“Operation Caesar”: A Current Military Occupation of a Part of the French Countryside

Posted on October 29, 2012 by


Guest Post by Newt*

Since the 1960′s, some French politicians had a project for a new airport in the beautiful and ecologically rich bocage countryside near Nantes, more precisely at Notre Dame des Landes. This is now officially to replace the current airport situated in the outskirts of Nantes (this “old airport” runs very well, it even won a prize for best European airport in 2011). Since the beginning, there has been a strong opposition from people living at Notre Dame des Landes and nearby communes. The “new airport” project was put in standby mode in the 1970′s after the oil crisis. It was then dug out again in the 2000′s, and Jean-Marc Ayrault, who has been Nantes’ Mayor for 23 years, wants to make it his “baby”. He has been one of the loudest advocate of the megalomaniac project.  France already has 170 airports, while Germany has 19 and the UK, 50.

If this project goes ahead, hundreds of hectares of cultivable lands, woods, hundreds of rich ponds and old hedgerows, as well as farms and livelihoods would be destroyed and covered with concrete, kerosene tanks and parking lots, with hundreds of millions of public money spent in investment (no austerity talk here). Most of the profits would go directly to Vinci‘s pocket (this huge corporation  would build the airport and enjoy the concession for at least 55 years). Ayrault, like most of French politicians, is a known crook: he was condemned in 1997, for wrongdoing in matters of public tendering.

Some farmers have refused to be evicted, and many opponents, for about 3 years, have come to live on Vinci’s requisitioned land, a zone of more than 1000 hectares of bocage officially called the ZAD: “zone d’aménagement différée” (postponed building zone). The opponents renamed it the ZAD: “Zone à défendre” (zone to be defended). The place can now be seen as the largest open-air “squatting” zone in Europe. Of course, the ZAD is not quite “liberated territory”, not absolutely “out” of the capitalist system. But it is a zone of resistance, creation, experiments in sustainable cultivation, self-sufficiency, and organization for living and struggling.

The struggle is not only against an airport, but rather a way to oppose the system by opposing one of its deadly manifestations. The people living there have built houses, cabins, created community gardens, organized various open events such as debates, cultural creations workshops, and DIY festivals. Interviews in independent media made it clear that one of the major aims is to be as autonomous, as independent and free from the capitalist system as possible. In a very real sense, this is “marronage“.

So, logically, the “ZADists” and other opponents to the airport have been facing police tactics of intimidation and harsh repression for some time. These include early morning heavy raids on protesters’ houses, with helicopter and door rams, the forced stripping of arrested women to their underwear, all this explicitly for some paint and manure on a Vinci building.  A farmer’s tractor was confiscated during a protest, because tractors, apparently, are now weapons (he had slowly driven it between protesters and police lines to protect the former). This farmer was then condemned to a “ban on demonstration at Notre Dame des Landes” for a year (yes, apparently, French courts can do that). The courts also forbade him from carrying a weapon, but, ironically enough, this does not include his tractor.

DNA filing is systematic upon arrest, and people are regularly condemned for refusing to have DNA samples taken from them. I also have to mention the early display of military force when drilling machines came to the ZAD in June 2011 for some preliminary sampling, a force which, besides attacking the opponents’ lungs, made a herd of cows run in panic between the clouds of CS gas that replaced the usual morning mist. The zone has gradually been put under heavy police surveillance. Farmers who refuse the evictions have been harassed by the police and Vinci’s henchmen. The solidarity in struggle between farmers, “squatters” and other opponents is strong, as the legal inhabitants of the zone who refuse to be bought off know very well that, soon enough, they will also be “illegal”, “squatters”.

If I write about this now, it is because Jean-Marc Ayrault is now Prime Minister of France. On October 16, the authorities launched a huge military and police occupation operation to evict the opponents from the zone. The operation has been called “Operation Caesar”. From the early morning on, choppers, hundreds  of police agents (some say about 1,000) and “Gendarmes Mobiles” (a branch of the French military specialized in “riot control”) have been trying to chase about 200 people off the zone, to destroy the houses and cabins, and more generally to take full control of the zone, to make it a desert, clean and safe for Vinci’s operations.

A part of Operation Caesar’s legions, Notre Dame des Landes, October 16.

But they are not quite there yet. The resistance, if absolutely outnumbered, is firm.The ZADists managed to pirate Vinci’s highways radio frequency, and they use it to organize the defense of the zone. They also set barricades up. In response to the repressive operation, solidarity actions have been taken in other regions of France, and as far as Brussels. French “Socialist” Party’s offices, Town Halls and Vinci offices have been spray-painted and manured. Marches against the operation have been organized in Paris, Nantes, and other cities. More is to come.

Mainstream national media are, unsurprisingly, very silent. The so called “green” minister Duflot is absolutely mute on the matter. Journalists are, at times, not even allowed to enter the zone. Because of the military/police checkpoints, people joining the struggle often have to sneak through the woods and fields to get in and bring supplies (food, water, dry clothes and socks, swimming goggles against CS gas, raincoats). One exception must be noted though, a reporter from a local webTV made it to the “woods of Rohanne” at the center of the ZAD, woods that will be razed if Vinci goes on, just like the much bigger forest of Khimky, Russia. If you can understand spoken french, you might enjoy their report:

The woman evicted by the cops from her cabin up in the trees, says (my translation) :

“Everywhere we are destroying the world, the whole of  nature, everything we need to survive, and it can’t go on like this. People only think about money and growth, but what we need is oxygen and food, and now is the time to fight for this. (…)  If we don’t win, we are all going to loose. We have nothing to lose, if we don’t win struggles like this everywhere, the world is going to destroy itself soon. Now is the time to act. There is no asking about doing it or not doing it, there is only the solution to do it. And, I don’t know, I think people don’t realize this, this is urgent, we have to do it now, all of us. We are not that weak, because we have determination and courage, and we know we are right. We will stay, we will go back, we will fight.”

The whole operation is recounted in details on the ZAD’s website, with translation in English for most of it: October 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21 , and 22. The site will be updated every day, as the operation will certainly last much longer. Following the destruction of some houses by machines under police and military protection, some inhabitants are already asking for support to rebuild. A reoccupation” demonstration is already planned for the coming month.

Community garden of «Le Sabot», harvest of october 17: about 200 CS gas grenades. A few days later, it will be dumped back to their owner in front of Nantes’ prefecture building. This garden is only a small part of the ZAD.

On the third day of  operation “Caesar”, the local Prefect (representative of the State), Christian de Lavernée,  seemingly not troubled by his blatant hypocrisy, asked the opponents to abandon their “violent behavior”. In response to his declarations, one of the inhabitants of the ZAD wrote:

“(…) However, sir, the greatest blow for us is not the loss of our homes. We are self-sufficient, we can rebuild them in less time than it took you to mount this operation. We have learned to live without money, without television, and without dependence on the unbridled consumption that feeds your economic system. We make our own bread, produce our own milk, our own electricity, our own vegetables and our own meat, and we build our own living spaces. Perhaps it is this that you find hardest to bear? Because what we have shown here is that liberation is possible: both from your government’s grip, and from that of capitalism, here represented by Vinci and its partners. What feeds our anger, and makes us more determined than ever to resist and remain here, is not the violent destruction of our homes. It is the destruction of everyone’s home—our planet—the place where our children must live.  (…)”

Police/Military forces against the unbearable cabbage.

While the first days of the operation were dedicated to evictions, gassing and the destruction of houses, October 22 has seen several arrests. It might indicate a change in priorities and tactics. We’ll see.

This is all of course taking place in a larger context of brutal repression of social struggles in France. For example, anti-nuclear protesters were directly shot at with grenades during a protest camp on June 24 this year: one protester lost an eye, and several others were severely wounded with shrapnel in different parts of the body.  The cops then sabotaged the arrival of ambulances, and set up road checkpoints near the hospitals of the region to control the identity of the wounded. The most badly wounded woman wrote after the violence :

“(…) I have been shot at by a cop.

I have 15 pieces of shrapnel in my body and they will stay there: the leg, the knee bone, the vagina, the breast, the arm. The nerves of my right arm have been severed, they had to perform surgery. In a year maybe will I get his abilities back.

I write so that people can’t say they didn’t know. Who wants to know, knows.

I write so that they stop censoring us, beat us, lock us up, kill us behind a so called democracy and a so called state of law.

I write because I can’t stand anymore that people throw the violence back to faraway and poor countries, by cowardly discharging themselves of the revolutionary questions that are posed in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria… telling that France is not the same, that France is different, and even worse than that …

To write because at 20 years old, I have endured, seen and heard too much police violence behind showcases of lies and market propaganda.

To write because it is unbearable to feel that ball of anguish in my belly when I walk past a cop, and that fog of loneliness and powerlessness in facing the police system.

To write by lack of roaring that it can’t go on, and to acknowledge.

To write because freedom in the occidental civilization is a murderous lie.

To write because there are too much silences and lies about repression, about our struggles, about the danger of the nuclear industry, among others, about the violence of the system.(…)”

One barricade on the ZAD

I guess some people, knowing this, might be tempted to cynically mock these fifty-year-old farmers, improvised young peasants, “squatters” and other opponents as “utopian”, or “idealist”. But, if you consider carefully the state of the world-system, the economic, social and ecologic crisis (or collapse ?) that has already begun, I don’t think it is much more reasonable to count forever on wages, capitalists and the State, rather than mutual aid and self-organization to ensure ones safety, housing, access to food, water and energy, in brief, to ensure ones livelihood in the near future. Not to talk about freedom. As is sometimes said around these parts, “On peut se passer de flics, pas de légumes”: one can do without cops, not without vegetables.

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*An  afterword on my name:

Readers certainly ought to know why the author wishes not to disclose his official ID.  I you don’t care, you certainly don’t need to read this.

The refusal to give ID has been and still is an important part of this struggle. Let me explain it by a colorful and quite funny example of a recent episode of repression and jail solidarity: dozens of people had been simultaneously arrested for temporarily squatting a house in protest against Vinci, and everybody refused to identify themselves. No one carried an ID. Cops had to give people a number. In detention, people were exchanging their clothes to further confuse the cops. When a cop would come and ask for “X 23″, someone else would stand up and say “Yep, that’s me!”. The local police station was lost and swamped. Most people were freed without having been identified (but fingerprints were taken by force). One tired cop even finally said to one person “You have found a way to crash the system”.

I also have some reasons to suspect I am personally under some police scrutiny for reasons not linked to this particular struggle: I do above-ground activism with some friends on other issues, and local authorities and the police really are already trying their best to criminalize us. If I publicly link my ID name to this struggle against the airport, it would just be like doing the cops’ work in their stead (i.e: updating their files). Of course, this is as much about my companions’ security as about my own. And, even more importantly, I don’t think being cautious, and refusing to be easily monitored and identified should be restricted to people doing “illegal” stuff.

From Max Forte:

The identity of the author is known to me and I agreed with the reasons outlined above for safeguarding this person’s actual name.