Mega-basins: Why has a dispute over irrigation in French farmland turned violent?

Serious clashes at a demonstration in south west France saw Molotov cocktails thrown and more than 60 police officers injured - so what are people protesting against and why did the demonstration turn so violent?

Mega-basins: Why has a dispute over irrigation in French farmland turned violent?
Activists walk among tear gas following clashes with riot police on Sunday during a demonstration at Sainte-Soline, western France, over the installation of giant irrigation basins. Photo by PASCAL LACHENAUD / AFP

Protests, marches and demonstrations are a commonplace event in France, and it’s not unusual for a small minority of demonstrators to commit crimes such as vandalism – smashing up bus shelters and setting fire to street furniture – at the end of a demo.

But for all that French protests are noisy and attention-seeking, serious violence is relatively unusual, and when it does happen it usually takes place in cities.

But a demo in the rural Deux-Sèvres département in south west France over the weekend took an unusually violent turn, with 61 police officers injured, according to the Interior Ministry, around 20 of whom were “very seriously” injured.

On Monday there were further clashes as demonstrators defied a massive police presence at the site in Sainte-Soline.

So what’s it all about and why has it become such a big issue?

The issue

The protest on Sunday was called against the installation of an agricultural irrigation project in the commune of Sainte-Soline in the Deux-Sèvres département in south west France.

Location of Sainte-Soline, where the protest camps are being set up. Google Maps

The ‘méga-bassines‘ are a planned network of 16 giant (around 600,000 cubic metres) underwater storage areas which farmers can use for irrigation in the event of a drought – something that is happening with increasing frequency as the planet warms.

The project, backed by around 400 local farmers, is controversial because environmentalists say the mega-basins damage valuable wetland areas – the west of France has several wetland areas that shelter a wide variety of wildlife and the area is also known for salt marshes that produce a highly prized fleur de sel.

The protesters also say that the water tanks drain water from natural groundwater supplies and therefore make droughts worse for local residents and smaller farmers – essentially they see the basins as a ‘water theft’ from locals by big agri-businesses. 

As the climate crisis intensifies and droughts become commonplace, violent clashes over water supplies are likely to become more frequent.

The protest

Local authorities refused to licence a demonstration against the basins on Sunday, but several thousand people turned out anyway – including local activists and Green politicians such as Paris MP Sandrine Rousseau and ex-presidential candidate Yannick Jadot.

According to Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, about 40 of the people present at the demo were on a police watchlist because of a history of violent protest (more on that later).

In total there were between 4,000 and 7,000 demonstrators (estimates according to police and the demo organisers) and 1,500 police.

Events quickly turned violent with demonstrators hurling rocks, pétanque balls and Molotov cocktails at police, who responded with tear gas.

Organisers say 30 demonstrators were injured, 10 of whom required hospital treatment, while the Interior Ministry said 61 police officers were injured, around 20 of whom required hospital treatment.

Activists constrict a ‘village of the Gauls’ protest camp at Sainte-Soline. Photo by Pascal Lachenaud / AFP

What next?

On Monday there were further clashes as protesters tried to set up a protest camp at the site, coming up against the huge police presence – around 1,000 officers – still in the area.

The government is determined to stop the installation of a ZAD (Zone à défendre) – a type of permanent protest camp.

However one farmer has allowed protesters to set up camp on his land, where watchtowers and fences were being built on Monday to create a “village of Gauls”, a reference to the popular Asterix comic books.

“We fully intend to use them, it will be a base for all types of harassment operations we’re going to carry out if the construction continues,” said Julien Le Guet, a spokesman for the protest collective.

Masked protesters also tore out a water pipe thought to be used to fill one of the basins, with video of the vandalism circulating widely on news reports and social media.

What does the government say?

Gérald Darmanin, France’s hardline Interior Minister, has gone on the attack, describing the protests as “écoterrorisme” and saying that at least 40 of the activists at the site are ‘Fiché S‘ – the technical term for being on a police watchlist – due to what he described as ‘ultra-left’ activities.

“With their operating methods, I am not afraid to say, falling under the banner of eco-terrorism that we must absolutely fight” he declared.

The big fear in government is the creation of another Notre-Dame des Landes site – a camp built to protest against the expansion of Nantes airport back in 2012, which remained in place for six years and was frequently the site of violent clashes between police, local authorities and activists from around the world who came to join the camp.

It was eventually dismantled in 2018 after Emmanuel Macron ruled against the expansion of the airport, overturning decisions made under the Hollande and Sarkozy governments. 

Darmanin said that 1,000 police would remain on site so that “no ZAD is installed in the Deux-Sevres department nor
anywhere else in France”.

The activists appear equally resolute in their intention to set up a new ZAD. 

Member comments

  1. I’m an American living in France and this type of excessive violence exists on both continents. I find it reprehensible !!!

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Tensions mount in France ahead of new pension strike

France braced on Monday for another day of mass protests and strikes over proposed pension reform, with the government of President Emmanuel Macron and its left-wing opponents trading blame for the expected disruption.

Tensions mount in France ahead of new pension strike

Around 1.1 million people took to the streets for the first strike day on January 19, according to official statistics, the biggest demonstrations since the last major round of pension reform under right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010.

A police source told AFP that security forces were expecting similarly sized crowds on Tuesday, with 1.2 million seen as the upper limit at 240 demonstrations around the country.

With unions warning more stoppages are to come, the strikes represent a major test for Macron as he seeks to implement a showcase policy of his second term in office.

The president’s ministers and their opponents are desperately seeking to sway public opinion ahead of what is expected to be a bitter and costly standoff over the next month.

READ MORE: LATEST: What to expect for Tuesday’s French pension strikes

Senior hard-left MP Mathilde Panot from the France Unbowed (LFI) party accused Macron and his ministers of being responsible for the stoppages that are expected to cripple public transport and other services again.

“They’re the ones who want to wreak havoc on the country,” she told BFM TV while also criticising comments by Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin over the weekend as a “provocation.”

Darmanin, a close Macron ally, said Saturday that left-wing political parties were “only looking to screw up the country” and were defending “idleness and champagne socialism.”

Macron’s reputation

The most controversial part of the proposed reform is hiking the minimum retirement age to 64 from its current level of 62, which is the lowest level in any major European economy.

Macron made the change part of this re-election manifesto in April last year and he insists it is needed to guarantee the future financing of the pension system, which is forecast to tip into deficit in the next few years.

Opponents point out that the system is currently balanced and that the head of the independent Pensions Advisory Council recently told parliament that “pension spending is not out of control, it’s relatively contained.”

For pro-business Macron, who has repeatedly told French people they “need to work more”, failure to succeed with a signature proposal would severely undermine his credibility for the remainder of his second and last term in office, analysts say.

The government headed by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has signalled there is wiggle room on some measures as parliamentary committees started examining the draft law on Monday.

Conditions could be improved for people who started working very young, as well as for mothers who interrupted their careers to look after their children and for people who invested in further education, Borne has suggested.

But the headline age limit of 64 is not up for discussion, she said Sunday, calling it “non-negotiable.”

Despite the policy being a flagship of his second mandate following his 2022 re-election, Macron has so far sought to stay above the fray and commented only occasionally on the growing tensions.

Darmanin’s intervention has not helped reduce strains, with the tough-talking minister telling the Le Parisien daily Saturday the left were defending an idea of a “society without work and effort”.

Parliamentary battle

The left-wing opposition has submitted more than 7,000 amendments to the draft legislation in a bid to slow its path through parliament.

Macron’s centrist allies, short of an absolute majority in parliament, will need votes from conservatives to get their pensions plan approved.

A new poll by the OpinionWay survey group, published on Monday in Les Echos newspaper, showed that 61 percent of French people supported the protest movement, a rise of 3.0 percentage points from January 12.

A majority of French people — 56 percent — think reforming the pension system is necessary, the data showed.

But the proportion convinced of the need for change is falling, down five points since January 12, the survey group said.