How to Win: Lessons from the Zad

Yves here. We posted a piece last year by Zad Forever about the latest effort to evict the occupants of the zad, in what was then the largest police operation in France since 1968. The background of the protest:

The zad was initially set up as a protest against the building of a new airport for the city of Nantes, following a letter by residents distributed during a climate camp in 2009, which invited people to squat the land and buildings: ‘because’ as they wrote ‘only an inhabited territory can be defended’. Over the years this territory earmarked for a mega infrastructure project, evolved into Europe’s largest laboratory of commoning. Before the French state started to bulldoze our homes, there were 70 different living spaces and 300 inhabitants nestled into this checkerboard landscape of forest, fields and wetlands. Alternative ways of living with each other, fellow species and the world are experimented with 24/7.

From making our own bread to running a pirate radio station, planting herbal medicine gardens to making rebel camembert, a rap recording studio to a pasta production workshop, an artisanal brewery to two blacksmiths forges, a communal justice system to a library and even a full scale working lighthouse – the zad has become a new commune for the 21st century. Messy and bemusing, this beautifully imperfect utopia in resistance against an airport and its world has been supported by a radically diverse popular movement, bringing together tens of thousands of anarchists and farmers, unionists and naturalists, environmentalists and students, locals and revolutionaries of every flavour. But everything changed on the 17th of January 2018, when the French prime minister appeared on TV to cancel the airport project and in the same breath say that the zad, the ‘outlaw zone’ would be evicted and law and order returned.

By Greg Frey, an activist in the UK with Extinction Rebellion and a writer interested in art, politics and humans who do more than expected. Originally published at openDemocracy

After 50 years of struggle, 10 years of physical occupation and over 11,000 canisters of tear gas, that rarest of things happened to one of France’s most infamous social movements: they won. In January 2018, plans for the Gran Ouest airport, in the making for half a century, were cancelled. The 4,000-acre territory known as the Zone to Defend or “Zad” was saved. This means that local ecosystems, the world’s atmosphere and all of our lungs have been spared the impact of hundreds of extra flights a day.

In the gloomy world of environmental activism, victories like these are hard to come by, and when they do happen they are rarely celebrated. What are a few hundred fewer planes a day when compared to the thousands that still fly? But this is a crippling attitude. If we don’t pay attention to our victories we won’t learn from their success. Perhaps even worse, we’ll deprive ourselves of stories full of hope.

Fledgling direct-action movements like Extinction Rebellion and the Youth Strike are mobilising across the globe. They need help to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and inspiration to sustain themselves. Though the Zad’s struggle is particular to its time and place, its lessons apply much more broadly. So, how didthey win?

I went to France to listen to as many versions of this long, dramatic story as I could. Details and emphases change, but everyone I spoke to described how important it was to build a community around the resistance. When a radical farmer asked the first squatters for help in 2008 they immediately began putting down roots. In 2009, these occupiers asked hundreds of activists attending a Climate Camp in the zone to stay and help defend the territory. In the decade of tense and violent stand-offs with the state that followed, they built a deep, diverse and open community of resistors.

At a glance, the infrastructure of the Zad resembled any other community, with a radio station, a local news bulletin, a bakery, a shared garden and even a brewery. But this community was different, because its members cared deeply for their natural environment, managed resources collectively and dismantled hierarchies wherever they could. It was a laboratory for society. At its peak, over 70 different collectives were experimenting with lives built on cooperation, autonomy and affection, all while resisting the new airport, a major piece of capitalist infrastructure. John, a long-term inhabitant of the zone, described this as the Zad’s unique DNA: it combined the ‘Yes’, an affirmation of an alternative, with the ‘No’, a resistance to injustice.

We need both ‘alternative cultures’ and ‘oppositional cultures’ working side by side. All successful social movements have had both, including the Suffragettes and the American Civil Rights movement, as writer and activist Lierre Keith describes in Deep Green Resistance, a 2011 strategy manual for radical environmentalists. Opposition without an alternative will burn out. An alternative without opposition will stagnate.

Keith fiercely criticises the latter. She rails against the drop-out communities in 1960s America as irresponsible and immature. Instead, she says, we need to embed resistance into our everyday lives, normalising and supporting it to infuse a different way of doing things, what she calls a ‘culture of resistance.’ There are many ways in which this combination can be worked out. The Zad offers a great example. This is perhaps the most important lesson to be learned: successful movements must combine their opposition with alternatives and vice versa.

In addition, the Zad is not a clandestine radical cell. Despite all the energy it has taken, the Zad’s inhabitants have worked incredibly hard to welcome visitors and newcomers; I can testify to this from my visit and the convivial culture I found there. Farmers and naturalists, Marxists and anarchists, punks and middle-class intellectuals all came together to defend the territory.

Outside of a local police station at a solidarity protest for five people charged whilst defending the zone, John points at the crowd who have gathered on a windy, wet Monday morning and says “it’s this that won the struggle. It’s the peasants, the old aged pensioners, the villagers, the squatters – it was everyone who managed to make these unexpected alliances.” Every day this broad coalition navigated their differences, worked out compromises and built trust.

As well as adding legitimacy and numbers, the Zad’s diversity created concrete tactical advantages. When a citizen shared a contractor’s drilling plans, for example, legal experts explained that drilling was illegal if it took place near an animal waste area, so the farmers lent tractors and manure and the drill-sites were sabotaged. The contractor refused to work on the zone after that.

The breadth of participants also gave the movement a wide reach across France. Despite caricatures from the state and many media outlets of the ‘zadists’ as balaclava-wearing eco-terrorists, the Zad had enormous popular support. The image of the movement became so powerful that other Zads, in Testet, Chambéry and most recently in Northern Paris, have appeared to wage their own territorial defences.

In particular, a road going through the heart of the zone, the Route de Chicane, became a potent symbol of the movement. It was described to me as an “absolutely extraordinary, anarcho-primitivist, Mad Max kind of road.” Blockaded by huts, towers, gardens and barricades, it represented the kind of unusual encounters the Zad enabled. People gathered to live, eat and play. It was spontaneous, communal and sometimes chaotic. This is the second lesson to learn from the Zad: successful movements must invite difference and create spaces for differences to mingle.

Having land on which to build community helps here, but the Zad was only able to incorporate so much difference because it had a clearly defined enemy. The airport rallied people across social groups in a way that eco-villages, permaculture retreats and off-the-grid communes rarely can.

As Kristin Ross put it in the preface of the The Zad and Notav, the Zad presented an “existential and political choice – one is either for the airport or against it.” The Zad’s slogan was famously “Against the airport and its world.” This nestled a larger politics inside opposition to a clearly defined political opponent – far clearer than something like ‘capitalism’ or the ‘state.’ This is the third lesson: successful movements must have a distinct opponent.

The importance of this point is borne out by the events that followed the airport’s cancellation in 2018. Since the common enemy-dragon-airport was slain, some cracks in the alliance have begun to show. Ironically, tensions converged around the Route de Chicane. In the same speech that cancelled the airport, the French Prime Minister announced that the road would be cleared. This split the farmers, citizens and squatters. By all accounts the year since has been the most taxing of the whole occupation, full of arguing, negotiating and compromising.

This does not diminish the importance of having a diversity of people and worldviews in a movement, but it does raise questions. The Zad now faces a political and existential crisis. Activists, both in the movement and elsewhere, must wonder, could this have been anticipated?

Another long-term inhabitant, Isabelle, suggests an answer when she explains that “we don’t know how to deal with victory.” She cites David Graeber, a theorist and activist, who wrote in 2007 that dealing with victory is “the biggest problem facing direct action movements.”

Hindsight is a comfortable position from which to speak, but if the inhabitants of the Zad had expected their victory, perhaps bridges could have been built over the schisms that were bound to open up after it had been achieved. In any case, their experience tells us that we cannot have faith that a revolutionary struggle will magically align all of its conflicting worldviews. We need to anticipate the hangover that follows a successful revolution and plan for it. This is the final lesson from the Zad’s story so far: successful movements need to be prepared to win.

Starting from this position – that winning is possible – fosters optimism and hope, which are vital resources in our age of cynicism. As Isabelle went on to explain to me, some on the Zad are exhausted because they haven’t acknowledged their victory. She explains how they “keep shifting the goalposts.” First they were against the airport, but after winning they were against its wider world. “No, we haven’t brought down capitalism,” she continued, “we haven’t stopped climate change, and there are still migrants that get tortured and fascism is still rising. Yes, all of that. There’s no doubt about that. We haven’t had the victory, because I don’t think it will ever happen. But it is a victory.”

The Zad, like all movements, is a victory as well as a victory in progress. To survive, it must learn the lessons of its own struggle. More importantly, other progressive social movements must look to victories like these and learn their lessons too. We cannot face our challenges from a position of pessimism or defeatism. If we want to live in a better world we must create it now, wherever we can, and not wait to confront whatever power would stop us.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    I was involved in direct action like this in the 1990’s and much of this rings true. When there is an established community on the site (such as the Dongas peoples at Twyford Down), it creates a genuine community of activists. Its easier I think in a remote rural area – the attempts at equivalent communities in urban areas – such as on the M11 route in London – quickly fell afoul of various types of squatters who were more interested in an opportunity to sell drugs than to build a community.

    The irony is that ZAD should probably be thanked by the French state. The Grand Oest Airport project was a pretty stupid idea, it would have been a gigantic white elephant, serving no purpose whatever except as an ego boost to some politicians. The major airlines have no interest in large expensive airports far away from major population centres unless they can operate as hubs, and there is no reason to think this site is good for a hub. This is probably the main reason it was cancelled.

  2. Mark Anderlik

    Thanks for publishing this article. I will share widely, especially with the democratic socialists in my area. I believe many progressives (if this word has any meaning left) have some kind of vision, however abstract, of what kind of world we want to create. Far more people stumble over the “how to get there.” The Zads show some importants bridges from here to there. They remind me of the Minnesota farmers who began to oppose the building high voltage powerlines across their land in the late 1970s.
    They attracted many townpeople and city-folk to join the opposition, and helped to partially transform their communities. One practical compromise they worked out was the principle of “total tactics ” This meant that whatever you see as the way to win, you need to be engaged in it: running for office, shareholder activism, protest, civil disobedience, sabotage (“bolt weevils”). Inspired by their synergy across the usual barriers, I helped organize ra five year resistance to a nuclear missule silo in the “Golden Triangle” farmland of Montana. On a much smaller scale we organized communal encampments, ran a state ballot initiative, worked with local farmers, and organized civil disobedience. While we weren’t successful in our aim to “Silence One Silo,” we did develop substantial local support and exposed many to the reality of nuclear weapons and a taste of what we people can create. I remain friends with several of the farmers to this day. And remember that time as inspirational which informs my actions today.

  3. Anarcissie

    ‘Victory is death. Learn to lose forward.’ Elementary soft-form martial arts principle.

  4. Susan the other`

    It’s encouraging that zad won. Tenacity. But Macron can’t win for losing. The airport became obsolete right under his nose, and not just because environmentalists had had enough of airports. The worldwide efforts to deindustrialize and practice conservation led to the cancellation of the airport. Those efforts were a response by rational people everywhere to environmental devastation and climate change. To be fair to the hippies of the 70s and 80s, my generation, didn’t know that the entire skeleton of civilization would go up in flames like Notre Dame. We had a sense of foreboding, but the good science came after that, after we had joined society to earn a living. The good thing is, even with my generation, “victory-in-progress” was a reality because we kept our belief in the futility of rampant capitalism. And re Macron, if he scrapes the homesteaders of the zad he will further offend the yellow vests because he will be saying there is no way for them to improve their rural lives except to move to the city and take the bus. Effectively Macron is working against himself at every turn. As is capitalism. Maybe the advice to provide alternatives is best for him too.

  5. Jack Parsons

    Thanks, this is fascinating.

    Another lesson not mentioned, is that it is great to win, but to use this victory longer-term, you must have a larger goal than “anti-airport”. The project was against the airport, the project won… so the only option is to disband.

    I have seen this pattern in people- a friend’s major motivation to get into a high-end college was to escape her parent’s home, rather than to be an academic mathematician. Once she got there, the air gradually let out of the balloon. She dropped out & became a computer wiz instead.

  6. Jack Parsons

    A second analysis of this project would be economic.

    The activity of thousands people over fifty years in this project involved a lot of low-visibility economic activity: driving to and from the site, buying supplies, learning new skills that people take back into “real life”.
    Compare this to the long-term effect of the negated airport: construction money, blue collar jobs in the airport and airport terminals.

    This might not make sense if you have not attended Burning Man (oh hush!). But, I’m tellin’ ya, when 80,000 people travel somewhere for a week, there’s a lot of money moving around. And, people learn a lot of new skills. An example: a lot of people who volunteer as Rangers (cops with mouths, not guns) take those negotiation skills back to their careers.

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