[Update 27/03 at 12:00, one man is said to be in critical condition after violent clashes with police]
Environmental protesters gathered on Saturday (March 25) at Sainte-Soline in the Deux-Sèvres (Nouvelle-Aquitaine) in western France to protest at the ongoing construction of an artificial ‘water basin’ capable of holding six million cubic metres of water.
Organisers say 30,000 people were present, the prefecture claims the figure was around 6,000.
The water basin project, launched in 2018 and supported by a farming association with 450 members and the state, will be able to stock water drawn from the water table in winter so farmers can water crops in summer when rainfall is scarce.
However, environmental campaigners say the site is inappropriate given ongoing water restrictions and climate change. They say too much priority is being given to farmers and call for a moratorium on the construction in order to launch a project with “better water sharing".
The protest, organised by the group Bassines non merci, was banned by the local prefecture due to threats to public order at previous protests.
The Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin, sent 3,200 gendarmes and police officers to the site, almost twice as many as were sent to the last protest about the project in October 2022.
Violence breaks out
Violence quickly broke out with some protestors using mortars and explosives, resulting in several police cars being set alight. Mr Darmanin condemned the violence on Twitter, saying “no one should tolerate this. Full support to our police force”.
A Sainte-Soline, l’ultra gauche et l’extrême gauche sont d’une extrême violence contre nos gendarmes. Inqualifiable, insupportable. Personne ne devrait tolérer cela. Soutien total à nos forces de l’ordre.— Gérald DARMANIN (@GDarmanin) March 25, 2023
The protesters also damaged one of the future basin’s gates, attacking the steel with acid, according to Franceinfo.
Protesters say the police attacked them with crowd dispersing grenades and tear gas balls.
In total, the authorities said 24 gendarmes were injured, with 23 seriously injured and one in intensive care, while seven protestors were injured, with one in intensive care.
However, the protesters said on the messaging service Telegram that almost 200 protesters were hurt, including 40 with severe wounds.
They vowed to continue to protest with one telling Franceinfo: "It's absurd to have such strong repression in relation to what we defend. We feel so obliged to defend the common good that we will continue to mobilise.”
Divided political response
Politicians from both the majority and opposition condemned the violence but blamed different sides for the escalation.
Jean-Luc Mélenchon said on Twitter that police were responsible, saying that without their presence the protest would have “been a walk in the fields”.
Assez de violences policières à #SainteSoline !— Jean-Luc Mélenchon (@JLMelenchon) March 25, 2023
Sans les BRAV-M, sans ce cirque, il ne se passerait absolument rien d'autre qu'une marche dans les champs !
However, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, also on Twitter, said she supported the law enforcement officers and firefighters on site and criticised the “unacceptable acts” and the “irresponsible radical discourse which encourages this behaviour”.
Soutien aux gendarmes et pompiers engagés sous l’autorité de la @Prefet79 pour assurer l’ordre républicain face à un déferlement de violence intolérable à Sainte-Soline.— Élisabeth BORNE (@Elisabeth_Borne) March 25, 2023
Des actes inacceptables tout comme l’irresponsabilité des discours radicaux qui encouragent ces agissements.
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