On this autumn Sunday, in a hotel in Tours (Indre-et-Loire), Julie and Artik, from the Dernier Rénovation collective, are leading training for new activists who are considering joining “civil resistance”. The two young people aged 27 and 22 show a report in which a small group projects orange paint on the premises of the presidential Renaissance party, in Paris, then tie themselves together while shouting their demand: “12 billion for thermal renovation ! » “The color orange represents the house that is burning, our planet,” explains Julie, who resigned last year from a well-paid position to devote herself to the ecological fight. By creating disturbances, we play the role of a fire alarm: it wakes you up in the middle of the night, it’s not pleasant. But when we realize there is a fire, we are very happy to have woken up. »
The entire meticulous organization of this non-violent action is explained, from the preparations to the custody awaiting the activists. Julie shows how to do the dead weight during the police intervention. “We know that we are illegal and we are waiting to be arrested,” continues Artik. If there is a lawsuit, it allows us to have a platform to explain the “state of necessity” in which the criminal climate inaction of politicians places us. »
Awaken public opinion, get people talking about the climate in the media… The actions of Dernier Rénovation are one of the multiple expressions of a new ecological activism which is spreading in Europe, inspiring filmmakers, like Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano in their latest comedy, A difficult year , currently in theaters. Their most publicized coup? The projection of tomato soup on the glass protecting the painting The sunflowers by Van Gogh, in London, in October 2022. The two young girls who made the gesture called for an end to oil and gas projects in Great Britain. A symbolic act, intended to create buzz on social networks to question the value given to nature compared to that attributed to art.
Far from museums, other actions deliberately hamper daily life: blocking roads, shopping centers and even airports; interruption of television programs or performances; occupations of natural areas or agricultural land; damage to construction equipment or intensive irrigation systems… This type of activism is largely misunderstood by the French. According to a survey carried out in June 2023 by the Odoxa institute, 74% disapprove of the “glued hands” of activists on the floors or walls preventing the police from evacuating them, 72% of blockages or even 85 % infrastructure sabotage.
However, according to the same survey, “more than three-quarters” of our fellow citizens “also share the desire of environmental movements to fight against climate change or even that of banning pesticides in agriculture”. How to explain this discrepancy? According to the philosopher Juliette Grange (1), “these actions are judged negatively, because they are seen as provocations or simple transgressions of the rules, and not as acts having a political dimension”.
Success with young people
These spectacular operations nevertheless fall into this category, since they aim to push States to respect their climate commitments. The new movements born after the Paris agreement – Latest Renovation, Extinction Rebellion, Youth for Climate, Non-violent Action (ANV)-COP21… – were formed precisely around this objective.
“For many young people, the vote, the petitions, the demonstrations go neither fast enough nor far enough in view of the ecological emergency,” explains Stéphane La Branche, climate sociologist and teacher at Sciences Po Grenoble. They abandon classic ecological associations and parties, and feel inspired by figures of non-violence like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, who practiced civil disobedience. »
Theorized in the 19th century by the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau who refused to pay his taxes to protest against the slavery in force in the South, it can be defined as the fact of refusing in an assumed, public and peaceful manner to obey to a law, regulation or power deemed unjust. American civil rights movement, suffragettes in England, independence of India: the historical examples are numerous.
“Non-violent civil disobedience is, in our opinion, the best strategic choice to win the support of the greatest number of citizens and obtain the large-scale changes essential to stabilizing the climate,” says Rémi Donaint, spokesperson for ‘ANV-COP21. It is not an end in itself, it is a tool among others, to be used as a last resort when dialogue is blocked. »
In 2021 and 2022, the association notably organized a vast campaign to take down portraits of Emmanuel Macron in town halls to denounce the French state’s climate inaction. This summer, in the midst of a drought, she also demanded the inscription “Water is a common good” in the lawn of a golf course in the Var to demand “a total ban on watering golf courses and any other non-essential activity.
Over the past year, more radical actions have been increasing in France against material targets: golf courses, greenhouses or intensive agriculture irrigation systems, cement factories accused of polluting the air and depleting natural resources. “They are the work of established groups acting openly but also of clandestine groups which, in the name of the ecological and anti-capitalist struggle, attack infrastructures,” investigated Sébastien Leurquin, co-author of The coming confrontation (Ed. du Rocher), which describes the rise in conflict between the French state and environmental activists. In Charente and Deux-Sèvres, for example, several tarpaulins of these “basins” storing water drawn from groundwater in the open air have been rendered unusable.
“Damage to property” according to the legal term in force… which has the merit of neutrality. Because the terminology marks everyone’s side. For some, including some farmers, it is sabotage and violence. For others, like the Earth Uprisings, a “disarmament”.
“The activists are reacting to an attack on living conditions on Earth,” argues Léna Lazare, 25, one of the spokespersons for this collective. Such infrastructure cannot exist in a viable world: if the 16 “megabasins” planned in Deux-Sèvres are actually built, this will have an irreversible impact on waterways already in very poor condition. »
Activists but not terrorists
The approach is frontal but does not fall under “ecoterrorism”, as the Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, was able to estimate after the banned demonstration of October 2022 co-organized by the Earth Uprisings against the construction of the Sainte-Soline megabasin (Deux-Sèvres). Activists, unlike terrorists, do not intend to sow terror and do not attack people. These two points precisely constitute a red line for French ecology. “Unlike the United States, in France there is a consensus on the fact that living things are sacred… humans included,” underlines Sylvie Ollitrault, researcher at the CNRS.
If the Minister of the Interior had undertaken the dissolution of the Earth Uprisings last June, this was canceled on November 9 by the Council of State. The institution considered that this decision did not “constitute an appropriate, necessary and proportionate measure to the seriousness of the disturbances likely to cause public order”. In the process, the radical ecological collective announced new mobilizations at the beginning of December against the artificialization of land and “the world of concrete”, particularly targeting the cement manufacturer Lafarge.
On the ground, as climate change manifests itself, activists become impatient, the State becomes more rigid… and the path to consultation seems increasingly difficult to find. Example with the A69, this highway between Castres (Tarn) and Toulouse (Haute-Garonne) contested for its environmental and social impact, and work on which is underway. “The first demonstration in spring 2023 was very peaceful,” noted Sébastien Leurquin. But as the opponents had the impression that the State remained deaf, we saw a hardening of the struggle, including a hunger strike, then a thirst strike. Finally, the rise in tension materialized at the end of October during a second demonstration with a confrontation with the police and damage to construction equipment. »
Should we resign ourselves in the coming years to an increasingly virulent confrontation between the State on one side and the environmental movement on the other? The economist and diplomat Laurence Tubiana, who negotiated the Paris climate agreement during COP21, offers another avenue: “At a time of alarming reduction in spaces for dialogue and intermediary bodies, it is time that our leaders rise to the climate challenge, that they become radical in its finest sense: by tackling the problem at the root. » (2)
(1) Author of For a philosophy of ecology (Ed. Pocket, 2012).
(2) Extract from a text published in Radicalize ecology? (Ed. Bayard, 64 p.; €6.90).