Being in the Zone:
Concerning Conflicts Within the Zad

Alèssi Dell’Umbria

The following essay was published by the French periodical, Lundi Matin, on May 1, 2018. The timing is noteworthy because it was written during a brief period of relative calm between the State’s two most violent waves of eviction of the ZAD, the first in late April and the second in late May. This two-week window was the eye of the storm within the State’s partially successful campaign to divide and conquer the ZAD, a period during which, despite the urgent need to prepare for the second wave of evictions, private and public debates raged on continually about how exactly this organizing should look. The following text is but one of the several incisive analyses about what was happening and how to proceed that were written during this period.

The piece assumes a heated tone, and takes strong positions for and against various alliances existing within the ZAD. In this, it is not unique from other pieces written by revolutionaries acting within the struggle in recent months. The situation has been grim and, especially in April in May, most analyses’ starting point were the first bitter acceptances that much had been lost with still more to go. One could argue that within this period the realization crystalized that a certain era of the ZAD was over but what came next was, and in fact still is, yet to be decided.

Mired as the ZAD has been in various kinds of conflict, many lessons are to be taken from the discourses that have emerged from the strife. Beginning with Macron’s one-two declaration in February that it would both cancel the airport and evict the ZAD, through one of the most strategically and militaristically advanced offensives against an anti-capitalist movement in recent history, up until now, where things have still yet to settle, the courageous and wholehearted attempts made by the partisans of the ZAD to defend it are, we would argue, of vital importance to revolutionaries everywhere.

A final note about the author: Alèssi Dell’Umbria is a French writer, documentary filmmaker and regular contributor to Lundi Matin. Alessi’s political and historical insights are borne in large part from a lifetime of consistent, active participation in the very sorts of struggle he chronicles. This involvement that goes back as far back as the suburb revolts in Marseilles in the early 1980s. He is author of A Complete History of Marseille: From The First to Second Millennium (2006), The Rage and the Revolt (2010), and Possession and Dispossession in the Former Kingdom in Naples (2016). In 2014, he directed the documentary film The Winds of Revolt in Mexico, a film about indigenous communities struggling against the development of windfarms in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

—Ill Will, August 2018

Other languages: Français

Within the movement against the airport project in Notre-Dames-des-Landes, there have always been extreme opposing positions. These positions were discovered within the ZAD itself. It was not always easy to combine them, but over time the movement drew strength from this composition, which allowed it to express itself in various ways: from the blockade of the beltline to open house legal recourse to the riot, plain and simple. There was intense friction and long disagreements. But the composition held together, until the announcement of the abandonment of the airport project on January 17.

Beginning on January 18th, the clash started over the question of the road D281. A line that connects the ZAD to the world, but which also pierces it by way of passage for inhabitants from surrounding villages (many of whom were against the airport, so why alienate their sympathy?) as well as farmers in the area.

To want to keep the road closed was to think in terms of a microcosm: the area would be cut off from the world, to be kept intact and preserved from any messy contact with the outside. The ideal of a totally non-motorized territory that is thought of as autarkic tries to claim to its advantage the totality of the ZADist policy (if we consider the great importance of this road in the zone). But the ZAD exists only through the links that bind it to the outside, and conversely, these links make us live, we who support it. In short, after trying to slow things down, people who had built cabins on the roadside had to come to terms with the decision chosen by the assembly to make way for transit. But everything started back up with the arrival of the clearing equipment.1

Some say that the road thus cleared then served as a highway for the mobile gendarmerie, but really since the night of Friday, April 6 everyone knew that the gendarmes had flocked by the hundreds around the ZAD, leaving a lot of time to barricade on the weekend before the attack… In fact, it’s not even a question: all those who participated in the resistance in October 2012 say that the barricades erected on this road did not hold more than fifteen minutes. The only real material obstacle that slows down the gendarme’s advance is mud. Their tanks are equipped to take a Molotov, but they are a little too heavy for slippery roads… As for the barricades, their need remains clear, but it must be recognized that even the sturdiest end up falling in spite of fierce resistance, such as the barricade Lascar, on the way to Suez, in the heart ofthe ZAD, which was taken and dismantled several times.

Now, this whole area is trashed: not just the huts, but the ecosystem ravaged by the passage of tanks and bulldozers, not to mention the long-lasting poisoning of the area by teargas… The harm caused is enormous and will take time to fix. In the meantime, reoccupation of the Eastern zone has no chance of one-day taking place if the West zone gives way under the blows of the gendarmes. While some were dwelling on their resentment, teams of carpenters sweated for 48 hours to prepare the beams and planks to rebuild the Gourbi, a place of non-market exchange that belonged to all ZADists, located near the Saulce crossroads… And on Sunday, April 15, hundreds of people brought in all of this material right under the gendarme’s noses. Those who grumble against the fact that the ACIPA2 only spoke in its press releases about the demolition of the 100 Names farm3, where were they on Monday morning when it was necessary to defend the Gourbi, reconstructed the day before? No doubt, they were busy writing the venomous prose they were going to give at the evening meeting.

At an assembly, Marcel Thebault, one of the “historical inhabitants” of the ZAD recalled correctly that “in all wars, enemies negotiate.” This is obvious enough, and even if it is easy to indulge in writing the words “Fuck negotiation” on an overturned car in Greece, this makes it no less true that a strictly military victory is far from feasible—and, moreover, no one even believes it is feasible. One has to know how to play with different forms of action. From there, every tactic has its place. So those who peacefully protected the 100 Names farm on the first day of the attack by making a human chain—and who were beaten for doing so—deserve all our respect. The fact remains that we do not stop the mobile gendarmes by approaching them with an olive branch in our hands. And slandering “those just out for a fight,” as Durand and Verchere repeatedly do, is just another form of collaboration: it is fully legitimate to seek battle with a soldier who invades and destroys a whole territory, and to deploy all available means to oppose a military invasion is the only way the struggle will be able to continue. There is a time to wield the paving stones, a time to wield the pen; a time for the Molotov, a time for the camera; a time for the slingshot, a time for the shovel and the pickaxe. To neglect one of these moments is to disarm ourselves. The legalism of some, and the radicalism of the others. Both attitudes continue to clash with one another in a game of mirrors that ends up obscuring the reality of the conflict. Physical confrontation is only one moment of the struggle, a moment that it would be criminal to neglect. However, it cannot be the only element used—which would surely result in the disappearance pure and simple of the ZAD. 4 And we might as well add, that after two weeks of struggles, many people are exhausted.

However, we must compose with the forces actually present: without the ACIPA and its capacity to convene 5, would the struggle against the airport have won? We can, of course, blame them for their tepidness, but this collective is not made only of snitches like Julien Durand. It has been possible to compose with most of these people—even convincing the CGT worker union of Nantes, and not only those working for Vinci, to take a position against the airport. How else would the movement have succeeded in mobilizing tens of thousands of people in January 2016 to block the periphery road of Nantes? When we fight with heavyweights as big as Vinci and the French state, we do not act decisively by mobilizing just a few hundred determined activists. We must deploy a capacity to convene that involves, specifically, the art of composition. And indeed, it is this alchemy that allowed us to force the government to abandon the airport project. If today there remains a chance to save the ZAD, it resides here.

In the meantime, others have preferred to spread vindictive texts, on networks where they have every latitude to cultivate this radical inner-self. To a ZADist who, during an assembly, was angry about this stubbornness “to believe that you have never composed,” one of these people answered with pride “Ah, but it is clear that I do not compose.” At this point, we’re bordering on a culture of isolation: “It is a publicity stunt”  said someone disdainfully at the ZAD open house on June 30, 2017 (upon seeing a crowd pouring in, half of whom had never set foot on the zone, and for whom this would be the first experience of its reality).

Among the assorted slander hurled against the “partisans of composition”, one of the most shameless suggests that in fact, such people are only interested in the management of the land 6. You really have to be in the clouds to believe that the bonds and attachments made over five years on the zone do not make up a territory. Conversely, the “historical” inhabitants of the ZAD reminded this person at the assemblies that it would make no sense to remain alone in the area, to exploit the land as simple individual farmers after all that has been lived, and that one must insist upon continuing this unprecedented cooperation.

“Anti-authoritarian”: this signifier, dropped like a hammer at every turn, emits a strange odor coming from those who cling to an exclusionary approach, who never cease to stigmatize anyone who is not like them. Assaulting a ZAD farmer who came to cut wood with a chainsaw in a “non-motorized” area; regularly opening pens to “free” cows that, lost on the roads, the peasants then had to recover; sabotaging domestic woodwind turbines installed by comrades under the pretext of refusing technology; not to mention imposed language codes, even on the ZAD radio. The impression that all this leaves is that for some the ZAD was only a testing-ground for preconceived and unchallenged schemas, and not a ground for an innovative experience7.

This impression is reinforced by the fact that this refusal to negotiate is not accompanied by any proposal, tactically or strategically. It was evident at the two assemblies we attended: once framed as victims who play on emotions (“We do not negotiate with people who destroyed our homes, injured our loved ones”), what then is the proposal? The emotional register these people keep playing on allows them to embed a position that works in a more authoritarian manner than the decisions made at an assembly because it is unquestionable. Once this register is exhausted and the “anti-authoritarians” disperse, the question remains: how to keep the initiative alive, how to not just get steamrolled over? Because after two weeks of military occupation, it is the invasion of the West that is looming. The government has made its intentions clear. If Operation Caesar in 2012 brought in a thousand gendarme, we should count on two thousand five hundred. Asked about the cost of the operation, the sinister Premier Edward Philippe admitted it was considerable—but after all, hasn’t the budget of the armies just been increased? They are willing to pay the price, even in blood. Without a doubt, they did not expect being met with such resistance, and it is clear the gendarmes do not feel they are on conquered land; just watch each night as they leave in a state of feverish excitement, the kind that typically precedes panic.

If the intransigence born from this idea of “non-motorized areas” has gained followers, this is not what will strengthen the capacity to resist. “What you propose is to create a new State” someone accused a comrade who had proposed creating a non-profit association 8 on the ZAD… how else to object but with a shrug of the shoulders? We do not remember hearing these people who are so well-versed in the art of over-speaking during assemblies use one single time the term “maybe”—even when that is exactly what is called for in such an uncertain situation. Constricted with resentment and exempt from doubt, this is how they appear, those who now continue to spit their venom.

The harsh reality is that sometimes you have to eat shit and bide your time. The comrades finally decided to sign the document imposed by the prefecture and submitted a file a hundred pages thick. Of the forty-six mentioned, thirty-six projects are detailed: twenty-eight agricultural projects, eight artisanal projects, three distribution projects and seven cultural projects. They cover nearly 690 acres. Some already exist, and their holders are registered with the Mutualité sociale agricole; others are being created. The signatories took precautions. The projects presented “are linked by a web of interdependencies: crop rotation, sharing of buildings, tools, machinery and infrastructure, transmission of know-how and skills, pooling of resources and synergy between projects,” according to the introduction. What is most essential, namely the cooperation and the commonality of the land, would thus be preserved. Of course, the State services reviewing the files want nothing more than to bypass all of this contextual complexity, and to simply assign everyone the usual status of an individual farmer. Others have refused to sign and have indicated it is because they deplore such a conciliatory strategy. The two options are understandable, stemming as they are from different positions: the occupants who have put so much time and energy into building a working farm will have more to lose than those who simply developed a garden next to their hut—this is not to devalue one in relation to the other, it is just to suggest that, in the face of such a dilemma, different modes of occupation may result in different choices.

It may be that having agreed to sign will allow the ZAD to gain valuable time, consolidate its position and save what can be saved. It may also result in an impasse, in which case those who signed will be blamed for everything. “We do not know who exactly won the Battle of Marne, but one thing is certain: if it had been lost, it would’ve been me who lost it” Marshal Joffre once remarked. [a]

There is only one certainty to hold: it is imperative that the ZAD, even reduced to its western half, continue to exist. For it to disappear entirely would be a political defeat whose shock waves would spread to all the struggles currently happening in France. An experience such as the ZAD must continue in some form so that the territory will serve as a point of concentration and redistribution of energies. This is all the more important because now the Department of the Loire-Atlantique has taken steps to recover the land expropriated for the airport, an initiative that the FNSEA is certainly maneuvering for [b]. Among its other disastrous consequences, this would have terrible implications for the grove, since it would effectively hand it over to the most furiously productivist of farmers. All means at our disposal must be used to short-circuit such a plan, including legal ones.

Let us dare an analogy with another experience, even if it is out of proportion to that of the ZAD. If the comrades of the EZLN in southeastern Mexico had taken principled positions and refused any form of negotiation, they would not have lasted more than a few weeks in the face of armored vehicles, elite troops and flyovers. That, or they could have survived only in the form of a starving guerrilla, reduced to day-by-day survival with almost no armament compared to that of the enemy. On the contrary, they knew how to rebound using the unexpected support that came to them from the big cities, and signed an armistice. Subsequently, they spent a long time negotiating the famous agreements of San Andrés, in spite of the military encirclement attempt of spring 1995. It would have been easy then to cry treason: and the Zapatistas themselves could have made a point of honor by refusing to negotiate with those who sent the air force to bomb them in January 1994. They could have said, draped in outraged dignity, “no question of negotiating with those who killed us by the dozens.” Instead, they gained time, during which they continued to consolidate their position and gain support in the country. And having signed these agreements in 1996 did not prevent them from refusing the pseudo-ratification that was made in 2001. Today, the Zapatistas are still there, occupying and cultivating tens of thousands of hectares of land. Lands that were taken back in 1994, and continue to serve as a strong point of reference to countless struggles throughout thecountry, and beyond. Yes, the Zapatistas have also made tactical compromises…and some that may have backfired on them. They too have opened traffic on roads.

The Macron government’s agenda in the spring of 2018 is to completely crush any contestation. Whether it be the SNCF 9, the postal workers, university students and faculty, or the ZAD, this Thatcherite government is clearly determined to make no concessions. Part of the ZADist wager was that anti-Macron mobilization would spread across the country, beyond railway workers and students, which would have relieved much of the pressure on the ZAD. For now, this has not materialized, but the games are not over yet. If this wager were to fail, then regardless, road opened or not, convention signed or not, the days of the ZAD are numbered. Nothing will be left, then, but to face the Gendarmerie in a fight without mercy—but at least no one could say then that all their cards have been played.

The head of the prefecture, Nicole Klein, perceived the existing divisions inside the ZAD, and she took advantage of them. This is called war, and she did it without flinching. On our part, whether we speak of the legalists or the die-hards, the ability to respond to the attack has been more conditioned by dithering than deciding. And no one wins a war by indecision. From the perspective of the subordinates, the exploited, the oppressed, a war can only be won by knowing how to rebound from one mode of action to another at the right moment. There is no recipe for that, and it cannot be learned at the university—perhaps a trip to Kobane or Oventic can help, with enough humility. It is a question of political sensitivity, and its cultivation. It is a shame that some, having stayed on the ZAD and thus contributed to the victory against Vinci, did not take the opportunity to develop this. As is often the case, the most extreme discursive postures testify to an atrophy of the senses in practice. To camp on radical positions of principle then reveals an attitude of complacency towards failure and defeat: giving oneself the taste of a total defeat to provide the full measure of a radicality that is just as total. Let’s abandon these sad passions—life on the Zone must go on.

—Alèssi Dell’Umbria End of April, 2018


1. In reality, the passage was already open but in such a way that agricultural machinery could not circulate. In addition, many local residents avoided this route after some had projectiles thrown at them near the “non-motorized area”; this forced them to take a long detour, painful for those who worked in Nantes. The anti-road people complain now that “we have made efforts, and as a result, the police are here”… what efforts, other than having caused police intervention on the road in early February by opposing its clearing? By dint of indulging in a verbal challenge, this posture turns to shambles. After all, they had to content themselves with heckling from behind the hedges at the gendarmes and the employees of the General Council responsible for clearing the bushes, and their highest feat of strength was to dig a hole in the road once the troops had left. The most incredible is that these same people blame the other ZADists for not having confronted the gendarmes whose intervention they provoked! it is an admission that they have clearly tried to force the hand of the rest of the ZADists. Another thing: it is also quite crazy that those who openly flouted a decision of the assembly concerning Route 281 now complain that certain components of this assembly do not proclaim solidarity with them! Building solidarity is an uphill battle, not something to be claimed after the fact when the damage is already done. Thus the COPAIN 44 collective, which brings together anti-airport farmers and has always been for the ZAD, after having suffered the insults of the “non-motorized”, announced logically enough that it would not go and defend their huts.

2. Created in 2000, the Intercommunal Association of Citizens Concerned by the Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport (ACIPA) is the main legal association devoted to blocking the airport project. Since the latter has been abandoned by the Macron administration, the ACIPA has surprisingly continued its struggle in the ZAD in order to allow the inhabitants who moved into the zone for the struggle to remain there in the future.

3. The Ferme des 100 noms was perhaps the largest, most sustainable and most consensual agricultural project on the ZAD, before the police destroyed it on the first day of its raid.

4. It is all the more despicable that many of these comrades were wounded, some seriously, for defending the barricades.

5. At an “anti-authoritarian assembly” held in Wardine on February 10, one of the occupants of this place had the honesty to declare: “during all these years, we remained locked in our bubble without ever worrying about what was being done around us.”

6. A state-owned railway company that includes the TGV high speed trains. Since the beginning of April SNCF workers have been on strike against Macron’s reforms that would scrap pay, retirement and benefit terms for new SNCF employees.

Translator’s Notesa. French general who served as Commander-in-Chief of French forces on the Western Front from the start of WorldWar I until the end of 1916. (Wiki)b. Fédération nationale des syndicats d’exploitants, a French umbrella organisation charged with the national representation of 20,000 local agricultural unions and 22 regional federations. (Wiki)