Inside the anarchist commune France considers a “terrorist group”
They’re calling on the French government to recognize their statehood.
Behind the trees, off the roads of the countryside in Western France, exists a commune that the French government considers a terrorist group, known as the Zone à Défendre or, simply, the ZAD. While the group’s residents have been there for nearly a decade, they have seldom allowed documentation of their life. But seasonal changes bring challenges for the ZAD, which sustains in often harsh conditions without electricity. At the end of one winter, in 2016, photographer Kevin Faingnaert heard through his friend that the ZAD were looking for help clearing paths, planting seeds, cooking and repairing homes. There were 800 others working away over that weekend.
“I knew I had to come back one day and make a project about it,” Faingnaert told Herb. “I always was too afraid to return for a longer period of time. There’s something intimidating when entering the ZAD—the barricades, the makeshift towers, the people who are always suspicious, the anti-journalist signs and the continuous threat of a hard police eviction. I knew I was welcome as a person, but not as a photographer.”
Faingnaert returned to the ZAD last year, spending weeks working in the community before proposing a photo essay with people who had come to trust him. The ZAD do not recognize French law and operate as a sovereign entity, seeking recognition from the government. There are ZAD camps throughout western Europe, France primarily. Usually constructed as a way to protest harmful land development, such as hydro dams or a prison in Belgium. Notre-Dame-des-Landes stands out for being one of the larger, older communes, as well as remarkable for its hardships and successes.
Notre-Dame-des-Landes was created in reaction to a plan to construct an airport in 2009 that would have torn up 1,650 hectares of wetlands. Objection to the airport stretches beyond the ZAD borders. Activists found camaraderie with local farmers. The ZAD population hovers around 300, but it tends to inflate in times of confrontation.
In 2012, the French government launched Operation Cesar, an army of police that attempted to evict the ZAD over the course of a few weeks. Thousands of other activists gathered in response. The ZAD successfully defended itself, but the government has considered the community a terrorist group since. Faingnaert said that this clash has left deep scars, and is the main reason the ZAD hesitates documentation.
It took nearly a decade, but, at the beginning of this year, the ZAD’s initial goal was finally won. French President Emmanuel Macron announced the airport plans had been abandoned. And while this is a victory, it is not the end of the ZAD’s fight, says Faingnaert.
“They plan to stay there,” said Faingnaert. “The government hoped that the Zadists would go away, but now they’re only going for part two of their mission: to be recognized as a lawless state in the Republic of France.”