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article imageFrance to clear decade-old airport protest camp

By Marc PrĂ©el and Katy Lee in Paris with Anne-Sophie Lasserre in Notre-Dame-des-Landes (AFP)     Jan 17, 2018 in World

France scrapped controversial plans Wednesday for a new Atlantic coast airport and vowed to evict hundreds of environmental protesters who have lived in an anti-capitalist commune on the sprawling site for almost a decade.

The decision by President Emmanuel Macron's government brings an end to half a century of bitter debate over the proposed airport near the city of Nantes.

But it sets the government up for a standoff with activists who have turned the rural 1,600-hectare (4,000-acre) site at Notre-Dame-des-Landes into a protest camp and are refusing to leave.

"We will put a stop to the no-go zone which has flourished in this area for nearly 10 years," Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said.

He gave the protesters -- a motley crew of dreadlocked eco-warriors, farmers and anti-capitalists -- a few weeks until spring to leave of their own accord.

But the activists have made it clear they are planning on staying put on the marshland where they have erected huts, small farms and a watchtower to help keep their enemies out.

The protesters "reject any expulsion of those who have come to live here", they said in a statement, urging the government to instead let them continue with their "social, environmental and agricultural experiment".

Activists moved onto the site in 2008 and have since built up a community that they bill as a utopia of sustainable farming and political debate.

About 500 police were deployed around the site Wednesday, according to a source close to the highly sensitive operation, with up to 2,000 expected to take part in clearing the camp.

Security forces are proceeding warily as a similar attempt to evict the protesters in 2012 descended into clashes, with more than 1,000 police trying unsuccessfully for weeks to oust them.

- Champagne and klaxons -

The government's announcement was greeted with an explosion of joy inside the ZAD -- a government acronym for a development site, appropriated by the demonstrators to stand for "Zone a Defendre" (Zone to Defend).

Champagne corks popped amongst the "zadists", who honked celebratory horns as a defiant banner reading "So there!" hung from the watchtower.

"It's a huge relief," said activist Claude Colas.

Reports in conservative media have depicted the protesters as radicals prepared to use violence to defend their cause -- to the annoyance of some protesters, who say they have been demonised.

Authorities nonetheless are approaching the eviction with trepidation, not least after the death of green activist Remi Fraisse, hit by a stun grenade in police clashes, sparked riots in 2014.

The airport camp is well-defended with its watchtower, ditches and a pirate radio station to pass messages, although the protesters have promised to restore access to roads they have previously blocked with tyres and barricades.

- 'Betrayal' -

Protesters want to be able to stay on the land and continue with what they say is a successful exper...
Protesters want to be able to stay on the land and continue with what they say is a successful experiment in sustainable farming
LOIC VENANCE, AFP

Instead of building a new airport, Philippe said the government will pour resources into modernising the existing terminal at Nantes and extending its runway, as suggested by mediators between the two sides last month.

He added that it was impossible to go ahead with the original plans given the "climate of bitter opposition between two sides of the population that are nearly equal in size".

Plans for the airport first envisioned in the 1960s were relaunched in 2000 and the project later became a symbol of foot-dragging under Macron's unpopular Socialist predecessor Francois Hollande.

Construction giant Vinci was handed a contract to develop the site in 2010, and a regional referendum in 2016 found that 55 percent of local residents were in favour of the project.

Supporters had argued the new airport would boost the local economy, providing a new gateway to western France while reducing noise pollution for the fast-growing city of Nantes.

But environmentalists countered that the area had unique flora and fauna and that the new airport was unnecessary given relatively light traffic at the existing terminal 30 kilometres (18 miles) away.

The project's cost, estimated at 730 million euros ($890 million), would have been about twice the cost of expanding the existing airport.

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