Protesters fighting to block controversial plans for a new airport in the west of France are gearing up for their next skirmish in what is becoming an increasingly ugly battle with authorities determined to get the proposals off the ground.
Around 2,000 hectares of mostly farmland in rural western France are set to be the stage for what is likely to be a violent confrontation on Saturday, when anti-airport activists square up to riot police.
Protesters, battling plans to build a new €580 million airport near Nantes, have organised a mass "re-occupation" rally when they will attempt to reconquer part of the proposed site after scores of them began being unceremoniously evicted by police last month.
Saturday’s confrontation, dubbed ‘high risk’ by police, will just be the latest in a long line of clashes between authorities and various groups united in their battle to prevent the proposed new airport at Notre-Dame-Des-Landes from ever taking off.
Although their campaign dates back many years, it has taken an ugly turn in recent weeks, with riot police using tear gas to break up camps of protesters who responded in kind by throwing Molotov cocktails and setting up burning road blocks.
‘Police fanning the flames’
Many have blamed the police operation, unfortunately code-named 'Caesar', for the increased antagonism.
“If the conflict is more violent today, it is entirely down to the police,” Geneviève Lebouteux, regional councillor from France’s Green party, told FRANCE 24. “By evicting people to silence the dissent, all the government has succeeded in doing is to help the movement gain momentum.”
Opposition to the airport at Notre-Dame-Des-Landes dates back over four decades, when the idea to build a new airport for Nantes was first floated.
Plans finally took shape in the 1990’s before eventually being put out to consultation in 2003. The new “Great West” airport was finally given the green light in 2008 after proposals survived a lengthy public enquiry.
It was originally due to be operational by 2017, but with several legal disputes still unresolved and protesters showing no sign they are ready to give up the fight, that date appears optimistic.
A question of capacity
The government and regional authorities insist the proposed transport hub, which will cater for up to 9 million passengers annually, is essential for the region.
It will replace the current Nantes-Atlantique airport, which they claim is stretched to capacity and cannot be expanded to handle the more than the 3 million passengers currently passing through its gates.
Those in favour also believe the new airport is vital to improving economic development in the west of France.
But on the other side of the trenches are environmentalists angered over the harm that will be done to the eco-systems of the local wetlands and the rise in pollution that a new airport would bring.
They have been joined by farmers furious after having had their land expropriated to make way for the airport and a proposed new road system. Earlier this year several farmers went on hunger strike for 28 days until authorities agreed to temporarily halt the evictions.
Various political groups, from the Greens to the radical left, are also supporting the protesters’ campaign.
They all believe there is an alternative, cheaper and more environmentally friendly solution to the problem that would have much less of an impact on the local population.
“The existing airport is being used at 50% of its capacity. It has its problems but the government have never really tried to remedy them. All they have thought about is building a second airport,” Lebouteux told FRANCE 24.
Much of the opposition’s ire is directed towards Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who as former mayor of Nantes was a key supporter of the project, and the company Vinci, who will operate the new airport.
“Vinci is acting against the law, demolishing houses even though the plan has not been completely validated by law,” Lebouteux said. “The government has adopted scorched earth policy. They want to make us believe that the project is well advanced, but it’s not working.”
'We all live on the same planet'
The ranks of protesters have been swelled lately by anti-capitalists who have come from far and wide to join a fight they believe has a resonance far beyond Notre-Dame-Des-Landes.
One activist recently evicted from the site told FRANCE 24 that the battle of Notre-Dame-Des-Landes mirrors other social conflicts.
“This is happening in many places. Immigrants were driven towards Calais, Roma gypsy camps are being dismantled and the poor are being gradually forced out of city centres. It’s all the same,” the militant told FRANCE 24 on condition of anonymity.
“It is not just those who live near Notre-Dame-Des-Landes who should be concerned by this battle. It does not matter whether we come from the other end of Europe or just around the corner, we all live on the same planet,” he said.