Flight or fight
AFP / Jean-Sebastien Evrard
By Jean-Sebastien Evrard
As I arrive in the forested swampland at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, a surreal fog hangs in the air. The thick mists are made not by morning moisture but teargas launched by gendarmes trying to clear hundreds of activists from a protected patch of swampland.
The most striking thing to me, however, is not the gas but the noise. A cacophony of screaming, insults and chants meshes with the growling of bulldozers and the explosions of stun grenades. The gendarmes are here to clear an impromptu settlement of shacks and cabins built by squatters determined to block the construction of a new airport near the western city of Nantes.
The protesters are a diverse bunch: Local politicians, grizzled ecowarriors and 1960s radicals, along with a score or two of activists from across Europe whose specialty is clinging to nets they’ve strung between trees to prevent them being felled.
But there is also a violent, and very well equipped, group as well. They look like guerilla fighters sporting gas masks, ski goggles and homemade shields. Using catapults, they blast nuts and bolts at the gendarmes. They also shoot flares and hurl petrol bombs and stones – anything they can get their hands on.
Photographers on the scene are equipped with helmets and gas masks, making it hard for the authorities to distinguish us from the demonstrators. This forces us to constantly flash our press credentials.
Physically, it’s intense. I slog a computer and heavy camera gear on my back, along with water, granola bars and saline to rinse the teargas from my eyes. It rains almost constantly. Reception is patchy and trying to upload the photos is tough.
The operation lasts for hours. Some demonstrators who resist are arrested. Then, all of a sudden, the gendarmes pull back and retreat in their vans. Protesters lob objects at them as they leave.
We don’t hang about. The activists are angry at the press too. We are insulted and accused of being agents of the state, of being “bourgeois”. Some people throw stones at us -- it’s stressful. I later went with some colleagues to speak to a group of protesters and didn’t have any problems, but it feels like it’s getting harder to cover demonstrations from both sides.