Editor's note: This column was authored by Bill Wirtz.
Recently, Emmanuel Macron’s government decided to can an infrastructure project for the construction of an airport. In 2008, the government approved the construction of this airport, which was supposed to hold 9 million passengers by 2050, located close to the northwestern city of Nantes. For almost ten years, environmentalist radicals and violent far-left activists have squatted on the property in order to prevent the project becoming a reality. The French president, by giving in to violent protesters, has created a worrying precedence case.
France is no stranger to political violence. While Americans are shocked by the violence perpetrated at numerous political events since the 2016 election campaign, the country of croissants and baguettes sees political violence as a national sport. On regular occasion––such as national holidays or reform of labour regulations––violent far-left activists take to the streets of Paris or other major cities, burning cars and breaking windows. During Labor Day protests in the French capital, six police officers were set on fire and severely injured, with half the city on lockdown. Despite France’s tradition of political violence, the protests against the Aéroport du Grand Ouest project were unprecedented: hundreds of activists are occupying the construction site, violently resisting the police and even attacking journalists.
Political opposition to the project was manageable: only a few environmentalist politicians argued that the airport should be put on hold due to its environmental impact. Other critics focused on the necessity for an additional airport: a legitimate discussion, which should be conducted peacefully and without resorting to violence.
In the same year, it became the target of far-left activists and environmentalist radicals: they began to occupy the construction site and barricade the entrance for workers and the police. Multiple attempts to evacuate the site had failed, due to the police’s fears that if an activist were severely injured, it would spark even more violent protests in the cities. As a result, multiple French governments have behaved tamely in the light of this situation, postponing any major decisions as to what to do.
According to the argument of these squatters, the construction of the airport would damage the surrounding ecosystem and reduce the quality of living (not for the people who would be employed at this airport, but who cares about workers, right?). They are calling their endeavour the “ZAD”, short for “zone à défendre” (space that needs to be protected).
The self-proclaimed “zadists” have been arguing for years for the complete suspension of the construction of the airport, and yet their argument isn’t only about the specific project. Their anti-capitalism manifests itself in the claim that they fight against “neoliberal globalisation.” This has big implications: politicians surrendering on this issue means they’re giving way to a violent far-left ideology. In a recent poll, 56 percent of French people support the evacuation of the area through police force.
With its decision on Wednesday, Macron’s government under Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has made itself an apologist for environmentalist radicalism. Philippe added in a statement to the press that the “zadists” had until spring to evacuate the land, now that the project has been abandoned. This long transition period adds to the toothless law enforcement of both the current and preceding governments.
Already, leftist members of parliament are celebrating the decision on Twitter, writing that “the common good has prevailed.” Quite odd to talk about the “common good,” especially given that in a referendum on the construction of the airport in 2016, the inhabitants of the region had approved it with 55 percent of the votes.
The decision therefore goes against the infrastructural needs of the region, a vote of the French legislature and a referendum of the people it affects the most. It sets a very worrying precedent that says if you’re loud and violent, you’ll win.
Bill Wirtz is a Young Voices Advocate. His work has been published in Newsweek, Washington Examiner, and The American Conservative, as well as French newspapers including Le Monde and Le Figaro.