Thousands of protesters gather at proposed French airport site
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Thousands of demonstrators gathered Saturday at the site of a controversial planned airport in western France in a last-ditch attempt to prevent construction.
Protesters, who have been camped out in the so-called ZAD (acronym for “Zone to Defend) at Notre-Dame-des-Landes near the city of Nantes are determined not to let the bulldozers move in.
Planting wooden stakes in the ground to the chants of “stakes not planes”, organisers said more than 40,000 protesters (12,800 according to the police) had pledged not to back down.
“We want to ask the government and those in favour of the project if they are fully aware of the level of opposition across France to this project,” protest organiser Geneviève Coiffard told AFP.
Environmental and farming groups in the town 20 kilometres north of Nantes have fervently opposed the new airport development as it is set to be built on protected swampland.
Other residents and business groups have welcomed the 580-million-euro airport, which is set to have an initial annual capacity of four million passengers.
Supporters say it will provide a major boost to tourism in western France and on the Atlantic coast.
Years of protests
Saturday’s demonstration, so far peaceful, follows a string of sometimes violent protests against the airport’s construction, seen as the pet project of former French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who was mayor of Nantes from 1989 to 2012.
In February 2014, on the fringes of a larger demonstration in Nantes, about 1,000 radical environmentalists smashed shop windows and trashed a post office and the local offices of Vinci, the contractor on the airport project in nearby Notre-Dame-des-Landes.
And in February 2016, between 15,000 (according to organisers) and 50,000 (according to police) protestors staged a demonstration at Notre-Dame-des-Landes.
Some 300 campaigners have been squatting at the site since then. They face eviction before the developers can start building the airport.
Following years of legal wrangling, final approval for the airport was granted by the Loire Atlantique regional council in June 2016 following a public consultation and a ballot of local residents, 55.17% of whom voted in support of the project.
Organisers of Saturday's protest said it would carry on over the weekend with music and concerts, and a "giant gathering on Sunday to protect the ZAD".