The « Zad » of Notre-Dame-des-Landes

UN RÉCIT EN ACTION

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Here is the provisional description of a social place that tries to get out of the dead ends of industrial capitalism and to escape its collapses. This place is the « zad » located in the bocage of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, about twenty kilometers northwest of Nantes. It is in this bocage that, for the past 40 years, various French governments have tried to impose a larger airport than the first one (« Nantes-Atlantique »). But « escaping collapse » is a bit abstract. This is why a resident of the bocage specifies that beyond this aspect, there are concrete and sensitive desires:  » It is also, he says, the desire to get out of a life too narrow to be exalting, to break with a path of life too individual and solitary not to be pathological, to escape from work in a company in whose values and from which one does not recognize himself. It is finally the desire that something new is born, carried by a popular force much larger and stronger than us « . Is the « Nantes » or « libertarian » bocage (I’ll call it that from now on) another society? A society after ? For a quick characterization, I would say that we are in a place of real transition: we live differently than in our cities and our countryside. The difference is very noticeable, although there are inevitable « remnants » of industrial capitalism (the libertarian bocage is neither off the ground nor out of time). The present account is mainly a provisional ethnographic description, with minimal elements of anthropological analysis added here and there.

SOME PRELIMINARY PRECAUTIONS

  • For all intents and purposes, I remind you that there is already a « historic » airport south of Nantes (« Nantes-Atlantique »), and for successive governments it was a question of building a larger airport in the bocage.
  • In general, the words we use today are important because they either try to express a truth-reality (and then they compose a language), or to mask it (and then they compose a novlanguage). The question arises immediately for the « zad ». From now on, I will no longer say « zad » (« Zone d’Aménagement Différé », acronym of the state and entrepreneurial technocracy, acronym that the resistance fighters have reversed into « Zone À Défendre » during the fight against the airport). I won’t say « zad » anymore because some of the bocagers, I believe, want to abandon the word. It must be said that from now on the area is no longer to be defended, but to be inhabited. (All this is not to say that the resistance fighters in Nantes did not like the word « Zone À Défendre » and the thing it referred to). Instead of « zad », I will say « bocage » or I will use any other non-technocratic word. In the same way, I will no longer speak of « zadists », but of « resistants » or « inhabitants », « libertarians », « eco-libertarians », or I will use any other appropriate term. It is important here not to presuppose that the resisters are a homogeneous, uniformly environmentalist group. That some have this sensitivity at the outset is certain. But many others come from different horizons: proletarian struggle, fight for freedoms and public services, solidarity with migrants, anti-authoritarianism and self-management, squat movement, etc. Then, thanks to the fight against the airport, a fight with obvious ecological resonances, reciprocal influences were exerted, and convergences took place which encouraged the consideration of these issues.
  • The people of the bocage are often called anarchists and sometimes they say they are (in some of their dry toilets, one reads the humorous inscription: « anarchy in the sawdust »). For my part, I will not use the word anarchy again because it has so many meanings and covers so many different political tendencies that it is difficult to find one’s way around (when the word does not simply mean: chaos, bazaar, anomie…). I would say rather libertarian, because the people of the bocage practice values of common, active and concrete freedom : freedom to act in common, solidarity, mutual aid and daily co-activity, non-centrality of property and money, priority of use over property, active autonomy (independence from the sovereign State and the Company), real autonomous activity (and not this passivity disguised as activity which characterizes the wage-earner and in which the wage-earner, subjected to a manager-president, state or private, is more passive than active because a good part of his « activity » obeys the objectives of the managerial technostructure of the absolute State and of the Enterprise) To all this we can add: absence of personal hierarchy, therefore practical and concrete equality, refusal of a vertical authority instituted in a system, acceptance, it seems, of a verticality of « the social imaginary meaning » (Castoriadis), which means: each one obeys the symbolic Law (or « imaginary meaning ») that the members of the political community have placed above their heads, an imaginary meaning that can be summed up in a few words: « active liberty, practical fraternity, and concrete autonomy of the community and of the individuals ».

For lack of space, I will not insist at length on an important anthropological aspect: political sacredness . But the importance of this point requires that, even in the narrow space of this description, a few words be said about it — starting with this: the sacred is not the religious or the divine. The Nantes bocage is a region of political sacredness, in the sense that the sacredness that characterized most human societies before the capitalist-industrial revolution of the eighteenth century is precisely destroyed by the said industrial revolution. This is why Marx, in The Manifesto, speaks of the bourgeoisie as a desacralizing force. Definition: the sacred (in Greek: hieros = sacred and strong, robust, vigorous) it is the common power that rises from below, from the people, and that places above the individuals social imaginary meanings, in this case values of common autonomy that come from their interrelations (according to a process that is therefore neither a flat individual interiority, nor an exteriority falling from the sky, but a relational interiority that rises in superiority). The sacred goes hand in hand with what Simone Weil, in her little book on The Sacred and the Person, calls the « common » or the « impersonal. The concrete values of the impersonal community (common freedom to debate and decide, equality, autonomy, mutual aid) are sacred in the anthropological sense of the word, i.e. unconditional, superior to the individuals they constitute from within. It is because there is an impersonal hierarchy in the bocage (the impersonal Value « Equality-Active Freedom » dominates the community of people) that there is no hierarchy of people (inequality) and that there is no fundamental contradiction between the common values and the individuals who practice them.

In this, the sacred is opposed to the divine (or to the religious) which is born with the three monotheisms, and especially with pontifical Christianity in the 11th century: the divine, including in its secularized form that is capitalism, is a power that descends from above on the people (multiple power: God, the State, the Capital, Technoscience) The CEO of Goldman Sachs Bank recently told a reporter: « I’m a banker doing God’s work . One understands better here in what it is the capitalist or industrial God who desecrates men and society. On the contrary, it seems that the movement initiated by the bocagers tends to re-sacralize society and men. Sacredness, of course, is not religious, but political, since common practices are not set in stone once and for all, but are always open to debate and discussion. Durkheim writes in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life :  » There is, at least, one principle that the most free-minded people tend to put above discussion and to consider as intangible, that is, as sacred: it is the very principle of free examination. « .

  • Generally speaking, I will use the word State in a sense related to the first meaning given to it by the Italian philosopher Gramsci. This first meaning (according to a Gramscian vision that has been slightly reoriented here) is the State as government, as absolute Sovereign, and therefore really or potentially authoritarian or totalitarian. (There is a second meaning, that is, the State as an instrument of administrative and social coordination, but it is not this State that is discussed below. It will only be about the absolute Sovereign, historically inherited from the Gregorian reform of the Church in the 11th century, and from the absolute monarchy of the classical age. When the State is sovereign, it is because the people are not. It is, for example, the absolute Sovereign who decrees a state of emergency, whether sanitary, police or military).
  • I cannot relate here all of what I observed during my stay, because I saw sometimes things (not serious actually, but) which are at the limits of the unjust legality of the industrial society; to tell them would be to expose the libertarians of the bocage to the risk of judicial and/or police retaliation. But ethnography, even in the minimal version practiced here, is not an activity of snitching. Let us not forget that in an industrial society, the Law is first of all the armed arm of the Economy (of Industry, of Capital or of the Enterprise) in whose service the sovereign State works. In this case, the sovereign state had planned to entrust the construction, operation and profits of the new airport to the construction company Vinci.
  • In order to do so, and to understand the present period, it would be necessary to relate the recent past of the bocage, which is a history of resistance to the will of the concrete industry to dominate the people and the peasant lands. It would take too long to tell this story. But it is important to know that the local occupants lived through the war. War waged by the sovereign state with the aim not of killing, but of evicting and injuring people. The photos of the grenade-launching tanks in the bocage are impressive. It should also be remembered that during the fight against the airport, the resistance collective had its own ambulance, because it was not uncommon for the « forces of order » to delay the arrival of help in case of injury to the demonstrators in order to physically and morally despair the resistance movement.

MINIMUM PRESENTATION OF THE BOCAGE

Physical geography : the libertarian bocage is a very small region located about 20 kilometers northwest of Nantes. This region has the elongated shape of an almond. The bocage kernel is about 8 kilometers long (east to west) and about 2 kilometers at its widest point (north to south). To the north we find the village of Notre-Dame-des-Landes (there we don’t say « village », but « bourg »). To the south are three other towns: Temple-de-Bretagne, Vigneux-deBretagne and La Paquelais. The bocage is a beautiful ensemble of meadows, woods, paths and tracks, ponds, hedges, fields where you can see many different birds, deer, frogs, etc. But beware of illusions: this nature is far from being wild, it is strongly anthropized: it is a culture. This does not prevent her from being beautiful. Moreover, libertarians are not lulled into the wild delusion that nature must be an untouched sanctuary. And above all: they oppose the fantasies of ecological « solutions » that would not call into question capitalism, industrialization and « development » — said « solutions » feeding the idea that the sanctuary of the 1,600 hectares of the bocage would make it possible to accept that outside the bocage, people continue to make themselves dependent on the commercial and industrial sphere. The bocagers, on the other hand, feel that they are somewhere between sanctuary and industrialization. For example, they seem to claim a peasant and not an industrial forestry. Perhaps the future of the local forest will tell if their sentiment matches reality.

Political geography: Physically very small, this region is symbolically (politically) of immense importance. Unless I am mistaken, the number of eco-libertarian inhabitants can be estimated at about 150–200. Which is not much. But let’s remember that at the height of the struggle against the Vinci State airport, the demonstrations in Nantes and Brittany were able to gather 50,000 people! People coming sometimes from all over France and sometimes from several foreign countries. Moreover, the Bocage Libertarians are in constant international contact with other regions of the world: Italians from the Val de Susa, inhabitants of the Mexican Chiapas, Kurdish Rojava… and also with an English environmentalist collective that is fighting the creation of a third airport runway in London, etc. So no localist or nationalist withdrawal among the bocagers. Generally speaking, one can consider that these 150–200 eco-libertarians are the « children » of the tens of thousands of people who have demonstrated more or less regularly for years against the airport project. In other words, the 150–200 condense in themselves the social forces of the active people who, by opposing the airport project, led in January 2018 to the defeat of the State-Vinci and to the victory of the libertarians over it… Victory that it is necessary to add to the one of Larzac in 1981, to the one that was won, the same year, against the project of nuclear power station of Plogoff (Finistère), then to the one that signed, in 1997, the abandonment of another nuclear plant in Carnet (Loire-Atlantique). In the wake of the Notre-Dame-des-Landes victory, there are also more discreet but no less significant victories: that of the inhabitants of Roybon in Isère against the Center Parcs project of the tourist-industrial company Pierre et Vacances, and the victory of the market gardening district of Les Lentillères in Dijon, against a real estate project for an eco-neighborhood elaborated by the city council.

Marc Weinstein,
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