that there had never been solidarity “between the white sheep and black sheep” on the ZAD, except when police forces entered the occupied zone in 2012.

This personal account raises an important question: if the ZAD has been victorious, what sort of victory are we talking about? In the article entitled Mouvement, où est ta victoire? (available in English here), the authors explore the real nature of the “victory” that was announced by self-designated leaders.

The authors do not deny that the government has abandoned the airport project, which obviously represents a victory for the struggle. But if we consider the impact of the ZAD at a larger scale, can we still call it a victory? Have we won enough to be talking about making peace with our adversaries already? The ZAD did not succeed in defeating VINCI or the State, or even transforming people’s relations or power dynamics. Indeed, according to the article, even if the project has been abandoned, VINCI, the chief beneficiary of the airport project, would still receive financial compensation from the state and would continue to reap profits by upgrading the Nantes airport and increasing its role in airport management on a national scale. Moreover, now that the future of the ZAD was threatened anew, conflicts regarding private property and land exploitation were breaking out to such an extent that, as the authors put it, “the ZAD will be an agricultural battlefield.” The article also mentions power struggles, imbalances within decision-making structures, and class inequalities among the inhabitants of the ZAD.

Finally, considering the question “Is this struggle victorious against capitalism, sexism, speciesism, classism, and authoritarian practices?” the authors caution that “after the abandonment of the project emerges the risk of forfeiting the political struggle by setting aside its radical dimension.” Unfortunately, through the ploy of opening negotiations, the French government succeeded in creating potential representatives and mediators within the ZAD in order to pacify those who might resist. Once more, this article reveals the contrasting interpretations, objectives, and aspirations of the various individuals involved in the struggle against the airport. As soon as some semblance of victory was reached, liberals, political opportunists, and others called it quits.

In short, without the single issue of the airport to rally around, fractures appeared along all the fault lines within the social body that had maintained the occupation. This put the zadists who prized the ZAD not only as a protest camp but also as a break with the existing order in an awkward position. With some locals and farmers also desiring to “return to normal,” should they break with their fellow occupiers and prepare to take on the state alone, or attempt to hammer out some sort of compromise with them even if this meant answering to the pressure of the state? We can appreciate the difficulty of this question.

The danger that the struggle will be pacified is exemplified by one extremely controversial decision: the agreement to clear and reopen the road D281, as the government requested in its official announcement. As the authors of the text Mouvement, où est ta victoire? explain,

“What was missing for these dominant factions of the movement to gain legitimacy from the government is obviously the demonstration that they were able to bring order to the zone, the order of the movement approaching that of the state. This is how one can understand the cleaning of the notorious road D281, a veritable showdown within the movement.”

This decision increased the tensions among the different participants in the ZAD. In a letter addressed to “all who recognized themselves in the movement against the airport and its world,”5 the authors explain:

“We attach a strictly political importance to the future of this space and what is played out here: the questioning of the speed, of the place that the automobile takes in our lives and the terrain we occupy, and finally of a certain vision about the functionality of the space where the usage is decided from above rather than locally on the ground. These questions will always be relevant after the hypothetical end of a police threat. For many of us, this road is also a part, small but vital, of this struggle for space to imagine. That is why if this road becomes once again a normalized road, to the detriment of all the praxis that have been created there over the past five years, a part of the movement would experience it as if it were the beginning of the normalization of the occupied zone.”

Unfortunately, these concerns and warnings did not change the decision some people made to clear the road in compliance with the wishes of the state. On January 22, 2018, less than a week after the official “victory” against the airport, they participated in demolishing the famous “route des chicanes.”

This hasty action left more than one activist stunned and furious. Watching other activists destroying the living spaces you spent hours building—just because it has been decided by some sort of unofficial authority—is a form of violence. In reaction, numerous articles appeared expressing personal stupefaction and disapproval, or simply to publicly denounce the authoritarian tendencies that had finally erupted into plain sight.

In one article, an activist living in Mexico shared his opinion on the movement’s decision to help the government clean D281. The author raises numerous legitimate questions: Why were they so quick to act? Why didn’t they wait for the government’s ultimatum before clearing the road? Who negotiated with whom? Who promised to do what? Who is going to lose this game in the end? For the author, these negotiations with the government looked like under-the-table agreements. He wonders why the principle of majority rule was suddenly implemented in making the decision to clean the road, rather than the practice—longstanding at the ZAD—of taking all the time necessary to discuss a matter until everyone arrived at a unanimous decision.6

In response to this attempt to reintroduce the old model of democracy, participants in the ZAD made it clear that they had refused to be part of the old world from the beginning, and openly rejected the concept of democracy itself. Decision-making processes aside, regardless of what the arguments were for cleaning the road, doing so was like setting down one’s weapons before signing a peace treaty. It was a fatal tactical error.

By removing obstacles from D281, it seemed, the movement sought to erase any vestiges of the old, “improper” ZAD that could impact its new image as a victorious democratic movement in dialogue with the democratically elected authorities. The author of the aforementioned text also criticized a statement of Julien Durand, spokesperson of the ACIPA, during a radio interview:

“Since the project of Notre-Dame-des-Landes is abandoned, there is no longer a threat, therefore we are no longer in a phase of resistance. From now on, we must think differently, that is to say, thinking about the future of the zone so that there is good understanding, serenity, and dialogue within it to achieve a normal daily life.”

This quote speaks for itself. This self-proclaimed leader of the ZAD decided to turn the page on the struggle, falling for the illusory promise of a pacified future for the occupied zone—a vision in which the ultimate goal was to return to normal daily life.

What does Julien Durand mean when he refers to “normal daily life?” Does his model of “normal daily life” line up with the one imposed by society at large? His statement could be interpreted to mean “We won! Now let’s go back to normal!” Moreover, as the abovementioned author highlights, this statement denies “any political dimension and the eminently fruitful nature of conflicts inherent to this heterogeneous community experience.” According to the author, it is concerning that such participants in the ZAD would seek to exclude the supposed “margins” from its official history. The author asserts that the “victorious” movement seemed to be (re)constructing a narrative that would muzzle dissident voices, omitting many important aspects of the collective of the ZAD. “Leaders” and states both seek to rewrite history for their own purposes.

Finally, the author explains that one of the essential dimensions of the ZAD was that it gave a lot of individuals the possibility to escape from the deadly cycle of this society by putting their desires and hopes immediately into action. These were the rebels who made the airport impossible. He concludes with a warning:

“If it is they who today must, on the seemingly consensual motive of ‘disengagement from the route des chicanes,’ be sacrificed on the altar of ‘normalization’ or ‘pacification,’ then the exceptional adventure of NDDL will fall miserably, for our greatest shame, into the sad and dismal dustbin of history.”

The author of the previous article was dead on the money. A couple of weeks after the clearing of D281, on February 5, 2018, police entered the ZAD to escort official cleaning vehicles on the “route des chicanes.” Several dozen gendarmerie trucks, anti-riot fences, and a helicopter were deployed on the ZAD for this official “cleaning operation.” If you give the authorities an inch, they will take a mile.

In a desperate ploy to reinforce their legitimacy in the public eye after the decision to cancel the airport, authorities invited several media outlets to show that they were regaining control of the zone. For the first time in months, police units and trucks were able to reenter the heart of the ZAD and to clear the once-occupied D281. Due to the presence of law enforcement during the cleaning operation, some zadists made the following call:

“Today, contrary to what has been asked for in exchange for the lifting of the works’ blockade, a dozen heavy police trucks entered the ZAD to ‘protect the works’ (the official cleaning operation) that were not blocked, searching a living place on their way, which we experienced as a provocation.

We are calling all the sympathizers of the movement against the airport and for the future of the ZAD to come tomorrow (February 6, 2018) for peaceful rallies to ensure that the (cleaning) workers pass without the cops and to protect all the living spaces in order to prevent any eviction attempt.

-Some occupants of the ZAD”

It is hard not to see this call as naïve, especially in relation to the authorities. It appears that the authors realized, to their surprise, that the intruders had not abided by the agreements that zadists had made with the government. What a shock!

In our opinion, it was a mistake to join a discussion with the authorities in the first place. It always end the same way: the leading figures of a movement enter negotiations, and in doing so they show that they are prepared to give up some of their autonomy. The authorities take advantage of this to offer a few meaningless concessions; in the end, they regain control of the situation, after which they no longer have any reason to continue making concessions or abiding by agreements.

Any form of leadership is an Achilles’ heel for the struggle: so long as there is a leader, they can be deputized, replaced, or taken hostage. It would be much more difficult for the authorities to pacify movements if every participant had a sense of their own agency and was determined not to let anyone else make decisions for them.

Once law enforcement entered the occupied zone without encountering fierce resistance, an eviction became inevitable. On February 23, 2018, several activists informed us that the situation within the ZAD had worsened. Starting with the official cleaning operation of D281, the police presence and occupation increased. On a daily basis, between 20 and 50 police trucks occupied D281. Officially, they were there to oversee the cleaning process; unofficially, they were there to increase surveillance and repression. Helicopters and drones flew over the ZAD, recording living places, fields, and farms for topographical purposes. Video cameras, antennas, and listening stations were deployed in the ZAD. The police began to raid living spaces. These strategies of intimidation are nothing new; they served to prepare the ground for the eviction planned for the end of March. You can view video footage of the cleaning operation carried out by authorities on Sunday February 11, 2018 in two parts, here and here.

Since the “victory” of the ZAD, several dissident autonomous and anarchist voices have denounced what they perceived to be authoritarian tendencies within the struggle. These criticisms were nothing new, but after the cleaning of D281, they became more audible. The chief groups described as displaying authoritarian tendencies in general assemblies and other decision-making processes include the more institutional elements of the struggle such as ACIPA, COPAIN, and Naturalistes en lutte, but also some of the “fringe” occupiers of the ZAD, including some involved with the Comité pour le Maintien des Occupations (“Committee for Maintaining the Occupations,” or CMDO).

This is not the first time such concerns have surfaced. Regarding the case of D281, an article posted on Indymedia Nantes asserts that people affiliated with the Maison de la Grève took part in destroying the living spaces established on the occupied road alongside members of the previously mentioned organizations. The article also refers to the tensions that occurred during the dismantlement between the inhabitants of the road and the “agents of the imaginary order party.” The author concludes by saying:

“We could talk about a world turned upside down were it not that, after having stood alongside them in this struggle and elsewhere, this is not a surprise for anyone anymore. But still, crawling in front of the prefecture and being to that extent its armed wing, it seems that with the victory the masks come off. Count on us not to let this pass in silence. It has to be known.”

The least we can say is that the events described in this account are extremely concerning. As the author says, for years, “appélistes”7and their sympathizers have stood alongside anarchists and other autonomous individuals throughout all the major struggles that have taken place in France. On numerous occasions, we have fought on the same side, taking part in the same actions, confronting the same police, facing the same state violence and repression, assisting each other in the same difficulties, and meeting in the same general assemblies—even if difficult power dynamics emerged repeatedly.

One can read another perspective on these events from the CMDO in a text entitled The ZAD Will Survive, distributed in newspaper form on February 10. This is their account of the controversial decision to clear the road:

“In the days following the announcement of the abandonment, the clearing of the D281 would become the focal point around which one of two possibilities was going to play out: either the final breakup of the movement, or the possibility of seeing it grow and continue beyond the 17th of January. Should one risk losing everything–the experiment of the ZAD, being united in defense of our squatted land, a common future with the other components of the movement—for the sake of a symbol? It was decided in an assembly that, no, we could not, yet without really reaching consensus. Some people took the decision really badly, and it involved long discussions, often turning to outright shouting matches, to finally dismantle the two cabins that stood in the roadway.”

In reaction to the dismantlement of D281 and the seizure of power by some groups and individuals at the ZAD, a call was made to discuss these issues on February 10, 2018 at a distance from the national convergence and demonstration in the occupied zone. About 200 people answered the call and gathered to discuss the logic of political composition (political alliances due to common interests, affinity groups, etc.) and the concentration of power within the struggle. This personal account sums up the general situation within the ZAD, from the unexpected political alliances that decided the future of the zone to the explicit censorship and exclusion of anarchists and other radical elements in order to facilitate the pacification of the struggle.

One of the conclusions of this unofficial discussion was that the most institutional tendencies of the ZAD had attained hegemony. Usually, leaders would meet off the record to reach agreements, then use the assemblies to impose their decisions. Due to these tendencies, but also to the way that less experienced individuals often found themselves on the receiving end of mockery or exclusive behavior, some of the occupants had deserted their spaces. The most radical individuals found themselves a minority within the assemblies, their voices nearly inaudible. In such a situation, assemblies show their limits as a horizontal model for decision-making.

Alongside this stratification of decision-making within the movement, participants in the discussion identified an increase in control and censorship in the communication venues and media of the ZAD, such as the local committee mailing list and the official website, zad.nadir.org.

This is how, as the author explains, anarchists, anti-speciesists, and other autonomous elements found themselves isolated as they faced the state, hierarchical political organizations, and trade unions. An Italian activist who participated in the discussion reported that the situation reminded him of what happened at the Val Susa (Italy) during the No TAV struggle.

The logic represented by the “liberation” of D281 is obvious in retrospect. The official position of the movement was to continue the occupation while collaborating with the state. With control of the land at stake, the critique of property was suddenly inconvenient. In any case, as today’s eviction demonstrates, in the absence of a unified, illegal, and uncompromising occupation of the ZAD, there was no question of the government permitting the occupiers to remain. In the end, it was not the intransigent anarchists who were being unrealistic.

The author of the abovementioned account notes that what was taking place within the ZAD was also occurring at the same time in many other spaces. Before 2012, the flags of political organizations, liberal political banners, and journalists were not welcome at the ZAD. But following 2012, the atmosphere changed completely. Yet the limits of political compositions are now exploding in broad daylight. “There is no unity within struggles. There are always internal conflicts that we should accept rather than conceal”—as had been done at the ZAD for several years.

This article is valuable because it seeks to present the situation at the ZAD as it really is, with all its ambiguities and complexity, instead of idealizing it. Moreover, as the author explains, doing this is not only a way to support the experiments in progress and the individuals who don’t want to give up the fight, but also to support and spread anti-authoritarian and disruptive positions in general.

For more information about the situation at the ZAD after the cancellation of the airport, read this personal account about the power dynamics and political alliances, and this compilation of articles written by dissident voices in the aftermath of the “victory.”

The ZAD Might Be Dead, but the Struggle Continues

On January 9, 2018, shortly before the government announced that they were giving up on building the airport, the public prosecutor’s department of Toulouse dismissed charges against the gendarme who had used a grenade to murder the young pacifist Rémi Fraisse in 2014 during a night of confrontations at Sivens, where another ZAD was fighting against the creation of a dam.

This ruling was not a surprise. Since the beginning of the investigation, the French government had sought to conceal its responsibility in this case—although during such confrontations, law enforcement units directly execute orders from higher ranks within the state apparatus. A few weeks after dropping the airport project, the French government launched an eviction operation at the ZAD of Bois Lejuc, near Bure—a foretaste of what was to happen in NDDL. Starting in summer 2016, activists had been occupying nearby woods and villages to prevent the construction of an industrial center of geological storage (Gigéo) for the most dangerous radioactive waste. On February 22, 2018, about 500 gendarmes entered the occupied woods, raiding living spaces including the maison de la résistance and arresting several activists. Nevertheless, despite the violence of the eviction and a strong law enforcement presence at the site, the struggle at Bure is not over, as evidenced by the gathering of committees to discuss the future of struggle that took place on March 3-4.

As we prepare to publish this article, the eviction of Notre-Dame-des-Landes is underway. Yet even if the eviction is successful, the ZAD at NDDL has renewed environmental struggles in France and around the world by spreading notions like direct action, sabotage, mutual aid, self-determination, autonomy, and opposition to capitalism and the state. The ZAD has been a space of experimentation, strategizing, brainstorming, debate, conflict, victories and defeats, and dreams. It will continue to nourish our imaginations as long as we tell its story.

When we do, it is vital that we discuss what happened during the last months of the ZAD’s existence and after its victory. Power imbalances, “leadership,” and authoritarianism represent terrible menaces to our aspirations, as the pacification of the ZAD demonstrates. Reflecting on the ZAD, we have to reconsider how we approach struggles; we have to become more skilled at identifying and breaking up concentrations of power, so we can prevent them from jeopardizing our capacity to open new horizons.

In opposition to the old leftist myth of a future revolution that will liberate us all one day, like a miracle or prophecy, we believe that the present is the greatest imaginable gift and the best time to engage in struggle. As some friends once wrote, “There is no secret for revolution, no grand dialectic, no master theory. Revolution is simple. Go out and meet folks who are just as passionate as you are— and if they don’t realize it, help them along the way. Combine forces, scheme, and make plans. Then, do it.” Acting enables us to embrace self-determination and discover that we have the power to open breaches within an overdetermined world. These breaches offer opportunities to experiment and experience new forms of relations, living arrangements, and aspirations.

As our future darkens from one day to the next because of industrially produced climate change, capitalist immiseration, and intensifying authoritarianism, this sort of secession becomes ever more vital. This world will never change if we hesitate to cut ties with it, for it is our participation that reproduces it. This is why we have to secede right here, in the heart of the empire: not to present demands to the rulers, but to seize back the resources they have taken from us, creating spaces beyond their control in which power flows according to a different logic. This is not a passive conception of what it means to secede. It means creating and multiplying self-sufficient spaces in which we can take on the authorities and win. To borrow one of the most famous slogans of the ZAD, “Secession everywhere!”

We have nothing to gain from clinging to the prevailing order. As other comrades have written, every unique, self-determined action is a spark that shoots beyond the confines of both the status quo and abstract critiques thereof, threatening both, not to mention those who uphold them. All the necessary ingredients to bring about the end of their world are at hand. The question is: Are we willing to use them?

The end of the world won’t wait! Fight now! Fight everywhere!

Appendix: What is the ZAD?

This is a translation of a zine written in French by some occupiers of the ZAD, July-August 2015.

The ZAD at Notre-Dame-des-Landes has been a hotbed of struggle for several years. Thereafter, other ZADs have begun to appear everywhere. But what is a ZAD? A lot of people who got involved in its creation behave as if the answer was obvious, but this is a question that is almost never raised. So, this is the question we want to pose to those who use this word, and, to start with, to ourselves.

The authors of this text are a group of individuals who have been living and fighting on the ZAD of Notre-Dame-des-Landes for several years and who decided to spend some time thinking about the question of what a ZAD is for us. What we are going to tell you here is our response to our question. It is a subjective response that we don’t consider the only possible answer. We would like you to take it as an invitation to ask yourself the same question with those with whom you share some parts of life and struggle. We hope to see your answers, as many definitions of the ZAD could lay the foundation for a movement that is still waiting for us to give it some consistency.

As the starting point of our reflections, we took the ZAD of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, the one that we know the best, but also the first one created.

Direct Action

For us, one of the facts that distinguishes the ZAD from other places is that it originated from direct action. The latter is not necessarily a hidden or risky action. Living in the ZAD is in itself a direct action: it means squatting in a place in the countryside where there is a large infrastructure project. At the ZAD of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, the ratio of power is such that occupying lands became something “normal,” trivial, which can happen without any complications whatsoever.

Direct action means taking action, often as a group, to fight directly against a situation that affects our lives or the lives of others—without asking any intermediary (such as trade unions, political parties, governments, or other “competent” authorities) to intervene. For example, holding a demonstration against VINCI (the concessionaire of the airport project) would be a symbolic action, but going to their actual buildings, blocking the doorways, and making sure that no one can actually work would make it into a direct action. Direct action could also include preventing bulldozers from moving forward during an eviction or construction project, occupying and cultivating a piece of land, burning down a prefecture building, barricading a road, or collectively planting an orchard on a field slated to be covered with concrete. In a world that makes us feel powerless, it is a way to regain control of our lives.

As our desires are in conflict with the interests of the state, illegality is a reality here and often our tactics are also illegal, as the ZAD would have never existed legally. We do not recognize the state’s legitimacy to decide for us what should be permitted. What the state wants is to control us and assure the enforcement of the law, hence the advantage of forbidding everything that is outside of its control. However, rejecting the state’s legitimacy is not an end in itself. In this struggle, there is a diversity of tactics: legal actions, excavators’ sabotages, acts of resistance by the inhabitants of the ZAD to the state’s expropriations of houses and farms, expropriations of supermarkets, large demonstrations, ambushes against the police… This diversity constitutes the strength of this struggle, and the fact that an action is forbidden does not make it less legitimate.

The media often discuss non-violence and violence by assigning them moral values: it is implied that “violence” is bad, when the “violence” they are talking about consists in resisting and defending ourselves against the police or inflicting material damages. For us, violence is on the side of the state and its decision makers—for example, through territorial planning and development. Moreover, labeling individuals who resist as violent takes part in a maneuver to discredit them and the ZAD. Be aware that an individual can both be cultivating the land and fighting with the police.

Building Another Reality

An important aspect of the ZAD is the idea of building another reality in which we are less dependent on the state and capitalism. Living here means learning to handle things with what we have, or finding what we need without having to rely on professionals or experts. We do not call an electrician to fix a problem because if we have electricity, it is not through a legal way: either we are producing it ourselves, or we connected ourselves to the electricity network illegally. For some of us, it is politically important to know that we can build our houses with what we found in the dump, that we can fix everything with the blue farmer string. For others, it means taking the time and giving themselves the means to cut wood and create beams for present or future constructions. In any case, learning to be more autonomous for practical things is a way of defending ourselves against a system aimed at making us dependent. It is not a question of each individual learning how to do everything, but rather of helping each other and sharing our knowledge and resources so we can take care of things all together.

We live on the zone on a daily basis, therefore we try to create the level of comfort that we need to feel good. This is also linked to the desire of projecting ourselves in the long-term, to live permanently here. For many people, the ZAD is not only a direct action or a way to show their ideals—it is also their life, and their home. We know that our houses and vegetable gardens could be destroyed at any moment, and that we might be forced to leave, but we live and organize as if we could stay here for the rest of our lives: we can’t just stop doing things just because they could evict us at some point.

We are not simply against the government; we also want to create something that is more suitable to us. The ZAD is a place that is managed by its inhabitants, who decide what happens within it: the state doesn’t have any say about it anymore. In the same way that we don’t want to follow the official regulations to build our houses, we want to decide everything, and figure out our way of getting organized.

An Open Community

Those who live and fight on the ZAD share numerous common backgrounds and experiences: living within the same space; being confronted with clashes when cops or fascists show up; living with each other on a daily basis. There is also solidarity and mutual aid on a daily basis: giving somebody a hand, lending what the neighbor doesn’t have, sharing what we cultivate or collect. Of course, all this doesn’t take place without a hitch, but despite everything, it binds all the inhabitants of the ZAD together. In this way, the ZAD is, less by choice than by fact, a form of community.

But the ZAD remains open. Everyone can, if they wish, come live in the ZAD for several days or weeks. Not every community or collective will necessarily welcome you with wide-open doors, but overall, the ZAD is accessible to anyone, even if the individual doesn’t know anyone or comes from a completely different culture. Often, squats or groups of individuals involved in direct action are not easy to approach or access (for reasons related to friendship, affinity, or safety, for example). One of the strengths of the ZAD is that it offers an open door to possibilities of living and struggling that are different from the models imposed by the dominant socio-economic order. Such possibilities play the role of key moments and meeting places that social movements often provide too.

The ZAD brings together a variety of individuals who come from really different worlds and backgrounds: from the activist’s milieu—local or not, familiar with street tactics or squats; from the farmer’s milieu—where some of them left their jobs; or from a completely different background, or from all of them at once. All these people sharing the same space, living and fighting together, creates a big mess, but also, and mostly, a great wealth. While everyone tends to isolate us, sharing a space and working with all kinds of individuals is already a victory that inspires us.

This openness and diversity make the ZAD a meeting place, a crossroads of struggles: some nomads who build bridges between a lot of different places live alongside established individuals who carry long term projects; some people find within it a stable basis from which they can take risks elsewhere; already constituted groups arrange to meet here; strangers forge new complicities.

But the ZAD is also deeply rooted in its territory: the link with “historical” inhabitants, those who were already present before the project and who were often the first opposed to it, represents one of the major strengths of the ZAD of Notre-Dame-des-Landes. It was a group of defiant inhabitants who made a call to occupy the land, a call answered by people who were living further away. These links and connections, the mutual aid or rants and quarrels that are shared on the ZAD also involve the “historical” inhabitants of the ZAD themselves or their nearby neighbors. The occupiers came progressively to reinforce the local struggle that had already existed for years.

Some Shared Ideas

Behind our ways of living, fighting, or building relationships, there are some ideas that, in our opinion, are largely shared. Even if we never reach a collective agreement about them, they are part of the ideals we aspire to.

By opposing an airport project, we fight in reality against territorial planning and development, in which people’s lives are decided beforehand by engineers and architects who impose the locations of stores, housing, airports, and more. They want spaces in which everything is controlled, surveyed, and planned. From its birth, the occupation movement fought not only against the airport project, but also against the managerial logic of those in power.

In the world of the developers, most exchanges are made via money. The current system enables some privileged individuals to enrich themselves by impoverishing others. We want at the same time to make this system collapse and to create relations that are not based in money.

More generally, we aspire to step aside from the logic of domination, which gives more value and power to some individuals over others: those with IDs over those without, men over women or others, white people over those who are not, heterosexuals over homosexuals and others, “French” people over foreigners. These inequalities also exist within the ZAD, but there are attempts to make this space hospitable for everyone.

Finally, we don’t grant the state or anyone else the authority to decide how we have to live and what we have to experience. We try to organize the life and struggle at the ZAD without hierarchies, by giving the same power to everyone. This is not something that runs smoothly, but rather something based on constant debates and permanent experimentation.

An Expanding Movement

After Operation Caesar, numerous energies converged towards the ZAD of Notre-Dame-des-Landes. A lot of us wanted this energy not to simply stay focused on Notre-Dame-des-Landes. This reminds us of the image of a rhizome where this energy would be concentrated, crossbred, growing here and then radiating out to feed the struggle everywhere else. The idea would be for the individuals who are fighting locally against infrastructure, metropolis, or territorial development projects to use the ZAD as an example: like an idea, an image, that could help them to skip a step, that could enable them to benefit from its media coverage, that could give them a concrete reference point to direct people to so they wouldn’t have to explain a lot of abstract concepts. That “the ZAD” belongs to a largely shared imaginary helps people to act locally in their own ways, against the same forces. Through this process, we hope to break the image of a so-called democratic society, and to become more numerous in fighting, everywhere.

Here, some rare and uncommon conditions are combined, such as little intervention from the police and state, some cultivable fields, and a desire to live without hierarchies. The life that is created from the intersection of these conditions provides one idea of a possible future among thousands of others possibilities. This is not an alternative showcase—because we do not create the ZAD to prove anything—but a concrete experience to organize our own lives for ourselves.

The idea of a ZAD seems to have the strength to gather and federate groups and individuals within the dynamics of struggle. A ZAD movement seems to appear everywhere—Roybon, Testet, Agen, Echillais, Oléron, and more… Let’s think about the traps and obstacles that we frequently face: from the action of political parties that manoeuver among these opposition movements for political ends, to the idealization of a “zadist’s way of life” without any political convictions, without forgetting the criminalization of such movements that is intended to empty actions of their meanings, or even the demand formulated to opponents to offer the proof of a viable alternative. All this prevents a global questioning and reduces each problem to technical or legal issues… To avoid depoliticization or being taken over by the state and its henchmen, it is time to think collectively about what we are carrying in order to create a revolutionary struggle.

[Notes]

  1. The original version is available in French here.
  2. This is not to say that consensus process is always ideal, either. For further analysis of democratic decision-making, we highly recommend the book From Democracy to Freedom.
  3. “Appélistes” are a sort of neo-Blanquist network inspired by a text entitled Call and the works of Tiqqun and the Invisible Committee. Although their effort to reconstruct a non-Marxist communism is noteworthy, some of them have made a point of not calling themselves anarchists—and we should probably take them at their word.
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