On October 29, 2022, thousands of environmental activists from diverse backgrounds converge on the Deux-Sèvres department in central France to protest against a “mega-basin” project that is becoming a national source of tension. .
The authorities’ desire to pump water in winter to supply a vast open-air reservoir to be used in summer to irrigate the fields of a dozen large agricultural producers has aroused anger, even more so since the drought has been felt in the country.
Anthony Cortes, journalist for the weekly Marianne, is in the front row as the organizations present fine-tune the operation in the hope of going to the site of the Sainte-Soline construction site to block it, at least temporarily.
The participants, he says, are invited to divide into three separate processions, which hope to succeed in overwhelming the police forces mobilized for the occasion.
Mr. Cortes decides to follow “the hardest”, led by anti-fascist activists described by the organizers as “allies”.
He quickly finds himself in front of scenes of “urban guerrilla warfare” in a village in the region.
“In the small streets, the militants were being shot at by the police with LBDs [defense bullet launchers, considered non-lethal weapons]. Some responded with Molotov cocktails,” says the journalist, who was surprised by the “ability of the crowd present to accept the violence”.
In one memorable exchange, a man carrying a bag full of rocks mocked a woman for urging him to stay peaceful, noting that simply saying “we’re not not happy” hadn’t yielded anything for 30 years.
“The people around applauded him… Today, the activists feel so little listened to by the state that they understand that it is coming to this,” says Mr. Cortes, who recently published with a colleague a book on the tensions between the environmental community and the French state entitled The coming confrontation.
“I used to hear about Gandhi rather than Malcolm X. Now it’s quite the opposite,” he says, referring to the ex-Indian leader, non-violent believer, and black activist , who decried this approach.
At the end of March, a second large-scale demonstration was held in Deux-Sèvres to try again, in vain, to gain access to the site, giving rise to new clashes More than 200 participants were injured, 40 of them seriously, as well as forty policemen.
Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have accused the authorities of using excessive force, including the use of thousands of tear gas canisters and disencirclement grenades which, when detonated, released hard rubber projectiles that many injured.
Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, who called the protesters “eco-terrorists” in October, said that the uprisings of the earth collective, which initiated the protest, had again demonstrated that it represented a threat to France and had to be disbanded.
Léna Lazare, spokesperson for the collective, blames the clashes on the government.
“We didn’t think for a second that the police response would be so violent. If we had known, I’m not sure we would have held the protest,” she told La Presse.
The 23-year-old also denounces the minister’s label of “eco-terrorist” as an attempt to manipulate public opinion.
“Many of the protest attendees were shocked to hear that. Especially since in France there have been major terrorist attacks in which people have killed a large number of people to sow terror in the population. We are certainly radical environmental activists who engage in civil disobedience, but it is out of all proportion to that. says Ms. Lazare.
Members of the Earth Uprisings oppose any attack on individuals, but they openly claim the sabotage of physical infrastructure as a legitimate means of action, calling it a form of “disarmament” to curb global warming.
Pipes to be used to transport water pumped from groundwater were cut in Sainte-Soline.
Anthony Cortes notes that the practice of sabotage, despite its illegality, has “practical consensus” among new French environmental organizations.
“It’s totally integrated and theorized,” he says.
Anthony Cortes notes that environmental activists who advocate the use of sabotage frequently refer to the writings of a controversial author, Andreas Malm.
The Swedish intellectual was in Paris a few weeks ago to take part in a conference, testifying to the current influence in France of his writings.
In a 2021 book titled How to Blow up a Pipeline, he questions efforts to tackle global warming while sticking strictly to the doctrine of nonviolence that has long been at the heart of the movement. environmentalist, and pleads for the use of sabotage. The author also rules out any violence against people.
“After these last three decades, there is no doubt that the ruling classes are fundamentally incapable of responding to catastrophe other than by hastening it; on their own, by their own internal compulsion, they can only continue to trace their path of fire until the end”, points out Andreas Malm after recalling that the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide has gone from 363 parts per million in 1995, the year of the first COP, to more than 410 parts per million in 2018.
Humanity, he says, is caught between the current business as usual, which drives up emissions and reduces the chances of escaping catastrophic warming, and the implosion of fragile ecosystems.
“This is the delicate situation in which the climate movement must develop meaningful strategies,” notes the author, who criticizes oil and gas companies for continuing to invest to increase production regardless of the consequences.
“When will we start physically going after the things that are consuming this planet – the only one humans and millions of other species can live on – and destroying them with our own hands? asks the Swedish national, who did not respond to interview requests from La Presse.
Since its release, the book has received a lot of feedback, including scathing reviews from long-time environmental activists who criticize it in particular for its “irresponsibility”.
James Wilt, a Canadian journalist and author, notably criticized the text when it was released in English in 2021 in an article entitled “How to blow up a movement”.
In particular, he describes the author as a “living room activist” and criticizes him for ignoring the police and judicial “backlash” that would occur in response to any wave of attacks of this type, as well as the extremely high individual cost that should pay anyone following his advice.
The book is first and foremost the author’s own “sign of despair” in the face of the environmental crisis, Wilt noted, calling on activists to continue their efforts to build a mass movement capable of bring about the changes needed to overcome global warming.
A film titled How to blow up a pipeline loosely based on Andreas Malm’s book of the same name was released in theaters this week. Directed by American Daniel Goldhaber, it features a group of environmental activists who join forces to blow up a pipeline in Texas. Rotten Tomatoes calls it an “eco-thriller” centered around “compelling and complex antiheroes.” Mr. Goldhaber assured a specialized media that it was not a work of propaganda aimed at encouraging this type of action.
Andreas Malm tries to argue in defense of the use of sabotage that many of the civic movements held up as models by advocates of a nonviolent approach actually had a violent component.
Advocates of “strategic pacifism,” he says, present a “sanitized version of history, devoid of realistic assessments of what happened and didn’t happen, what worked and what went wrong. “.
The lecturer in human ecology at Lund University cites the example of the suffragettes: the movement in Britain resorted to acts of vandalism and burned down dozens of buildings in the hope of advancing his claims.
Denyse Baillargeon, a professor emeritus at the University of Montreal who has extensively studied the women’s suffrage movement, confirms that British women activists have resorted to acts of material violence while taking great care not to cause any casualties.
The tactic, she notes, however, did not get them there before female activists in North America advocated a non-violent approach.
“The author of the book probably doesn’t insist too much on it,” quips the professor.
She believes that the use of material violence could have a profoundly counterproductive effect for the environmental movement, in particular because the population would risk becoming frightened by the situation.
Francis Dupuis-Déri, a specialist in social movements at the University of Quebec in Montreal, believes that history often tends to overlook the more violent aspects of significant social battles.
Andreas Malm’s book is “provocative”, in particular by its title, but cannot be assimilated to a form of appeal to terrorism, believes the researcher, who finds the outings of the French Interior Minister relatively unreliable. to the clashes in Sainte-Soline.
No environmental group is currently proposing to kill individuals to scare people and advance their demands, he said.
Sabotage and vandalism are illegal, but cannot, he says, be seen as a form of terrorism either.
“If this is the case, we will have to open Guantanamos everywhere,” notes the researcher, pointing out that unions and student associations have sometimes used sabotage in the past.
Andreas Malm’s book was recently republished in Quebec by Les Éditions de la rue Dorion, a small company that places great emphasis on socially engaged texts.
The editor, Claude Rioux, notes that the French title of the Swedish author’s book, Comment saboter un pipeline, is a watered down version of the English title.
“It is in order to avoid misunderstandings. We didn’t want anyone to read this and literally decide to go blow up a pipeline,” said Rioux, who doesn’t expect any legal trouble because of the book’s content.
Law professor Pierre Trudel, who is attached to the University of Montreal, indicated, after reading the book at the request of La Presse, that it does not contain a call to action specific enough to constitute itself a crime and does not appear to overstep the bounds of freedom of expression “although some might see it as an encouragement” to resort to sabotage.
Carol Montreuil, who is vice-president of the East for the Canadian Fuels Association, said this week that he was familiar with Andreas Malm’s book, but he was unaware that it had recently been republished in Quebec.
“Where does it take us once the violence begins? “, notes Mr. Montreuil, who suspects the Swedish author of wanting to use this approach so that the ecological cause “comes back to the fore”.
Industry players routinely face security challenges and take the necessary steps to protect “strategic” infrastructure in place, he said, citing the protests surrounding the proposed expansion of the pipeline as an example. Trans Mountain pipeline between Alberta and British Columbia.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said via email that attempts to sabotage the country’s energy infrastructure would risk putting “innocent people and the environment at risk and would exceed the bounds of what is acceptable protest.” “.
The Quebec publisher of Andreas Malm, who claims to have sold 500 copies of the book so far, considers it important to circulate works likely to fuel the public’s thinking about global warming, particularly because Canada is a major emitter of greenhouse gases.
Laure Waridel, who has been involved for years in the environmental movement, noted in November in a column that young activists disillusioned by the slow progress made in the fight against global warming were reading Andreas Malm’s book.
“Damaging infrastructure is a form of violence for me. I’m not going to condone that, but if a young person says they want to do that, I can totally understand the anger behind it,” Waridel said.
Annie Roy, who has created several works aimed at raising awareness of the environmental crisis within the Socially Acceptable Terrorist Action (ATSA), indicates that she would not publicly denounce the action of activists resorting to sabotage, even if she would not personally consider such action.
“People are exasperated. At the last COP, it was pathetic to see countries competing over who was going to do the least for the environment,” she said.
Louis Ramirez, who helped found the Quebec chapter of Extinction Rebellion, thinks that Andreas Malm’s book, already published in French in France, has circulated widely in Quebec environmental circles.
The activist, who now targets sources of funding for fossil fuel production, does not think reading the book is likely to cause anyone to resort to sabotage.
“It is rather anger that will push someone to act in this direction,” notes Mr. Ramirez, who does not see in the province “massive anger” similar to that which is currently taking place in France.
“People over there are mad, mad, mad and the government doesn’t hesitate to fan the flames,” he said.
Filmmaker and author Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette notes that “the mere idea of civil disobedience – by definition non-violent – is still scary” in Quebec, including within the militant ranks.
A growing number of young people are now turning away from their studies to act for the environment by making heavy personal sacrifices, says Ms. Barbeau-Lavalette.
” They are angry. But feel so little listened to that despair often wins out, “says the artist, who intends to support them through the Mothers at the Front movement, founded with Laure Waridel.
Jacob Pirro, a former philosophy student who left university to become a full-time activist, took part a few months ago in the occupation of an oil terminal in eastern Montreal with the Antigone collective.
The action, which aimed to draw attention to the state of a problematic pipeline, received little media coverage, said the 21-year-old.
Several activists question the limited effect of their actions and look to France, which is often “a few steps ahead”, he notes.
The ex-student is currently facing charges of mischief and break and enter for his role in occupying the terminal.
“Between the fear of a criminal record and the fear of the environmental crisis, the choice is not difficult,” he concludes.