FRANCE: Thousand of tear gas canisters fired as police clear anti-capitalist community

(CIVICUS Monitor) Major police operation targets anti-capitalist community

Throughout April police attempted to forcibly evict hundreds of activists occupying land in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, firing tear gas as some protesters threw Molotov cocktails and burned barricades.

The site of the protest has been controversial for fifty years, due to the government’s plan to build an airport, which local farmers oppose due to the potential environmental impact it could have. In 2008, the site of approximately 4,000 acres was occupied by several groups which evolved over the years into collectives allegedly living outside the control of the state. The occupiers opened a range of local services, including bakeries, radio stations and newspapers. They named the area ZAD, or “zone à défendre”.

After years of dispute, in January the French government announced that plans to build the airport would be permanently shelved. Nevertheles, authorities were adamant that the people occupying the land would have to be removed. In response, residents of ZAD called for solidarity, writing that:

 “Since that victorious day, the battle has transformed itself and is now no longer about a destructive infrastructure project, but about sharing the territory we inhabit. We stopped this place from being covered in concrete and so it is up to us to take care of its future. The movement therefore maintains that we should have the right to manage the land as a commons…”

People from many European cities responded with demonstrations of support and solidarity.

According to The Guardian, about 2,500 riot police were deployed to the occupied land. French NGO La Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (League of Human Rights) condemned the disproportionate deployment of police forces which led to clashes with the protesters, stating that:

“a place of work and life regarded as emblematic was destroyed even though its occupants had expressed their will to regularize their situation, but without wanting to comply with the required formalism of an individual approach”. (translated from French)

Some activists have viewed these evictions as part of a wider global trend against alternative ways of living.

According to the French Journalists’ Union (SNJ), over the course of the initial three-day effort by police, which began on 9th April, journalists were prevented from covering the eviction. The police provided the media with video, a move that raised concerns over censorship. The Union issued a statement, declaring that:

“When they arrived on location, journalists (the real ones) were confined to the side of the road then evacuated from the zone under escort, while being forbidden to film. Some of them managed to get back to the ZAD by side roads. They were controlled, threatened and banned from access. The SNJ firmly condemns the practice of supplying, with the excuse of security, ‘ready made’ and sanitised images of undergoing ‘sensitive’ operations by the government”.

Following negotiations with the government, ZAD residents were initially given a deadline of 23rd April to meet the government’s demands or face the complete removal of all people and dwellings on the site. In late April, French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe extended that deadline until 14th May 2018, after which non-compliance with the government’s demands would result in their removal from the area. Activists at ZAD continue to organise and prepare to remain on the site.

Violence against journalists covering protests

Reporters without borders and Index of censorship are reporting an increase in police brutality against journalists who cover street protests and strikes.

 On 15th April, according to the newspaper Libération, photographer Cyril Zannettacci was shot by police with a stun grenade while reporting on the police action at Notre-Dame-des-Landes. Zannettacci said that the grenade was “thrown blindly at a group of people who did not display any hostile intentions”.

Four days later on 19th April, Jan Schmidt-Whitley, a photographer with the Pictorium photo agency, and Karine Pierre from production studio Hans Lucas, were also targeted by stun grenades fired by the police while reporting on a demonstration against government reforms in Paris.

Pauline Adès-Mével, the head of Reporters Without Borders EU-Balkans desk noted that:

“Covering a demonstration or a public event in France is nowadays a risky activity for reporters and photographers. A press armband or media equipment no longer suffices to protect them from the police”.

Featured image: Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images