Diggers began working at Vendine, Haute-Garonne, this week as construction on the A69 motorway got under way.
The project to build the 53-km-long road between Toulouse and Castres is highly controversial.
Campaigners say the motorway will destroy the environment. Thousands showed their opposition to it in April. But proponents of the project say it will boost the region’s economy.
On Wednesday (May 24), a camp of people protesting the motorway was ordered to disperse and one militant was arrested for refusing to move.
It came as construction machinery began digging at the site.
Around 30 activists were still present at the campsite when the diggers arrived on Wednesday.
Among them Thomas Brail, founder of the French tree protection association, the groupe nationale surveillance des arbres.
He was arrested for obstructing machinery from passing onto the land where the motorway will be built and his colleagues were dispersed to a nearby plot of land that will not be touched by the construction.
The video below shows Mr Brail walking around the site after construction workers and their machinery had entered.
Pour défendre les alignements d'arbres protégés par l'Art L350-3 et mis en danger par le projet de l'#A69 entre #Castres #Toulouse, @BrailThomas vient d'être placé en garde à vue. Quid de la planification écologique proposée par @Elisabeth_Borne ? @F3Occitanie @hugoclement pic.twitter.com/a3Silfl3Ax— GNSA Groupe National de Surveillance des Arbres (@GNSA_arbres) May 24, 2023
But it is not just environmental concerns worrying opponents of the project. A number of protestors are angry over the €17 toll that will be charged to use the road. Others question why improvements could not have simply been made to the existing road that the A69 will run parallel to.
Motorway is ‘in the public interest’
Atosca – the company that won the contract to construct the motorway – says it is simply following regulations laid out earlier this year for building the road.
It said it had “begun the preparation of the earthworks at Vendine, a phase necessary to draw the route of the motorway,” but that “in the face of obstructions by a few people, the gendarmerie intervened today to allow the work to proceed smoothly”.
“At this time, only the land not affected by the motorway remains occupied. In accordance with the environmental authorisation issued on 1 March, work is continuing in order to complete the A69 motorway, which is recognised as being in the public interest,” it added in a statement after the incident.
Other proponents say it is economically necessary, and will create at least 1,000 jobs in the area.