Violence flares as French police clear out anti-airport protest camp

French anti-capitalist activists clashed with riot police at burning barricades on Monday during a huge security operation to clear a rural protest camp at the site of an abandoned airport project.

Violence flares as French police clear out anti-airport protest camp
Photo: AFP

Some 2,500 police were deployed to raze the decade-old camp at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, near the western city of Nantes, and evict the last of
the protesters who had refused to leave despite the government agreeing to ditch the proposed airport.

The activists used tractors and burning barricades of tyres, wooden pallets, hay bales and electricity poles to try to keep the police at bay.

AFP pictures showed flames and plumes of black smoke rising into the air as columns of helmeted officers with gas masks and shields clashed with hooded activists.

The police fired tear gas to disperse dozens of protesters who threw petrol bombs, rocks and flares, injuring one officer in the eye, according to the
interior ministry.

Utopian experiment 

In January, the government jettisoned plans for an airport at Notre-Dames-des-Landes that had divided the local community for nearly half a
century, and told the protesters to clear off the farmland by spring.

But some of the motley group of eco-warriors, anti-capitalists and farmers who had turned the 1,600-hectare (4,000-acre) site into a utopian experiment in autonomous living had demanded the right to stay put.

The government said the main aim of the operation was to retake control of a key road that had been blocked for five years and evict around 100 “of the most radical” squatters from a total of around 250.

In a statement, the protesters expressed anger over the destruction of their huts and shelters, vowing “We will not leave”.

'Chased from their homes'

By mid-morning some 10 shelters had been demolished out of a target of around 40, along with a watchtower erected by the activists to guard their terrain, regional security official Nicole Klein told reporters.

Six people living in one of the shelters were evicted, she said, adding that they had refused an offer to be rehoused.

The activists moved onto the site in 2008 and have since built up a community they bill as a model of sustainable farming and political debate
that they have tried to replicate in other parts of France.


The government had said they could remain on the land if they came up with new, individual farming schemes but most refused, saying they want to run the site collectively and be able to pursue non-agricultural projects.

One of the activists, who gave her name only as Camille, voiced anger over the operation.

“It's unacceptable that the government is chasing people from their homes,” she said.

Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said the police would remain on site “as long as is necessary” to prevent those forced out from returning.

The scale of the police deployment compared to the number of protesters reflects the government's determination after a first attempt to clear the
site in 2012 ended in failure.

Within months of taking office President Emmanuel Macron decided in January to try to end the standoff by pulling the plug on the airport after years of
state dithering.

Supporters had argued that it would boost the local economy but environmentalists countered that the area had unique flora and fauna and that
a new facility costing 730 million euros ($890 million) was unnecessary given relatively light traffic at the existing Nantes airport.


Fresh clashes as anti-capitalists attempt to rebuild French protest camp

Police said hundreds of activists attacked officers on Sunday ahead of a peaceful rally to protest the forced closure of an anti-capitalist camp in western France.

Fresh clashes as anti-capitalists attempt to rebuild French protest camp
Photo: AFP

A week of clashes erupted on Monday when police launched an eviction  operation at Notre-Dames-des-Landes camp, near the city of Nantes, set up 10  years ago to fight plans for a new airport.

Officers were attacked by around 300 protestors, some armed with molotov  cocktails, who attempted to gain access to rebuild squats at the camp on 
Sunday morning, police said.

Two people were arrested and one officer was wounded. 

Around 3,000 to 4,000 people later flocked to the site to take part in a  peaceful rally defending the camp, police added.


General Richard Lizurey, director general of the French Gendarmerie, said  the operation to clear the camp had been undermined by the presence of “the 
far-left” including “black bloc” protesters, the black-clad demonstrators who often clash with police at demonstrations around the world.

A similar rally on Saturday, attended by around 6,700 people, spilled on to  the streets of Nantes where windows were broken, police said.  

About 2,500 officers have been deployed to the site and 29 squats destroyed since Monday.

Many protesters have been equipped with gas masks, molotov cocktails,  makeshift shields and racquets they used to knock back police tear gas  cannisters during days of clashes. 


Spring deadline

Dominique Fresneau, co-president of Acipa, the protest movement, called for  calm on both sides, adding that violence delays talks. 

According to a medical team set up at the activists' camp, at least 148  protesters have been injured since Monday.

Activists opposed to plans to build a new airport near the city of Nantes  first began squatting on the farmland in 2008, and the camp grew into a 
sprawling 1,600-hectare (4,000-acre) settlement billed as a utopian leftist  farming community.

But the government announced in January that it was calling off plans for  the airport and warned the squatters that they must clear off the land by spring. 

The week-long battle echoes a failed attempt to clear the camp in 2012.

The activists are furious at police damage to their shelters and farming  projects including a sheep shed and cheese-making area, saying they had been  in talks with local officials on maintaining many of the projects.

The government had said activists could stay on the land if they came up  with individual farming schemes but most refused, saying they want to run the site collectively and be able to pursue non-agricultural projects.

Local authorities say 16 of the encampments dotting the farmland were  cleared in the first two days of the operation, 15 of them demolished.

The plan is to dismantle up to 40 as authorities seek to retake control of  a key road running through the area that has been blocked for five years.