Zone to Defend

One of the ways of organizing at the ZAD that was very effective was the creation of a ZAD radio station, Radio Klaxon. I think you’ve already heard something about it. Well, rather soon after the ZAD occupation began some peeps were able to install a transmitter in a truck and one of the things they did was pirate the frequency for traffic news. The freeway passed very close to the ZAD, so, using this transmitter truck that moved around a lot to avoid being located by the police, they were able to broadcast information about police movements and checkpoints, and which roads were best for getting through. That was quite a tool that made it possible to relay the signs and rumors of attack ahead of time. Supporters near the police station would pass the word to those in the ZAD or nearby, etc., there were a lot of people on our side in different parts of the population and this helped to prepare, and when there was an attack at a particular barricade there was communication of that and defenders could come from different points.

That’s a good warmup. Could we switch to an overview now, where you tell about some of the key happenings at the ZAD that finally led to the withdrawal of the police and the government’s shelving of the plan to build an airport there?

Yes. Well, after the first attack – it was in October, 2012, when the police came with massive force, what they called Operation Caesar, 1200 cops in fact, who destroyed part of the encampment.  There was a riposte to that attack, a huge demonstration that assembled something like 40,000 persons, the 17th of November, and they came there with the intention of rebuilding what had been torn down by the police. In this way several cabins were rebuilt very quickly, as you can imagine, not that 40,000 people were working at once, but many of them had arrived with wood and tools and materials for the purpose. That made it possible to go on living in the ZAD.

In all of that, there was participation by the Imaginary Party, from Rouen and Tarnac?

The participation was from all over France. There were support committees organized in various places. There were dozens of ZAD-focused collectives in the cities, I would guess a hundred or so, that held regular discussions and worked on providing ZAD with what was needed. Every day people in the Zone would put out calls for provisions and aid on the Internet and the collectives would see to that. In particular, when the camps were rebuilt, we in Rouen worked on a camp there called La Châtaigne.  After that rebuilding that started with the November 17th demonstration, La Châtaigne became a space for the collectives I mentioned, and Rouen was among those.  Thinking back to those days, the project for us was to take up residence for a week at La Châtaigne in our turn and show up there with enough food to serve a week’s worth of meals to the ZAD, plus supplying water and cleanup. We would also keep watch at the barricades in case the police arrived. These things were done under the slogan, “La ZAD partout.” (“The ZAD  [is] everywhere!”). To us this meant that the kind of spirit that was in conflict at the ZAD existed in other cities, other locales, that wherever one is there are people organizing against forces trying to squash them on their territories. So that this would make sense, the time at La Châtaigne was to be an opportunity to share what one knew that seemed relevant and provide themes for discussion. The theme we Rouen comrades chose was how to defend against the police, organizing not just for the moment of police attack but for before and after. This had to do not just with defense but also counter-offense and preparing for both beforehand. Also dealing with the consequences, with what followed, the legal and health responses, relative to those who had been wounded. At the ZAD there was a second large demonstration after the rebuilding, where the police came with bulldozers to resume destruction of the cabins. People were there to defend them, of course. This was an extremely violent weekend with a lot of brutality by the police. There were between 150 and 200 people wounded at the ZAD in that encounter. From the clubbing, teargas canisters, flashballs, from grenades that were designed like the military grenades, that made a tremendous explosion and released fragments of plastic or metal that lodged in the flesh. A bunch of people were injured by those. This gave us a lot to think about when we were back in Rouen. We talked about how to organize against such police attacks so that people wouldn’t be hurt in that way. As we see it, it’s necessary to organize a force, not only for attacking the police, as if that were simple, but for organizing together, thinking through an attack together, moving together in unfamiliar territory, la ZAD for example, through the forest and over different sorts of country terrain. So in January we came back to La Châtaigne with several different proposals for discussion, workshops, exercises aimed at clarifying this tactical dimension of clashing with the police. Some of those things are quite simple and very effective. There was a workshop on assembling reinforced banners, which are banners with a wood frame that are especially strong at the points where they are held, and have an armature that protects the ones carrying them from baton blows. They also have vertical covers made of heavy grade plastic sheets that will stop or deflect the flashballs. Well, that was a practice that hadn’t been used much at the ZAD, so we wanted to share that. Something else we focused on was the situation of those hurt, because you can be with others in a collective sense, for the same purpose in the same place, while the clash is happening but then there is this thing where if you’re hurt, and the comrades have dispersed, you can quickly find yourself isolated with your injury. Once people have scattered and gone back to different towns, it’s hard to maintain the contacts and to take stock of the injuries, to offer care and help to those injured, etc.  Obviously it wasn’t right that one could fight side by side with others to defend something everyone believed in, only to be alone after the action was over. A considerable amount of tactical time at the ZAD was spent talking about how to care for injured comrades on the spot, how to organize hospital visits when the injuries were serious. For this question there were two areas attended to at the ZAD. The first was that people organized themselves into medical teams in the ZAD, and learned to give first aid, to identify injuries, to suture open wounds, plus some of the other first aid skills that were needed. Second, the people in the ZAD also created a whole network of caregivers who were professionals in the region. So there were doctors and nurses who would make themselves available the days of the confrontations. This would seem to be essential when one contemplates an offensive capable of dealing with such consequences. More specifically at Rouen, we started a collective called Face aux Armes de la Police [Confronting the Weapons of the Police]. The collective wanted to act in response to the growing number of people hurt by police fire, especially by flashballs. In the past few years there have been several dozens of people injured in this way. Although the weapon is classified as non-lethal, it does a lot of damage nonetheless. Many people have lost eyes from flashball hits in France.  So, knowing about these facts, we wanted to think about the question of a response and what that would involve. It’s interesting that many types of people have been injured. For example, high school students recently during a demonstration, workers in a strike action, football fans after a match, undocumented immigrants who were trying to resist an expulsion, in addition to comrades at the ZAD. With these different groups of people, even though there’s no a priori connection between them, they all found themselves in a situation where they were defending something important to them and the collective decided to get in touch with them on that basis. It was a matter of contacting them from media information and other sources such as collectives through telephone calls. As you can understand, the affected persons often have no desire to talk with someone they don’t know, but it’s been possible to reach them through lawyers or other go-betweens. What our collective has in mind is reparations, of course, compensation for medical treatment and so forth. Well, the classical recourse is to file a complaint against the policeman who fired the shot, but this doesn’t work because the French State, the judiciary, has always found in favor of the policeman. There haven’t been any cases where the policeman was found guilty. What we’ve done instead, with an attorney who knows administrative procedures, is to work toward a form of complaint not against individual police but against the body that authorized the attacks. This would be at the level of the prefect of a département. This kind of procedure is more likely to be successful—in fact it has already been successful in instances involving conditions of imprisonment. The idea is to organize and present a collective complaint, a judicial procedure carried out collectively, in order to attack those who arm the police. What I’m talking about is somewhat new for France, but it’s the only thing that’s consistent with the collective spirit that matters to us. We began together, experienced these confrontations, and we want to carry through collectively. This procedure is what we proposed to the ZAD, to seek out injured people and to launch this procedure. I should make clear that we don’t expect anything from the justice system or the French State. The procedure is mainly a device for making connections with people. Even if there is something at stake with the procedure, obtaining some money for taking care of the people in question, for alleviating their difficulties, because if you’ve lost an eye there will be different sorts of problems, inability to drive, loss of employment, etc., different expenses—plus, some of the money could be re-injected into the struggles; one thinks of buying an ambulance for transporting our injured ourselves. You know, often the police prevent entry to the scene by ambulances from outside. The other aspect of this is that it might give us a position of strength vis-à-vis the State, which could result in eliminating these arms from the police’s set of options.

To conclude our story of the ZAD, following those clashes in the early winter of last year, there was a military-style occupation by the gendarmerie, consisting of about two hundred gendarmes, with units of these stationed at all the crossroads around the Zone for their purposes of surveillance. Well, last April on a Saturday morning, there was the idea of having a picnic at one of the crossroads, a picnic for the farmers around there, the townspeople, the ZAD people. It was the La Saute crossroad, which is a strategic one, the thought being that this would be our crossroad, not theirs. They had been occupying it for several months. Right after the picnic had gotten underway, after the tablecloths had been spread on the ground, and the sandwiches were brought out, the wine bottles opened, the police began their attack against us, lining up in formation 200 meters from us. Next, two groups of four separated out from the line and headed towards us, approaching from two sides. They intended to circulate among us arresting people. Obviously the people there weren’t inclined to let this happen and there was some agitation. When these cops started arresting people, their comrades stepped in to pull them free. Seeing this, four of the cops abandoned the scene and walked off into a field, leaving the four others to fend for themselves. Not surprisingly, they were roughed up in the melee since they were so badly outnumbered. They tried to use their clubs but the picnickers encircled them so it was hopeless. The gendarmes who had been witnessing the action started firing teargas canisters and some of the picnickers responded with Molotov cocktails. As a result of all this ruckus, there was the one gendarme on fire and lying on the ground.  Maybe some explanation would be good on this point. The idea of defending oneself at the ZAD by whatever means was rather widespread, and among the different means of self-defense there were people who used Molotovs to push back the police. The craziest thing in this anecdote is that there was a cop on the ground in the middle of the militant picknickers who refused to be arrested, and all his colleagues had run off, leaving him in a sorry predicament. So he was rather upset. I think he must have been very afraid as well. What he did next was to pull out his service pistol. Fortunately, someone was able to kick the gun out of his hand so no one was shot. The level of intensity that was generated by this clash was so extreme that five days later the gendarmerie left the Zone and the territory was liberated. Or at least there has been no further occupation by the police, no continuous police presence. This had been an experiment in counter-insurrection on the national level. This is well-known; every two weeks there would be a new team arriving for that kind of training in counter-insurrectional techniques. What is interesting for us is that after the police were withdrawn, people at the ZAD were able to begin a lot of collective projects. Agricultural projects, in particular. Several parcels of land were given to the ZAD by farmers in the area. So they’re growing wheat and vegetables. Money collected at the ZAD was used to buy a tractor for that. The land there is fertile.


Theses on the Paris Commune

Theses on the Paris Commune


“The classical workers movement must be reexamined without any illusions, particularly without any illusions regarding its various political and pseudotheoretical heirs, because all they have inherited is its failure. The apparent successes of this movement are actually its fundamental failures (reformism or the establishment of a state bureaucracy), while its failures (the Paris Commune or the 1934 Asturian revolt) are its most promising successes so far, for us and for the future” (Internationale Situationniste #7).


The Commune was the biggest festival of the nineteenth century. Underlying the events of that spring of 1871 one can see the insurgents’ feeling that they had become the masters of their own history, not so much on the level of “governmental” politics as on the level of their everyday life. (Consider, for example, the games everyone played with their weapons: they were in fact playing with power.) It is also in this sense that Marx should be understood when he says that “the most important social measure of the Commune was its own existence in acts.”(1)


Engels’s remark, “Look at the Paris Commune — that was the dictatorship of the proletariat,” should be taken seriously in order to reveal what the dictatorship of the proletariat is not (the various forms of state dictatorship over the proletariat in the name of the proletariat).


It has been easy to make justified criticisms of the Commune’s obvious lack of a coherent organizational structure. But as the problem of political structures seems far more complex to us today than the would-be heirs of the Bolshevik-type structure claim it to be, it is time that we examine the Commune not just as an outmoded example of revolutionary primitivism, all of whose mistakes can easily be overcome, but as a positive experiment whose whole truth has yet to be rediscovered and fulfilled.


The Commune had no leaders. And this at a time when the idea of the necessity of leaders was universally accepted in the workers movement. This is the first reason for its paradoxical successes and failures. The official organizers of the Commune were incompetent (compared with Marx or Lenin, or even Blanqui). But on the other hand, the various “irresponsible” acts of that moment are precisely what is needed for the continuation of the revolutionary movement of our own time (even if the circumstances restricted almost all those acts to the purely destructive level — the most famous example being the rebel who, when a suspect bourgeois insisted that he had never had anything to do with politics, replied, “That’s precisely why I’m going to kill you”).


The vital importance of the general arming of the people was manifested practically and symbolically from the beginning to the end of the movement. By and large the right to impose popular will by force was not surrendered and left to any specialized detachments. This exemplary autonomy of the armed groups had its unfortunate flip side in their lack of coordination: at no point in the offensive or defensive struggle against Versailles did the people’s forces attain military effectiveness. It should be borne in mind, however, that the Spanish revolution was lost — as, in the final analysis, was the civil war itself — in the name of such a transformation into a “republican army.” The contradiction between autonomy and coordination would seem to have been largely related to the technological level of the period.


The Commune represents the only implementation of a revolutionary urbanism to date — attacking on the spot the petrified signs of the dominant organization of life, understanding social space in political terms, refusing to accept the innocence of any monument. Anyone who disparages this attack as some “lumpenproletarian nihilism,” some “irresponsibility of the pétroleuses,”(2) should specify what he believes to be of positive value in the present society and worth preserving (it will turn out to be almost everything). “All space is already occupied by the enemy. . . . Authentic urbanism will appear when the absence of this occupation is created in certain zones. What we call construction starts there. It can be clarified by the positive void concept developed by modern physics” (Basic Program of Unitary Urbanism, Internationale Situationniste #6).


The Paris Commune succumbed less to the force of arms than to the force of habit. The most scandalous practical example was the refusal to use the cannons to seize the French National Bank when money was so desperately needed. During the entire existence of the Commune the bank remained a Versaillese enclave in Paris, defended by nothing more than a few rifles and the mystique of property and theft. The other ideological habits proved in every respect equally disastrous (the resurrection of Jacobinism, the defeatist strategy of barricades in memory of 1848, etc.).


The Commune shows how those who defend the old world always benefit in one way or another from the complicity of revolutionaries — particularly of those revolutionaries who merely think about revolution, and who turn out to still think like the defenders. In this way the old world retains bases (ideology, language, customs, tastes) among its enemies, and uses them to reconquer the terrain it has lost. (Only the thought-in-acts natural to the revolutionary proletariat escapes it irrevocably: the Tax Bureau went up in flames.) The real “fifth column” is in the very minds of revolutionaries.


The story of the arsonists who during the final days of the Commune went to destroy Notre-Dame, only to find it defended by an armed battalion of Commune artists, is a richly provocative example of direct democracy. It gives an idea of the kind of problems that will need to be resolved in the perspective of the power of the councils. Were those artists right to defend a cathedral in the name of eternal aesthetic values — and in the final analysis, in the name of museum culture — while other people wanted to express themselves then and there by making this destruction symbolize their absolute defiance of a society that, in its moment of triumph, was about to consign their entire lives to silence and oblivion? The artist partisans of the Commune, acting as specialists, already found themselves in conflict with an extremist form of struggle against alienation. The Communards must be criticized for not having dared to answer the totalitarian terror of power with the use of the totality of their weapons. Everything indicates that the poets who at that moment actually expressed the Commune’s inherent poetry were simply wiped out. The Commune’s mass of unaccomplished acts enabled its tentative actions to be turned into “atrocities” and their memory to be censored. Saint-Just’s remark, “Those who make revolution half way only dig their own graves,” also explains his own silence.(3)


Theoreticians who examine the history of this movement from a divinely omniscient viewpoint (like that found in classical novels) can easily demonstrate that the Commune was objectively doomed to failure and could not have been successfully consummated. They forget that for those who really lived it, the consummation was already there.


The audacity and inventiveness of the Commune must obviously be measured not in relation to our time, but in terms of the political, intellectual and moral attitudes of its own time, in terms of the solidarity of all the common assumptions that it blasted to pieces. The profound solidarity of presently prevailing assumptions (right and left) gives us an idea of the inventiveness we can expect of a comparable explosion today.


The social war of which the Commune was one episode is still being fought today (though its superficial conditions have changed considerably). In the task of “making conscious the unconscious tendencies of the Commune” (Engels), the last word has yet to be said.


For almost twenty years in France the Stalinists and the leftist Christians have agreed, in memory of their anti-German national front, to stress the element of national disarray and offended patriotism in the Commune. (According to the current Stalinist line, “the French people petitioned to be better governed” and were finally driven to desperate measures by the treachery of the unpatriotic right wing of the bourgeoisie.) In order to refute this pious nonsense it would suffice to consider the role played by all the foreigners who came to fight for the Commune. As Marx said, the Commune was the inevitable battle, the climax of 23 years of struggle in Europe by “our party.”

18 March 1962