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The Battle of Sainte-Soline

The events at Sainte-Soline have received less attention from the international media than the pension-reform protests, but they are arguably more consequential.

· 5 min read
The Battle of Sainte-Soline
Protesters and tear gas during a demonstration in Sainte-Soline, March 25, 2023. (Photo by Jerome Gilles via Getty Images)

On March 25th, a drum roll of grenade explosions and clouds of grey smoke washed over an expanse of French farmland. The haze shrouded several thousand helmeted and armed men who advanced against three columns of opponents attempting to join one another. The confrontation soon collapsed into confusion while medics attended to several dozen bloodied, wounded, and stunned participants sprawled across the fields.

In an event that participants decried as a “battlefield” and a “butchery” and journalists described as a “state fiasco” and a “scene of chaos,” about 6,000 demonstrators had gathered on the muddy fields near Sainte-Soline, a village of fewer than 400 residents in the rural department of Deux-Sèvres. The protesters ranged across the social, professional, and political spectrum: anarchists and ecologists, farmers and philosophers, Parisians and provincials. There were also several hundred “black bloc” protesters in attendance, the black-clad extremists whose intention—as it was during the “yellow vest” and pension-reform protests—was just to break things.

The stated goal of the protest was to encircle the future site for a vast water reservoir. Alarmed by the prospect of longer and more frequent droughts, the regional government had given the green light to the construction of several “mega-reservoirs” which would be filled by tapping into the local water table. While this project was embraced by the largest farms, it was excoriated by the smaller farmers along with many scientists, who warned about the longterm dangers to the local ecology. More than 200 organizations, including Confédération Paysanne (Peasants Confederation) and Soulèvement de la Terre (Earth’s Upheaval) responded by calling for a weekend of demonstrations at the site.

It turned out to be a bloody weekend. The motley collection of protestors was met by more than 3,000 members of the national gendarmerie and riot police, many of whom were riding cross-terrain vehicles and carrying guns belching tear-gas canisters or spraying rubber bullets. After two hours—a period of time slammed by the newspaper Libération as “120 minutes too long”—more than 200 protestors were wounded (one of whom remains in a coma) as well as 50 police officers.

This bizarre mash-up of medieval combat and Mad Max riveted the French media and even caught the attention of the United Nations. Michel Forst, the UN’s special delegate on the environment, declared that the government’s violent response to the demonstration was “vastly disproportionate.” Forst also condemned the language used by France’s minister of the interior, Gérald Darmanin, who has repeatedly used the term “ecoterrorists” to describe all the protesters gathered at Sainte-Soline, irrespective of tactics or affiliation.

That the international media have paid scant attention to the events at Sainte-Soline is both understandable and unfortunate. The news cycle is short, the bandwidth for French crises is narrow, and the clash over water reservoirs occurred while journalists were focused on the waves of mass protests and strikes over the French government’s reform of its retirement system. Yet the events at Sainte-Soline are not just more unusual than the pension-reform protests, they also deal with an issue that is arguably more consequential. It can be summed up with three letters—ZAD.

In the early 1960s, when France was still riding the crest of les trentes glorieuses—the “30 Glorious Years” of economic and demographic growth stretching from the late 1940s to the early ’70s—the state bureaucracy added ZAD, or zone d’aménagement différé, to its already brimming stew of acronyms. By declaring a stretch of land—urban or rural—to be a “deferred development zone,” a local or regional administration reserved it for future development. Most often, this led to the construction of highways, commercial complexes, industrial parks, or airports.

Since the oil crisis, though, France has muddled through a laborious period marked by stubborn economic stagnation and stark environmental degradation. These trends transformed the meaning of ZAD. Whereas the zone d’aménagement différé reflected the governing principle of verticality—in effect, the Gaullist state both proposed and disposed—a radically different understanding hijacked the acronym based on the principle of horizontality. The ZAD had become a zone à défendre—a place to be defended against those forces which, for half a century, had wielded the ZAD designation to level, pave, and build.

Most histories of the ZAD begin at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, a village near the western city of Nantes and nestled in a large stretch of bocage, the quilt-like mixture of wild and cultivated lands specific to this region. In 1970, the regional government decided, with no public debate or discussion, that Nantes would benefit from an international airport. Locating the future site on the land outside Notre-Dame-des-Landes, local authorities transformed it into a ZAD. The subsequent struggle over this pitted a succession of French governments against a coalition of local residents and sympathetic supporters. As one participant argued in 2018, “The airport symbolizes all the projects which we know will not be profitable in the long term and that if they produce jobs it will only be for the duration of the construction, in this case for 5 years.”

By the early 2000s, a growing number of protesters were not only committed to resisting the airport’s construction but also to remaining on the contested land. What had begun as a movement aimed at foiling the administrative ZAD had become a movement to redefine the ZAD. The historian Kristin Ross neatly captures the nature of the face-off between the two kinds of ZAD. She draws a distinction between what she calls the “airworld” and the “territory.” The former holds that “market laws, which continue to be as indisputable as they are indemonstrable, still decree that infrastructure equals modernization that fuels economic growth.” The latter seeks to maintain rather than monetize its traditional ties to the land. In short, they insist on “a way of life that lies at least partially outside of and against the state and the market.”

Remarkably, the “territory” carried the day at Notre-Dame-des-Landes. Shortly after Emmanuel Macron first became president in 2017, his government declared that the airport would not be built. Equally important, after a failed (and violent) effort to evict the zadistes, the government effectively declared a truce. This has led to de facto cooperation between the state and the ZAD. Local officials have begun collaborating with the community—comprised of long-established cultivators and more recently arrived protesters—in the management of local resources. While no one knows the future of the ZAD of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, for the moment it abides.

“It’s finished,” Darmanin vowed shortly after the battle of Sainte-Soline. “Not one more ZAD will be allowed in our country. Neither in Sainte-Soline nor anywhere else.” To underscore the gravity of the moment, Darmanin also announced the creation of “anti-ZAD unit” within his ministry. Though details are scarce, it seems that these units will be composed of government lawyers and magistrates who will be sent to hot spots in order to prevent the establishment of ZADs and dismantle existing ones.

It remains to be seen whether these legal teams will zip about on all-terrain vehicles in their flapping black robes. In fact, it remains to be seen whether existing laws allow the creation of such units at all. Darmanin’s declaration, remarked one legal specialist, “does not mean much. There because there is no legal definition for a ZAD”—a term that covers a vast and varied phenomenon. It is also a phenomenon specific to our moment, as our political and physical environments degrade, the youth have become ever more disaffected with traditional political activity. This suggests, despite Darmanin’s declaration, that ZADs aren’t going away.

Robert Zaretsky

Robert Zaretsky is a professor at the Honors College, University of Houston, and teaches at the city’s Women’s Institute. An author of literary biographies, he is now writing a book about Stendhal.

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