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Zone to Defend (ZAD)

The ZAD: between utopian radicalism and negotiated pragmatism

By Fareen Parvez and Stellan Vinthagen - ROAR, September 11, 2021

The global coronavirus pandemic has brought into sharp relief the many failures of contemporary capitalist states around the globe. These include the failure to ensure social and economic justice and to provide basic protections for the most vulnerable individuals and communities, from refugees to the houseless. Consequently, it has also made clear the need for social movements to not only resist the violence of the state and its facilitation of global capitalism, but to simultaneously and actively build a prefigurative politics toward an alternative society. Carving out autonomous spaces for mutual aid and radical politics is more important than ever.

Among the multitude of ways movements engage in prefigurative politics, land occupation struggles have long been central — from the historic Maroon communities formed by fugitive slaves throughout Latin America, the long-standing Acampamentos of the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil to the short-lived Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle in the aftermath of the uprising in response to the murder of George Floyd.

One such movement, relatively unknown outside of Europe, is the Zone à Défendre (Zone to Defend), the ZAD, in western France. Located in the commune of Notre-Dame-des-Landes outside the city of Nantes, the ZAD is the largest of dozens of occupation zones in France. It originated as an anti-development project opposing the construction of an international airport and it survives to this day despite repeated efforts by the state to crush it.

The struggles of la ZAD illustrate both the potential and the many challenges faced by today’s radical occupation movements. History shows that when radical movements push the limits of global capitalist hegemony, states will respond with brutal repression. Examples, among many, include the Bloody Week that ended the 1871 Paris Commune, Turkey’s military attacks on autonomous Kurdish towns and repeated massacres of Landless Workers’ Movement activists by police or private militias in Brazil.

In addition to the use of all-out force, however, contemporary states have also increasingly turned to other tactics. As public opinion and human rights regimes pressure states to use “legitimate and proportional” means, they utilize legal-bureaucratic and ideological repression, to seduce, manipulate and forcibly incorporate movements into the system. We have seen this at work against urban squatters and rural land occupations around the world, where states employ a broad repertoire of tactics — from co-opting leaders to promoting gentrification. Ultimately, though, it is the threat of violence that makes such legal-bureaucratic strategies viable. The story of the ZAD repeats many of these patterns.

The ZAD also raises questions about the role of unity in radical struggle, as well as the effectiveness of specific land occupation strategies. Is it enough to share a common enemy — in this case an airport development project — or must members share the same vision of prefigurative politics? As the French state attempts to incorporate the remains of the ZAD into a vision of rural capitalist development — as always, with the backing of police violence — how do members continue their struggle? Where are the cracks within the repressive state-capitalist system that radical activists can use to their advantage and for their survival?

To seek some answers to these questions, we made several visits to the ZAD over a few years, the last one being in early 2020. As sociologists and activists with a long interest in resistance and prefigurative politics, we shared sympathies with the movement and developed a more intimate understanding of the struggle by talking with residents and taking a closer look on the ground. What we saw indeed diverged from the dominant narrative, which had declared the end and defeat of la ZAD.

Transformation is Not a Metaphor

By Jevgeniy Bluwstein - Political Georgraphy Institute, June 17, 2021

In this intervention I highlight an element that has been overlooked in this important debate about “progressive environmental futures” (Robbins, 2019, p. 1) – the dismantling of fossil capitalism. More still, I argue that some perspectives in this forum may even distract our attention from a more direct engagement with this – in my view – most urgent question of our time. Ultimately, I suggest that by not engaging this question head on, debates about “transformation” risk rendering it a metaphor.

Here, I am inspired by the influential critique of decolonial scholarship by Tuck and Yang (2012), who insist that “decolonization is not a metaphor.” Tuck and Yang (2012) maintain that while the decolonization of academic and educational institutions through the recognition and integration of alternative knowledges is important, this is not the central objective of decolonization. Writing from a settler-colonial context, the authors suggest that “[u]ntil stolen land is relinquished, critical consciousness does not translate into action that disrupts settler colonialism” (Tuck & Yang, 2012, p. 19). In a settler-colonial context, decolonization thus must go beyond the usual critique of epistemology and beyond calls for decolonizing knowledge and methodologies. Above all, land has to be given back and colonial property relations dismantled.

Although Tuck and Yang's intervention is specific to a settler-colonial context, and thus should not be generalized, it resonates with broader critiques raised against recent trends in decolonial and ontopolitical scholarship. For instance, Chandler and Reid (2020, p. 494) are frustrated with the exuberant attention to the “coloniality of knowledge” at the expense of paying due attention to “the coloniality of real inequalities and injustices in the world.” Relatedly, the late David Graeber sees a lack of engagement with material questions of slavery, class, patriarchy, war, police, poverty, hunger and inequality in scholarship that privileges multiple ontologies of being and epistemologies of knowing (Graeber, 2015).

Drawing on these perspectives about the limits of critique, here, I draw a parallel between decolonization that requires land repatriation and not just the decolonization of knowledge production, and a vision of transformation that requires the rapid, ruptural dismantling of fossil capitalism and not just the transformation of our understanding of socio-ecological limits. In this vein, a vision of transformation that is not a metaphor needs to go beyond questions and critiques of limits, technology, labor and growth (however illuminating they may be), and to engage more directly with political strategy, organization and praxis in the here and now. After all, what matters is “which strategies can actually work to address the environmental and social crises the world faces” (Bliss, 2021, p. 1).

But isn't addressing environmental and social crises exactly what the debate in this forum is ultimately about? Yes and no. Yes, because a post-capitalist future is central to both, a degrowth and a socialist modernist vision, although in different ways. No, because this forum has not touched upon questions of political strategy, organization, and praxis for short-term dismantling of fossil capitalism, even though both camps agree that capitalism is the single biggest obstacle towards progressive environmental futures. Hoping that a future world of degrowth or socialist modernism will get us beyond fossil capitalism by, say 2050, is akin to placing our hopes in not-yet-available negative-emission technologies. Put differently, if net-zero emissions discourses risk leading to mitigation deterrence and becoming a spatiotemporal fix for fossil capitalism (Carton, 2019), can some visions of degrowth or socialist modernism similarly risk leading to transformation deterrence? If these visions do not build on political strategizing for actively dismantling fossil capitalism, I do not see why fossil capitalism cannot continue to fix its crises, to overcome its internal contradictions, and even to appropriate some degrowth or socialist demands.

France: ZAD declares victory as airport plan dropped!

By staff - Freedom, January 17, 2018

In a communique the famous horizontal community Zone à Defendre (ZAD) has declared a “historic victory” and called for “expropriated peasants and inhabitants to be able to fully recover their rights as soon as possible.”

The entirety of the land area devoted to the airport project — 1,650 hectares of land declared as being of public utility in 2008 — currently belongs to the State, with the exception of three roads crossing it. the ZAD has argued that this land should be kept in public hands and, rather than turned into an airport, put into forms of public lease for the benefit of the community and wildlife.

Responding to reports that the Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport project is now officially dead, reps for the ten-year environmental occupation campaign wrote:

This afternoon, the government has just announced the abandonment of the project.

We note that the declaration of public utility [key to enabling large projects to function and compulsory purchases to happen] will not officially be extended. The project will definitely be null and void on February 8th.

This is a historic victory against a destructive development project. This has been possible thanks to a long movement as determined as it is varied.

First of all, we would like to warmly welcome all those who have mobilised against this airport project over the past 50 years.

Regarding the future of the ZAD, the whole movement reaffirms today:

  • The need for expropriated peasants and inhabitants to be able to fully recover their rights as soon as possible.
  • The refusal of any expulsion of those who have come to live in recent years in the grove to defend it and who wish to continue to live there and take care of it.
  • A long-term commitment to take care of the ZAD lands by the movement in all its diversity — peasants, naturalists, local residents, associations, old and new inhabitants.

To implement it, we will need a period of freezing the institutional redistribution of land. In the future, this territory must be able to remain an area of ​​social, environmental and agricultural experimentation.

With regard to the issue of the reopening of the D281 road, closed by the public authorities in 2013, the movement undertakes to answer this question itself. Police presence or intervention would only make the situation worse.

We also wish, on this memorable day, to send a strong message of solidarity to other struggles against major destructive projects and for the defense of threatened territories.

We call to converge widely on February 10th in the grove to celebrate the abandonment of the airport and to continue building the future of the ZAD.

Acipa, Coordination of Opponents, COPAIn 44, Naturalists in struggle, the inhabitants of the ZAD.

Notes on the Bure ZAD and the politics of eternity/death

By Julius Gavroche - Autonomies, September 16, 2017

Un grand sommeil noir
Tombe sur ma vie :
Dormez, tout espoir,
Dormez, toute envie !

Je ne vois plus rien,
Je perds la mémoire
Du mal et du bien…
O la triste histoire !

Je suis un berceau
Qu’une main balance
Au creux d’un caveau :
Silence, silence !

Paul Verlaine

The ZADs of france (Zone à défendre), at Notre-dame-des-landes, Testet, Roybon and the many others elsewhere (click here for ZAD map: le monde 21/12/2015) have emerged originally as moments of contestation against major infrastructure developments, public and private, typically outside of large urbanised spaces.  The protests have then, in some cases, been followed by occupations of the contested territories with the aim of literally physically impeding the development projects.  It is then bodies against machines, the war machine of the State, with all of its apparatuses of control and repression, and the physical machines that re-make space and life, to serve the movement of capital-commodities.

The very real physical nature of the protest then calls something into play which is rarely, if ever, present in momentary city protests (and perhaps not sufficiently reflected upon): bodies need to be feed, sheltered, clothed, cared for.  To provide for these needs and more, a protest that extends in time must gain roots, it must become to some degree self-sustaining.  The ZADs then become expressions-experiments in other, non-commodified, forms of life.  Organised collectively, horizontally, self-managed without a centre or leadership, open to all who share in its vision, the ZADs prefigure a different world, an non-capitalist world opposed to the kinds of infrastructure investments essential to capitalism’s continuous expansion.

This physical dimension of radical politics has often been set aside or ignored in the heat of demonstrations, riots and insurrections.  But the fragility of the “occupy” movements of post-2011, focused primarily on the occupation of city squares, was in part due to this blindness.  The occupations in fact could not be maintained, because the bodies present needed more than the occupiers could provide for themselves.

This same fragility however can serve as the occasion to remember older forms of radical politics in which needs and desires were consciously addressed: feminism, race-national liberation movements, syndicalist and anarcho-syndicalist organisations, workers cooperatives, neighbourhood assemblies, and so on, are all past and present examples (not without weaknesses) of desire become political.  Indeed, the more one explores the history of “anti-capitalist” politics, the more our disembodied politics of protest appear to be the exception rather than the rule.  What were the revolutions of the past (the Paris Commune 1871, the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Spanish Revolution of 1936, etc.) if not creations born of needs and passions?  And if revolution seems so distant to so many today, is it not because politics has become but one more alienated and ghostly spectacle of consumption?

The ZADs bring us back to the living earth, giving life back to us.

The ZAD: an autonomous zone in the heart of France

By Martin Legall - ROARMag, January 26, 2017

It all started decades ago with the local resistance against the construction of a second airport near the city of Nantes in western France. Eight years ago, this resistance culminated in the establishment of a self-organized autonomous zone, commonly known as the ZAD (Zone à Défendre, or “Zone to Defend”). Since then, the ZAD has been under constant threat of eviction and has withstood multiple attacks by militarized police forces set on clearing the area. With the support of individuals and collectives across France and from abroad, the occupation continues to this day.

Half a century of planning and resistance

Plans to build a second airport in Nantes were first developed in the mid-1960s. The authorities wanted to decentralize economic activity away from Paris to other cities in France. In the 1970s, the regional council designated the town of Notre-Dames-des-Landes, north of Nantes, as the site for the construction of the airport. At the time, farmers and local producers started to organize to resist the construction and raise awareness.

The construction of a rail network for high-speed trains in the late 1980s pushed the plans to build an airport north of Nantes to the bottom of the agenda until 1994, when the government revitalized the project in order to reduce air traffic at the two Parisian airports of Roissy and Orly.

In the 2000s, the government of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin reaffirmed aspirations to decentralize economic activity and to turn Nantes into an international hub. After being pushed by political elites at both state and regional levels, the project was recognized as “promoting the public interest” in 2008. Two years later, the multinational corporation Vinci was selected to build and run the airport.

As early as 2000, a network of groups and organizations was created to organize an awareness campaign and to undertake actions in the area. In 2009, local activists and residents invited the French climate action camp, resulting in hundreds of activists visiting the zone. They occupied buildings that had been left empty by the authorities and built their own yurts and shacks.

Little by little, self-organization and collective decision-making structures were put in practice. Soon, support collectives were set up in various cities across the country and beyond: it was the beginning of one of the longest struggles in the recent history of French social movements.

Notre-Dame-des-Landes (France): Defend the ZAD: a call for international solidarity

By Defend the ZAD - Anarkismo, September 2, 2016

October 8th-9th, 2016

For over 50 years, farmers and locals have resisted the building of a new airport for the French city of Nantes (which by the way already has one). Now in these rich fields, forests and wetlands, which multinational Vinci want to cover in concrete, an experiment in reinventing everyday life in struggle is blossoming. Radicals from around the world, local farmers and villagers, citizen groups, trade unionists and naturalists, refugees and runaways, squatters and climate justice activists and many others, are organising to protect the 4000 acres of land against the airport and its world. Government officials have coined this place “a territory lost to the republic”. Its occupants have named it: la ZAD (Zone À Défendre), zone to defend.

In the winter of 2012, thousands of riot police attempted to evict the zone, but they faced a determined and diverse resistance. This culminated in a 40,000 people strong demonstration to rebuild some of what had been destroyed by the French State. Less than a week later, the police was forced to stop what they called “Operation Cesar”. For the last three years, the zad has been an extraordinary laboratory of new ways of living, rooted in collaborations between all those who make up the diversity of this movement. There is even a set of 6 points (see below) to radically rethink how to organise and work the land without an airport, based on the creation of commons, the notion of usage rather than property and the demand that those who fought for the land are those who decide its use.

Now, the entire zone is due for evictions to start the construction of this absurd airport. Prime minister Valls has promised a “Rendez-Vous” this October to evict everyone who is living, working, building and farming on the zone.

On October 8th, tens of thousands of people will gather on the zad to demonstrate that the determination of the movement is as strong as ever. Honouring farmers struggles from the past, we will come with wooden walking batons and leave them on the zone, as a sign of the commitment to come back and pick them up again if necessary. We will also raise a barn, built by dozens of carpenters during the summer, which will be used as a base, should evictions happen.

We are calling on all international groups and movements to either come to the zone on October 8th or show their solidarity with the zad through actions directed at the French government or multinational Vinci in their own towns and cities on that day.

The airport will never be built. Life on the zad will keep on flourishing!

Defending the ZAD (ZADistas)

By some ZADistas - Constellations, 2015

In the Autumn of 2015 the government once again announced that the building of the airport of Notre-Dame-des-Landes was about to begin. Since then they have been repeating their intention to evict those who live and farm together from the zad . With the combined force of the gendarme’s gas grenades and Vinci’s bulldozer’s, they want to try to finally get done with everything that is alive and thriving in the bocage “as soon as possible”.

Faced with this renewed threat, this text is a call to defend the zad everywhere, and the contagious hope it contains in these arid times. The zad as a conviction that it is possible to stop destructive projects fostered on us by those who claim to govern us. The zad as a space where different ways of inhabiting this world - fully and generously - are invented in the here and now. It is a hope rooted in histories we hold in common, enriched by the momentum of tens of thousands of rebels and relationships woven thick by time. The words that follow evoke certain decisive fragments of this adventure, they are like blazing bearings for the future.

Download PDF Here.

France halts Sivens dam construction after protester’s death: Council suspends work on contentious project in south-west Tarn region after Rémi Fraisse died during clashes with police

By Agence France-Presse in Paris - The Guardian, October 31, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

French local authorities have decided to suspend work on a controversial dam after the death last week of an activist protesting against the project.

The executive council in charge of the project in the south-western Tarn region decided to freeze work on the dam but did not definitively scrap it.

It was impossible in the light of the tragedy to continue any work at the site of the Sivens dam project, said Thierry Carcenac, head of the region’s executive council. “What happened was terrible and should never happen again,” he added.

Remi Fraisse, 21, died in the early hours of Sunday during violent clashes between security forces and protesters against the project. It was the first death during a protest in mainland France since 1986.

Initial investigations showed traces of TNT on his clothes and skin, suggesting he may have been killed by a police stun grenade.

France’s interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, who has come under fire over the incident, has since banned the use of the grenades, which are designed to stun rather than kill.

The already unpopular government of President François Hollande has come under more pressure over a perceived slow response to the death, as well as allegations that police mishandled the riots.

The death has been followed by renewed clashes. Overnight on Thursday, 200 protesters rampaged through the western city of Rennes, with some overturning cars and breaking shop windows. Further protests are planned throughout the weekend and authorities are bracing for further unrest.

Ecology minister Ségolène Royal will next week gather together all warring parties to discuss the future of the Sivens dam.

Those opposed to the project say the dam will destroy a reservoir of biodiversity and will only benefit a small number of farmers. Those promoting the project, meanwhile, retort that the dam is in the public interest as it will ensure irrigation and the development of high-value crops.

Mathieu Burnel : "L’insurrection est arrivée"

By Ce soir (ou jamais !) - Daily Motion, October 31, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

The following video features Mathieu Burnel, one of the "ex-accused of Tarnac," on a French talk show discussing the police killing of Remi Fraisse in the Testet ZAD. Following the video is a rough translation into English:

Mathieu Burnel : "L’insurrection est arrivée... by ce-soir-ou-jamais

ZAD Martyr, Rémi Fraisse, Died After Being Hit by a Grenade, Autopsy Finds

Staff Report - Earth First! Newswire, October 28, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Yes, Rémi was only 21 and had a long life ahead of him.

Yes, Rémi was shot in the back with a grenade, just like Carlo Giuliani was shot in the back during the 2001 anti-G8 protests in Genoa, an event that led to unfettered rioting.

Yes, Rémi was fighting for a noble cause; the protection of the land that he loved from total destruction, and the defense of all creatures from the onslaught of climate change.

With all due respect to Rémi Fraisse’s family and friends, let’s take a moment to mourn, while sharpening our rage and tears about the incidents that led to the death of ZADist Rémi Fraisse into a concentrated analysis for the time being.

We can begin by assessing perhaps the best article about the events that have transpired, by reporting with The Guardian:

The Fine Print I:

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The Fine Print II:

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