Violent clashes that injured 30 people and 61 gendarmerie officers erupted over the weekend in west France, during protests by eco-campaigners against the construction of farming water reservoirs.
Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said that more than 1,000 gendarmerie officers remained in Sainte-Soline (Deux-Sèvres) yesterday (Sunday, October 30) at the request of the president to ensure that “no areas of conflict emerge”.
He added that there were “fewer than a dozen arrests”. The state put the number of protesters at 4,000, while organisers claim that the number was closer to 7,000.
61 gendarmes ont été blessés, dont 22 sérieusement. Ce chiffre démontre que ce n'était pas une manifestation pacifique mais un rassemblement très violent. J'espère que toutes les forces politiques républicaines condamneront ces violences. https://t.co/vQVNAIL2Xx— Gérald DARMANIN (@GDarmanin) October 29, 2022
#SainteSoline [Deux-Sèvres] Nombreuses violences dont des tirs de mortiers à l'encontre des #gendarmes chargés de garantir l'ordre public. Total soutien à nos gendarmes blessés #vousProtéger pic.twitter.com/06ut5QSpf8— Gendarmerie nationale (@Gendarmerie) October 29, 2022
The statement came after two days of clashes at the site.
On Saturday, protesters broke through gates to the entrance, before being pushed back. On Sunday, they cut off a section of the piping, claiming that it is intended to fill another future reservoir. However, the interior minister denied this, saying that the pipes were the private property of a farmer.
Les manifestants détruisent à coup de pioches une partie de la canalisation qui va servir le réseau de pompage de la future bassine de Sainte-Soline. Action encore en cours. pic.twitter.com/TjP7DDraD0— France Bleu Poitou (@Bleu_Poitou) October 30, 2022
Mr Darmanin said that the action amounted to “eco-terrorism” and said that around 40 activists on the fichés S (police potential offender watchlist) had been identified at the site.
La main de l'État n'a pas tremblé face aux activistes violents, dont plus de 40 fichés S, qui ont tenté d'installer une ZAD à Sainte-Soline, dans les Deux-Sèvres. Grace à l'action déterminée des gendarmes, le chantier de la réserve de substitution a été protégé. pic.twitter.com/G9MEYha4ep— Gérald DARMANIN (@GDarmanin) October 30, 2022
Authorities have also claimed that the protesters threw projectiles, including Molotov cocktail explosives, towards the gendarmerie, who responded with tear gas.
Mr Darmanin said that on Saturday night, 66 officers were injured, of which 22 “seriously”, with some “still hospitalised”. Protest organisers say that around 50 of their participants were injured, of which five were hospitalised.
Several activists, including two MEPs from the green party Europe Ecologie-Les Verts (EELV) have alleged that they “received hits from law enforcement officers during operations”.
Protests at the site had been banned by the Deux-Sèvres prefecture.
Violences (mortiers, cocktails molotov, jets de projectiles...) pendant la #manifestation interdite à #SainteSoline (toujours en cours). Action déterminée des forces de l'ordre pour garantir la sécurité et protéger le périmètre. L'intrusion sur le site a été évacuée. pic.twitter.com/gtSQVPkhSw— Préfète des Deux-Sèvres (@Prefet79) October 29, 2022
Protesters are continuing to occupy a field close to the site, with the permission of a local farmer who has lent them the land.
On Sunday, they began building watchtowers on the site. Activist spokesperson Julien Le Guet said that this location will become "the starting point for a whole range of actions that will be carried out if the work continues”.
Mr Darmanin said that "the state cannot intervene" on private land, or prevent opponents from settling there, but he said that the state could and would prepare appeals against these "obviously totally illegal" constructions, in order to "have them destroyed".
En marge de la manifestation contre les bassines, des activistes piétinent les semis d'un champ pour détruire la récolte à venir. Saccager une culture, est-ce la nouvelle façon de « défendre le vivant » ? #agribashing#SainteSolinepic.twitter.com/ROVjykcrrZ— Mac Lesggy (@MacLesggy) October 31, 2022
Why is the site controversial?
It is the location of a construction site of a water reservoir that will store water reserved for farming. Its capacity alone is set to be equal to 20 Olympic swimming pools.
Protesters say that this storage and supply of water is inappropriate given the current drought situation in France and climate change. They are intent on occupying the site and stopping the work from going ahead.
À Sainte-Soline pour lutter contre les #bassines afin que la resource en eau soit partagée justement entre tous les usages, y compris agricoles. Il faut sortir de cette agriculture qui accapare l'eau pour quelques cultivateurs de maïs. pic.twitter.com/PzskweIp1G— Yannick Jadot (@yjadot) October 29, 2022
Sainte-Soline is the second of a project to build 16 reserves, developed by a group of 400 farmers, united under the banner of the ‘Coop de l'eau’. The aim is to "reduce summer water withdrawals by 70%", in a region that is still subject to irrigation restrictions, after an exceptional summer drought and continued warm weather.
The reserves are open-air basins, covered with plastic, which are set to be filled by pumping water from the surface water table in winter. Once all of the reserves are built, together they are set to store up to 650,000 m3 (or 260 Olympic-sized swimming pools) of water.
The farmers say that this will stop them from needing to take water from the under-pressure water table in summer, but protesters say that even taking water from the ground during winter is inappropriate.
Former presidential candidate and MEP Yannick Jadot, who is in support of the protest, said: “It's October 29, it's dry everywhere. It's absurd to take all the water available for use by a few corn farmers. Political party La France Insoumise was also in support at the protest.
‘No negative consequences’...but pesticide doubts
However, Ecology Minister Christophe Béchu has said that the project will have “no negative consequences” for water levels.
Speaking to FranceInter, he cited a geological study from the Bureau de recherches géologiques et minières (BRGM), saying that on the contrary, the project could increase the flow of rivers "by 5% to 6%" in the summer, compared to a decrease of 1% in the winter (compared to the period 2000-2011).
However, the study did not take into account the potential evaporation levels at future reserves, nor the threat of recurrent drought due to global warming.
And Mr Béchu also said that the “proposals signed by everyone four years ago" – after a long consultation between farmers, elected officials, authorities, and relevant associations – stated that access to the water was supposed to be conditional on changes in certain farming practices, such as the reduction of pesticides, planting of hedges, and conversion to eco-friendly farming.
Yet, none of the 10 farmers using the first reservoir "has signed up to a reduction in pesticides", said Vincent Bretagnolle, a member of the project's scientific and technical monitoring committee (CST).
He added that since the signing, several associations have withdrawn from the plans.
The controversy continues.