Jean Demars is a 2015 Fellow and former Housing Lead at Praxis Community Projects. Jean is interested in the nature of complex change within various systems.
Notre-Dame-des-Landes is a small village in a bocage and wetland area, situated 20 miles North of Nantes (France). Wetlands are considered the most biologically diverse of all ecosystems, serving as home to a wide range of plant and animal life.
Notre-Dame-des-Landes has been the site of a struggle between the French state, who decided to build an international airport on the land; Vinci, the largest construction company in the world who obtained concession for the development of the site in 2010; and the local population, who try and protect the land on which they have been living for generations.
Since 2009 it became the site of the first ‘Zone à Defendre’ (ZAD) when the local population invited people to occupy and repopulate the area which had been partly bought through compulsory purchase orders. Occupant-squatters came from radical environmental movements and anti-capitalist struggles to live in the area and link up with the 50+ local groups fighting against the airport and its developers.
Commune for the 21st Century
In contrast to most social movements, which funnel difference and diversity into a unified whole, the ZAD cannot be simplified. For some, it is a local struggle against the building of an airport, whilst others see it as a concrete example of capitalist expansion and environmental destruction. Both these strands still believe in the legitimacy of democratic institutions, considering reform and more democracy to be the response.
Those most committed to social transformation go further in expressing that it is also ‘to defend the possibility of sharing a common future on this bocage’. In order to create and maintain new social relations, another struggle is necessary, this time, against that which is embedded deep within us.
‘The autonomy that is being experimented in the bocage can’t be reduced to our food and material elements. We are not interested in self sufficiency for itself. What is happening here is political autonomy. What we are inventing, through trial and error, is the capacity to collectively decide our own rules.’ 
This typifies the depth of the social transformation at stake in the making of the ZAD. It should not be interpreted as some form of self-management, so prevalent in advanced capitalism, but rather as an exploration in modes of being and interacting that break with the imperatives of the market.
Tactics for Social Change
Legal proceedings against the French state have been going on for 15 years with the support of committed lawyers, expert economists and ecologists. Despite irrefutable proof of the damage the airport would cause, and despite the possibility of expanding the existing airport, the law continues to rule in favour of the state.
Outside the legal process, the primary form of resistance is expressed through regular protest marches, demanding the termination of the project. Similarly, some elements of the movement have engaged with existing political parties to access the higher echelons of power and attempt to influence the process and outcome.
Direct action has been an important element of resistance. When evicted by riot police in 2012, occupant-squatters resisted the destruction of farm buildings and refused to leave the area. The local community supported them and organised a re-building event that brought together 40,000 people. Following this, attacks were launched against machinery attempting to enter the ZAD along with acts of sabotage to ensure no preliminary works could be carried out.
Direct Action doesn't stop at self-defence. It has brought together the various elements of the ZAD via environmentalists recording protected species in the area, local farmers sharing knowledge and lending cattle to start a cheese-making workshop, the exchange of seeds, the weekly non-market where produce is exchanged and ‘sold’ for what can be afforded. The list is endless because it continues to be created in the everyday interactions of people inhabiting or engaging in the ZAD, without any external, superior or hegemonic body to arbitrate or intervene.
What lessons can be learnt from the ZAD for ethical leadership?
- Strong ethical principles guiding an experimental daily practice is key to the transformation of social relations.
- The importance of negating what exists as much as creating the new. Negation is a necessary but insufficient condition for the creation of the new. Trying to build participatory communities without first rejecting the current social order will sooner or later bring it against the existing order, whether that is in the form of eviction or recuperation.
- Dispersing power has to be a key feature of the new so that autonomous communities remain non-hierarchical. One consequence of this may be that mass movements are not desirable to build, unless they are the result of individual actions.
The ZAD is a community of struggle in becoming. Its inherent ‘messiness’ is its strength if only those involved don't see ‘difference’ as inhibiting, but the engine of the movement, the affect unleashed on its outside and the potential it can actualise in the everyday. As such the exchanges between local people fighting the building of an airport, and occupant-squatters building a commune for the 21st century are key, even though they could just as easily be exploited by the state to split the movement.
What makes this struggle so important is that it contains the world, old and new, within it and provides a concrete pressure point for people to get engaged in, far away from depoliticised community organising or abstract, even if radical, ideology.
: Crested Newt is a protected species found in the local area, which has been taken as a symbol for all species that will disappear as a direct result of the armed concrete poured over the wetlands to build the airport.
 : The use of the word ‘radical’ need to be reviewed in the current political context where states have been so radical in the imposition of inhumane policies. It is used here in the conventional sense of those seeking transformation rather than reform.
 : Defending the ZAD, Mauvaise Troupe Collective, p. 22, éditions de l’éclat.
: Ibid, p.20
 : Ibid, p. 20