On Saturday afternoon, my hometown was on fire as a black bloc of ultra-left activists rioted against the creation of a massive new airport. Nantes, in the northwest of France, has been the focal point of protests against the construction of the Notre-Dame-des-Landes (NDDL) airport. The dispute has been ongoing since the 1970s, as the project has tended to die with each financial crash or change of political party, only to return some time later like a ghost that makes people really, really angry.
This weekend, the airport's opponents had gathered en masse once again: 50,000 to 60,000 of them, according to organizers, or more like 20,000, according to unsympathetic media outlets.
The event began in peace. People waved banners, chanted chants, farmers rode tractors and several prominent left wing and Green Party politicians were in attendance. Explaining his reasons for showing up, a Nantes local named Tristan told me, "The airport is a big waste of money, but it also goes beyond that. It’s almost symbolic now. These big projects do not make any sense from an ecological and economical point of view, especially in times of crisis." The airport is due to cost €556 million ($760 million) – although critics reckon that the figure could end up escalating wildly, to something more like €2 billion ($2.7 billion).
These people had come dressed as potatoes. I don't really get why.
At first I thought these guys were conspiracy theorists railing against the Illuminati lizard men hell-bent on building airports for the New World Order. Turns out they're making a point about the endangered species that might get harmed if the airport gets built.
Soon after the family-friendly procession and its obligatory samba band started marching through the streets of Nantes, a few dozen protesters decided to break off from the main group to embark on something a bit more violent. They started by trashing the local office of Vinci – the company that is building the airport. The trigger for the rioting seemed to be that a couple of hours before the protest, the local authorities had decided to change the march route, forbidding protesters access to the center of town – enforced by this barrier.
"We weren’t happy about that at all," Tristan told me. "Cops were posted at every corner, at every entrance to the center of town. They were like bouncers. We were allowed to protest outside the center of town, where we weren’t as visible and wouldn’t ‘bother’ the inhabitants."
I spoke to another protester, who I'm going to call Alexandre.
"It got quite schizophrenic at some point," he said. "You had people going about in the center of town, doing their Saturday shopping, as rubber bullets were being fired at protesters."
Before long, the cops dispatched a water cannon and dug into their supply of stun grenades. Meanwhile, the rioters did what rioters the world over do: erect barricades and chuck cobblestones.
The anarchists smashed quite a lot of things, including this travel agents.
Weirdly, they also set fire to the local public transport offices. I wondered how they'd be getting home later that night.
They also attacked this police station. Which makes me think that some of the black bloc had come with an inkling that there might be trouble in store.
"The rioters started taking out hammers from their bags to get the cobbles out [to throw at things], so something had been planned," Saber Jendoubi, a journalist, told me. "Between 30 and 50 were actually breaking things; it was a very active and organized minority."
Four arrests were made and reports said that six policemen were injured during the clashes. IndyMedia stated that a young protester hit by a stun grenade lost an eye.
In a statement, the organizers were keen to hype the large turnout and the fact that people had turned up from all over France to join the demo. They also expressed pride at the large number of tractors that were in attendance. While the public may not agree with the tactic of smashing up travel agents and fighting police, they appear to be on the side of the airport-haters, with a recent pollshowing that 56 percent of French people are opposed to its construction and only 24 percent support it. Those in favor argue that the existing airport in Nantes has reached saturation point and is outdated. But for Tristan, "Why build an airport when we are running out of petrol? We’re trying to copy the transport model of the United States, but it makes no sense, because we’re not half a continent."
Since 2006, protesters have been occupying the planned construction site, dubbing it the "ZAD" (Zone à Défendre or "Protected Zone"). I visited the "Zadists" in December 2012, weeks after violent protests had taken place. The occupants seemed to be an eclectic bunch, comprising of old-school eco-warriors, local farmers and young people keen to experience a squatter's lifestyle in the woods – similar to what I saw on Saturday.
Given that building work is scheduled to begin at the ZAD soon, you can't help but think that Saturday's violence will be making a return to Nantes in the near future.
Photos: Alexandre Hervaud & Saber Jendoubi
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