The Nantes protest and rioting against proposed airport – blog by John Stewart
In a blog about the huge demonstration, part of which turned in to rioting, at Nantes against the proposed new airport, John Stewart looks at how this protest came about – and its relevance to other large infrastructure projects in Europe. The Nantes protest organisers say as many as 50,000 people attended, from supportive protest committees from areas across France. The politics of this airport project have taken on national interest and significance, and also linked into opposition to “Les Grands Projets Inutiles Imposes” (useless, imposed mega-projects). The people passionately fighting plans for a new airport in unspoiled French farming countryside are linked to those opposing HS2 and other schemes like a high-speed rail in Northern Italy and cyanide-mined gold extraction project in Romania. All these projects have managed to get support from very disparate sections of society. They all have real doubts about the economics or the necessity of the project; also they have land, homes, countryside or communities to defend; there is significant local opposition; and they also attract in outside opposition, from people with a variety of perspective as well as environmental.
Blog by John Stewart
On Saturday Nantes was ablaze. The anger at the proposed new airport outside this city in Western France boiled over: http://youtu.be/eIgNvAHIVmw. Up to 60,000 people took part in what was largely a peaceful demonstration. YouTube link The local campaign group ACIPA say that the tension rose when the police refused to allow the march to take the normal route through the city. When part of the march tried to do so it “faced violent police repression shot with rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades”: http://communiques-acipa.blogspot.co.uk/
I have been to Nantes several times over last few years (although wasn’t there on Saturday). The campaign has become a cause célèbre in France. It has “support committees” in over 200 towns and cities across France and Belgium. On a regular basis each committee lobbies and demonstrates in its own area. Over 60 coaches arrived in Nantes on Saturday with supporters from across the nation.
During the last Presidential elections four “peasant” farmers, whose land was threatened by the new airport, went on hunger strike for a month. They were visited by most of the presidential candidates. All, except for Hollande and Sarkozy, came out against the airport.
The profile of the campaign wasn’t always so high. I first met the campaigners in 2008 when five desperate farmers drove through the night to promote their case at a major Heathrow rally. They subsequently modelled much of their campaign on the successful fight against the 3rd runway. In particular, they built up the widest possible alliance of support.
The proposed new airport would be built around 15 miles from the city of Nantes in a landscape dotted with small farms and attractive villages. It is the classic French countryside, but without the British and their second homes!
The rationale for the new airport has never been entirely clear. Nantes already has a single runway airport which is under-used. The regional government argues that the new airport would regenerate the area. This is hotly contested by the campaigners who commissioned their own report which challenged the government’s economic case: They argue that the new airport has more to do with boosting the egos of the local politicians – including the former Mayor of Nantes Jean-Marc Aryault who was made Prime Minister under Hollande – than beefing up the economy.
It remains unclear how much support there may be from people in Nantes living under flight path to the current airport for the new airport. Certainly, it is not visible. In contrast, the opposition has mushroomed over the last six years. Local people have been joined by a range of political and environmental organizations as well as the direct action campaigners, many of whom live in tents and tree houses in a local wooded area known as the ZAD.
There have been tensions from time to time between the local community and the direct action activists in the ZAD but last winter the ZAD won huge respect from other parts of the coalition when, in freezing cold conditions, they defied attempts by authorities to remove them.
It is probably impossible at this stage to know what will happen next in Nantes. But I think it is part of an emerging pattern: it is becoming increasingly difficult to build major new projects anywhere in Western Europe. The Nantes campaigners have links with those opposing the HS2 high-speed link in Britain (http://stophs2.org/news/5792-les-grands-projets-inutiles-imposes) through what is known as the Campaign against Useless Imposed Mega-Projects. It is what is says on the tin! It includes the NO-TAV movement against high-speed rail in Northern Italy and Save Rosia Montana, the Romanian campaign against a vast cyanide-mined gold extraction project in Western Transylvanian. Last year the Nantes campaigners hosted the Useless Imposed Mega-Projects’ annual meeting.
Iain Martin wrote in the Daily Telegraph (14/1/09) about the Heathrow anti-third campaign: “the coalition assembled outside Parliament is extraordinarily wide. It runs from radical eco-warriors to middle-class mothers in west London, hedge fund managers in Richmond, to pensioners and parents in Brentford”. The links now being made by opponents of mega-projects are in some ways an extension of this. The anarchist on the streets of Nantes has little in common with the millionaire executive in the Chilterns…….except they are both passionately against a mega-project.
Certain conditions seem to need to be present for a mega-project to attract opposition from very disparate people.
• There is a real doubt whether the mega-project is essential for the economy. The economic case for the new Nantes Airport, HS2, the Rumanian gold-mine and the third runway at Heathrow are all hotly contested.
• The mega-project is site-based, i.e. there is land, homes, countryside or communities to defend.
• The mega-project is attracting significant local opposition. If the local opposition is non-existent or small, the essential first building block is missing.
• The mega-project must attract outside opposition. Nantes has become a magnet that has drawn a diverse range of protesters each there for a differ reason: environmentalist; anti-capitalist etc.
The new Nantes airport proposed for this unfashionable part of France has become the classic ‘useless’ mega-project. I suspect Heathrow Airport – and probably also the promoters of HS2 – will be looking closely at what happens next at Nantes.
YouTube video (1 min) of peaceful section of the march, at Nantes on 22nd Feb.
This YouTube video (2 min) taken from a high window looking down on part of the crowd shows much of it peaceful, and what appears to be tear gas cannisters shot at them.
Huge protest in centre of Nantes against new airport – forceful police resistance; some rioting, violence and injuries
Date added: February 23, 2014
A huge protest took place in Nantes on 22nd February, against the planned new replacement airport to be built at Notre Dame des Landes, some miles to the north. The organisers estimated some 50 – 60,000 protesters, who came in from supportive groups from regions all across France. There are reported to have been 65 coach loads of protesters who travelled to Nantes to take part, and 520 tractors, brought by supportive farmers from surrounding areas. The protests were put down with considerable force by the police, using water canon, rubber bullets and tear gas. The issue has become very political in France. With elections coming up this year, the Prime Minister (and former Mayor of Nantes and ardent backer of the new airport) is thought unlikely to back down from pressing for the airport. However, it is not thought likely that there will be forceful evictions of the farmers and activists who are occupying the land allocated for the airport, called the ZAD – Zone à Défendre as it would be unpopular. An opinion poll found 56% of those surveyed were against the new airport. The courts have ruled it can go ahead, but there are appeals on ground of the law on water and on biodiversity.