It was the 1960s in the throes of the Trentes Glorieuses (“The Glorious Thirty” refers to the thirty years from the end of World War II to 1975 in France). The economies, industries and technology of the OECD countries were booming. Development seemed limitless in those happy times; full employment, infinite resources and raw materials by virtue of a little pillaging of poor, full-fledged or de facto, colonies.

The imagination of engineers, urban planners and industrials was boundless. The overriding feeling was that the sky was the limit, or maybe not even. From 1947 to 1973, the annual production index in France was close to + 6%.

The aeronautical industry in France was flourishing. In 1958, Sud-Aviation’s Caravelle hit the market, it was the first of its kind, and would go on to be a global success.  The mid-range aircraft was a great triumph, but the engineers in Toulouse did not stop there. They saw farther, bigger, mightier, faster.

In fact, in the 1950s, the idea of developing a supersonic long-haul aircraft was already firmly in the minds of people in France and England. The project was mammoth and so the governments of both countries forced their corporations to cooperate. Concorde was born and took its maiden flight in 1969 in Toulouse. The aircraft could reach Mach 2.2 at an altitude of 18,000 meters. It was very exciting.

Simultaneously, France was buzzing after the cultural upheaval of May 68. It was the time of major land use projects, of the Nouvelle Société (the new approach of erstwhile French Prime Minister Jacques Chaban-Delmas that created a network of collective bargaining whereby workers and employers would negotiate collective contracts), and the métropoles d’équilibre (the hypercentralisation of metropolitan areas). Olivier Guichard was Minister of Planning and Land Management at the time. He was elected to represent Loire Atlantique from 1967 to 1997, and was President of the Pays de la Loire Region from 1970 to 1990. He had big ideas for his constituency.  He felt that Concorde was a huge asset for Nantes and his region. In fact, the thinking was that it would be feasible to travel from Nantes to New York in the same amount of time as from Nantes to Paris by train.

Unfortunately, the already existing Nantes Airport could not handle the supersonic beast. So, a project for an international airport up to the task was put in the pipeline in 1963.

Concorde to oil crises

By 1968 the list of potential sites was whittled down to one: 20km northeast of Nantes, on the Nantes/Rennes connection, near the commune of Notre-Dame-des-Landes. In 1974, the public authorities declared a differed land development area or ZAD (for the French acronym: Zone d’Aménagement Différé), which served to purchase 1250 hectares of land for construction of the future airport. But as this was happening the project started experiencing its first setbacks. In 1972 ADÉCA – an association for farmers affected by the construction of the airport – was established and they refused to sell their land.

However, the biggest blow dealt to the project was to be the War of Yom Kippur and the fall of the Shah in Iran, which from 1973 – 1979, sparked two major oil crises leading to increases in unemployment, budget deficit, austerity… As a result the Concorde was put on ice.

Suddenly there were more limits than just the sky… The project was put on hold and would remain so for 20 years.


The imagination of engineers, urban planners and industrials was boundless. The overriding feeling was that the sky was the limit, or maybe not even.

The rape of Grenelle

In October 2002, Lionel Jospin pulled the plans out again as part of a greater agenda to “enhance the international and European dimension of West Atlantic exchanges”. This led to the establishment of a second association, called ACIPA that joined forces with ADÉCA; and gradually several environmental associations and political parties (including the Greens and subsequently Europe Ecologie – Les Verts) would unite in a common fight under the umbrella of  “No to the airport”.

In 2002, under the watchful eye of this collective, a feasibility study was carried out by a mixed Syndicat (Regions of Brittany and Pays de la Loire). The study phase, which did not decide against the project, came to a close in 2007. The project was declared of public utility despite the “Grenelle Environment” meetings, which had concluded in its final resolution that there should be no further airport infrastructure built. The Decree of Public Utility (DUP) a big step in the process was published February 10th 2008.

The collective was very active throughout the entire feasibility study phase, but there was one major turning point that had a great influence on the fate of the struggle: the project started gaining greater attention once several young people – up to hundreds at times – decided to set up camp on the site. When, in July 2009, they organised a Climate Camp Action, thousands attended.

This was not an obvious match: it brought together the idealist, anarchist urban youth seeking another possible alternative to the world, with the farmers working the land on the projected site.Yet, through open lines of communication and a dash of genuine effort to actually listen to one another, it worked. Time and good will worked their magic. It showed that another world was possible; and they would try to build it together.

Hunger strike, political accord

The group of opponents opened another front at the heart of the French presidential campaign in 2012: three people began a nearly month-long hunger strike.  To slip free of this, candidate François Hollande promised, if he were elected on May 5th, to drop any plans for work on the site in order to give the courts the time to clarify all of the pending cases. The opposition, in fact, with support from environmental lawyers had already begun a process of multiplying attack tactics: a bill on water, an other on biodiversity, etc. The legal battle even went to Brussels and the Petitions Committee at the European Parliament.

Then, wham, on October 16th, 2012 Operation César was launched to clear all of the squatters from the site. The Loire Atlantique Prosecutors office organised the sting, at the time Jean-Marc Ayrault, a former mayor of Nantes, was Prime Minister.  It was then that national media attention really began for the protest movement. More than 1200 gendarmes and police officers were sent to the site. Much to the government’s surprise, the resistance was fierce and prevailing.

Some farmers, mainly members of Confédération Paysanne, showed their support for the young squatters and turned out with their tractors. The makeshift forts in the heart of the countryside, including La Châtaigne, became the epicentre of an anti-productivist left that was beginning to doubt the Hollande/Ayrault socialist power in place.

A feeling of national solidarity

On November 17th, 2012, a popular demonstration was held on the site and more than 20,000 people arrived from all over France. They did not show up empty handed. They came with prefabricated houses, clothing, boots, drills, tools, boxes of nails, hammers… and of course solidarity with the Zadists!

They took the acronym ZAD (for “Zone d’Aménagement différé”) and turned it into Zone to Defend (Zone à defendre). The zadist is not a specific individual so much as a concept , which would re-emerge in the months and years to come from Sivens to the Lyon-Turin High speed train, from Échillais to Roybon, from the nuclear waste site in Bure to Nonant-le-Pin.

Notre-Dame-des-Landes was the reference in the fight against big useless mega-projects and the zadists became a symbol of those in search of another, fairer, humane world. Utopians with their feet on the ground.

On site, for weeks there were violent clashes between the zadists and law enforcement. Televised reports full of striking images showed scenes of guerrilla warfare in the fields and forests. In February 2013, discouraged, the Prosecutor began withdrawing law enforcement.

Time and good will worked their magic. It showed that another world was possible; and they would try to build it together.

50,000 Take to the Streets of Nantes

Another stunning event occurred on on February 22nd 2014, when more than 50,000 protesters took to the streets in Nantes. They came with their families even though the city was buzzing with hundreds of mobile gendarmes. A polite parade followed the path established by the Prosecutor. Meanwhile a few dozen radicals decided that they wanted to take on the law enforcement. Two hours of violent clashes ensued. There was major vandalism of public and private property.

Organisers and residents alike felt shocked and dismayed that this was sensationalised by the media. Nonetheless, opponents were able to score a point: they showed that their struggle was not just the work of a few firebrands but rather a subject affecting a much broader public, unable to understand the obstinacy of the Socialist government.

‘Ayraulport’ is not dead, but seriously wounded.

Connecting the Struggles
Connecting the Struggles

Can we connect the local struggles playing out across Europe and beyond? And if so - what does the bigger picture look like? The latest edition of the Green European Journal aims to find out!

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