The French Government Is Trying To Outlaw an Environmental Movement

President Macron’s neoliberal vision of a green industrial age clashes with the new uprising’s pursuit of degrowth

The French Government Is Trying To Outlaw an Environmental Movement
A protester in Toulouse, France, is wrapped in the symbol of Les Soulevements de la Terre. (Alain Pitton/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

So far, 2023 has been a turbulent year in France, and it shows. In cities across the country, you can still find lingering evidence of the protests and riots throughout the spring and summer: shattered storefronts, charred cars and tagged walls.

Common among the hastily spray-painted slogans are “49.3,” the article in the constitution that allowed the French government to pass largely unpopular retirement reforms, and the name “Nahel,” the unarmed 17-year-old who was killed by police. Also displayed alongside them is a symbol that looks like an upside-down “T” hovering above two horizontal lines (⏚).

In the realm of electrical engineering, this symbol designates a “ground” connection, where an electrical circuit offloads additional charge into the earth before it short-circuits. But in this context, it represents Les Soulevements de la Terre (Earth Uprisings) or SLT, a collective of environmental activists whose movement has attracted much less international attention than its counterparts and yet has garnered the strongest governmental response.

Following several violent clashes between SLT and the police this summer, Gerald Darmanin, France’s interior minister, issued a decree to officially dissolve SLT, essentially making the movement illegal. It was the first time that dissolution — usually reserved for suspected Islamist terrorist groups or far-right militants — was used against environmental activists. A year earlier, Darmanin referred to the protests carried out by SLT as a form of “ecoterrorism.”

The movement was born from an iconic protest in 2008, when the government designated around 4,000 acres of wetland outside of Notre-Dame-des-Landes in western France as a “ZAD,” which stands for “zone d’amenagement differe” or “deferred development area.” It was going to become the site of a new major airport. But soon after, a group of local farmers and environmental activists set up camp in the zone. Their goal was to occupy it until the airport plans were dropped. They also repurposed the term ZAD to stand for “zone a defendre” or “zone to defend.” Over the next decade, the ZAD grew into a fully autonomous community, resisted multiple police raids, became a national symbol for environmentalists and eventually forced the government to abandon its airport plans.

In 2021, SLT was formed in earnest. Like the ZAD, SLT’s mission is to protect land from large-scale industrial development that, according to the organization, harms the natural environment and small farms. But unlike its progenitor, SLT lives exclusively online and serves as a collective of many local environmental groups that regularly mobilizes its 150,000 members to carry out protests, or what they call “actions,” at sites across the country. At the beginning of the year, SLT’s website published its “Season 5” of actions for the year. The first one was on March 25, near the town of Sainte-Soline in western France.

For years leading up to this date, a local group called “Bassines Non Merci” (“Reservoirs No Thank You”) had been fighting against the construction of over a dozen government-subsidized water reservoirs — large craters capable of holding enough groundwater to fill 250 Olympic-size pools. These would irrigate surrounding industrial farms during periods of drought, while regular residents in the area must abide by stringent water cuts. Although the government imposes limits on how much of the reservoir’s water can be used by farms, as droughts become more frequent all over France these developments are increasingly perceived as a form of “water privatization.”

Accordingly, starting a day earlier, a procession of tractors sporting angry banners began to slowly make its way toward one of the reservoir sites. The following morning, it was joined by over 6,000 protesters, many of whom had answered SLT’s call on platforms like Telegram and X, formerly known as Twitter. Waiting for them at the reservoirs were about 3,200 police officers, who monitor the group’s online behavior.

By midday, the hilly grassland resembled a war zone. Videos uploaded to social media showed mayhem. Tear gas canisters and Molotov cocktails flew in opposite directions as lines of officers in riot gear pushed back against a crowd of protesters who had come prepared, wearing gas masks. By the end of the day, around 200 protestors and 24 police officers were wounded, 12 people were arrested, two police vans were burned and one reservoir pump was destroyed. The police later shared pictures on social media of all the weapons they said they had seized from protestors: 62 knives, 67 petanque balls, 20 aerosol or gas cans, 13 axes or machetes, 12 stones and cinder blocks, seven fireworks, six petrol cans, five truncheons or baseball bats and almost 100 miscellaneous farming tools.

Meanwhile, the police were criticized for their excessive use of dispersion grenades, which put one protester in a coma, and for allegedly blocking ambulances from reaching the injured. Weeks later, after more unrest in response to retirement reform and Nahel Merzouk’s murder, several countries at the U.N. Human Rights Council voiced concern over the French police’s use of force and discrimination against Africans and Muslims.

The incident at Sainte-Soline gained national attention and turned SLT into a household name. It was followed by four more actions, including another clash with police at a protest against a new train line in the Alps on June 17. Five days later, Darmanin issued a decree to dissolve the group, and shared it on Twitter. According to the document, the dissolution was justified by SLT’s “major role in the design, dissemination and legitimization of [a] violent modus operandi,” with reference made to the clash at Sainte-Soline, among others.

The legal basis for the dissolution lies in Article 212-1 of France’s Internal Security Code: the so-called “separatism law,” which authorizes the dissolution of associations or groups that “provoke armed demonstrations or violent acts against people or property.” It was introduced in 2021 in an effort to combat domestic terrorism but faced strong opposition, particularly from many on the left, who characterized it as “anti-Republican” and “anti-Muslim.” Since its passing, the law has mostly been used against Islamist groups like Les Alerteurs, and far-right groups like Bordeaux Nationaliste, adding to a total of 33 groups or associations dissolved by President Macron’s administration — more than any other president of the Fifth Republic.

As the summer went on and record-breaking heat waves inundated much of Europe, public outcry against the dissolution also grew. France’s Green Party, the Human Rights League of France, Amnesty International and even Greta Thunberg voiced their opposition. On social media, the slogan “On ne dissout pas un movement,” or “You don’t dissolve an uprising,” was everywhere.

Then, on Aug. 11, following an appeal by SLT’s lawyer Raphael Kempf, the Conseil d’Etat temporarily suspended the dissolution. The judge ruled that “neither the documents in the case file nor the discussion that took place at the hearing could be considered as evidence that the group in any way condoned acts of violence against individuals. Moreover, there were only a limited number of actions advocated by Les Soulevements de la Terre that led to damage to property.” A definitive decision on the dissolution is expected later this year.

When Ludwig, an SLT representative based in Grenoble, first heard about the dissolution, he wasn’t surprised. “I saw it coming. But, you know, you never know when it will strike.” Faced with the prospect of three years in prison and a 45,000-euro ($47,000) fine — the penalty for attempting to reconstitute or maintain a dissolved group — SLT was unable to carry out any more actions that summer and some members left the collective altogether. Yet, according to Ludwig, that was fine, since most of them were on vacation.

Asked about the decree’s claims, Ludwig doesn’t deny SLT’s use of violence but does deny that it’s the collective’s primary objective. Rather, he sees it as an effective way to make headlines: “Of course, when there is violence, it attracts even more attention. For the best or the worst, I’m not sure. But the end goal is not to destroy, to be violent. It’s to bring attention to something.”

He also thinks that the government’s strong response has little to do with SLT’s destructive tendencies: “The soulevement is not dangerous in and of itself. It’s dangerous because it could raise awareness in the population, which is usually not interested in these topics. That’s why politicians think it’s dangerous. … The reason they call soulevement terrorists is to use fear to manipulate people so that they don’t join the fight. ‘Okay, if you join this, you’re not just a criminal. You’re a terrorist.’”

The “topics” Ludwig is referring to aren’t the typical talking points you find in the climate debate, like nature preservation or renewable energy. Rather, they focus on a more radical idea called “degrowth”: the belief that the only way humanity will end its use of fossil fuels and win the war against climate change is to first stop its endless pursuit of economic growth. The concept was popularized by the 2021 book “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” by the Swedish academic and activist Andreas Malm.

The book argues that the only way for humanity to achieve a state of degrowth and consequently curb the use of fossil fuels is for environmental activists to abandon diplomacy and peaceful protests and adopt more destructive methods inspired by communist revolutions of the past, or what he calls “ecological Leninism.”

Along with a film released in 2022, the book inspired several radical environmental movements in Europe like Just Stop Oil in the U.K. and Last Generation in Germany. However, in an interview with the Guardian, Malm singled out SLT after the protest at Sainte-Soline.

“The scale of that clash and protest puts everything else in the shade when it comes to radical tactics in the U.K. or Germany or anything like that,” he said. Darmanin’s decree cites Malm as an inspiration for the violence that unfolded.

SLT’s adherence to “degrowth” has led to actions that mainstream environmentalists oppose. For example, after a protest at a sand mine near the city of Nantes in June, SLT members stopped by some experimental greenhouse farms that grew lily of the valley and lamb’s lettuce in sand instead of soil in an effort to reduce water and pesticide use. Much to the owners’ surprise, the members got on their knees and methodically uprooted the leafy greens. Many were confused as to why environmental activists would destroy sustainable agriculture. Valerie Masson-Delmote, a climate scientist who previously supported SLT’s actions, posted on Twitter: “These destructions plunge me into complete incomprehension.”

But SLT stood firm, arguing that such farming methods, sustainable as they may be, would serve only industrial agriculture. As Ludwig puts it: “Even if we make the hypothesis that this is perfectly ecological, it doesn’t create pollution … even then we should question it. Because we have to question: Is it feeding the growth of the market or the economy? Because this will also have ripple effects.” The same goes for SLT’s opposition to the new high-speed rail line in the Alps, which by many accounts is a relatively green form of transportation. “We are still adding a new artery to the system, allowing the system to be even faster, even more productive, even more, even more, even more, even more, always more.”

But “more” appears to be how the French government plans to combat climate change. Instead of cutting back, Macron’s vision aims to push for the development and distribution of renewable energy through an economic growth stimulus package. This is known as “decoupling” or the idea that carbon emissions can be separated from economic growth.

Indeed, he has announced a number of subsidies and programs aimed at cultivating what he hopes will be at least 100 domestic “unicorns” — private companies worth more than $1 billion — by 2030, 25 of which will be “green.” As a case in point, five days before SLT’s dissolution, Macron met with Tesla CEO Elon Musk to coax a gigafactory to France. He has also been in talks with the Chinese electric vehicle manufacturer BYD. As Macron put it plainly on Twitter: “I want France to be a champion and at the forefront of this new industrial revolution.”

Whether it’s degrowth or a new industrial age, some form of climate-fueled revolution has already taken hold in France. But with the current laws and political and economic context, it is not yet clear how that revolution might unfold.

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