Photos by the author, Alexandre Hervaud, and Saber Jendoubi
On Saturday afternoon, my hometown was set afire as a small group of ultra-left activists turned a demonstration against the construction of a massive new airport into a full-on riot. Nantes, in northwest France, has been the focal point of protests against the construction of the Notre-Dame-des-Landes (NDDL) airport for the past six years, and the project has been in the development stages since the 1970s. The idea of the airport has tended to die with each financial crash or change of the country's political leadership, only to return later like a ghost whose magic power is making people really, really angry.
This weekend, the airport's opponents had gathered en masse once again: a hodge-podge of activists from across the spectrum of the left. There were 50,000 to 60,000 of them according to organizers, but more like 20,000 according to less sympathetic media outlets.
The event began peacefully. People chanted and waved banners, farmers rode tractors, and several prominent left-wing and Green Party politicians were in attendance. 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 economic point of view, especially in times of crisis." The airport is set to cost €556 million ($764 million)—although critics reckon that the figure could end up escalating wildly, to something more like €2 billion ($2.75 billion).
These people had come dressed as potatoes. I don't really know 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. It 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's 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.
"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."
Another protester, who wished to remain anonymous, told me it was a chaotic scene. "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 the storefront of this travel agency.
Weirdly, they also set fire to the local public transportation offices. I wondered how they'd be getting home later that night.
They also attacked this police station.
"The rioters started taking out hammers from their bags to get the cobblestones out [to throw], so something had been planned," journalist Saber Jendoubi 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. According to IndyMedia, a young protester hit by a stun grenade lost an eye.
In a press release, the organizers were eager to hype the large turnout and the fact that people had turned up from all over France. While the public may not agree with the tactic of smashing up travel agencies and fighting police, they appear to be on the side of the airport haters; a recent poll showed 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 is obsolete. But Tristan said, "Why build an airport when we are running out of petrol? We’re trying to copy the transportation 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, including old-school eco-warriors, local farmers, and young people keen to experience a squatter's lifestyle in the woods.
Given that building work is scheduled to begin at the ZAD soon, you can't help thinking that Saturday's violence will be making a return to Nantes in the near future.
Follow Rebecca on Twitter: @becksunyer