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  • Writer's pictureMerle Emrich

Ecoterrorism (1/3): "Juridical Concepts Have Been Turned on Their Head"

In October 2022, the French Minister of the Interior Gérald Darmanin called environmental activists participating in protests against a planned water reservoir "ecoterrorists" leading to an outcry of indignation. This article is the first in a series of three articles on the depoliticization and criminalization of climate activists through comparisons with terrorism.

Global Climate Strike, Toulouse, 2019. Photo by Merle Emrich.

October 29 and 30, 2022. Sainte-Soline, France. According to the organizers around 7,000 people have gathered to protest against the construction of the biggest water reservoir to date which will be built there. In the afternoon of the first day, some of the protesters head towards the construction site and are met with teargas deployed by the 1,600 gendarmes and police which have been mobilized while helicopters circle overhead. It comes to clashes between police and protesters. Around fifty protesters are injured and five of them hospitalized. According to the Ministry of the Interior, sixty police officers are injured, one of them hospitalized. At the center of the protests is the question of access to a vital resource: water, in particular against the backdrop of the severe drought France experienced during the summer. One day later: The Minister of the Interior describes the protests as including the participation of "ecoterrorists" causing widespread public debate.

The reservoir, which will be one of sixteen in the region, with a capacity of approximately 650,000 cubic meters – the equivalent of 260 Olympic swimming pools – is supposed to supply twelve farmers with water. Access to the reservoir is granted under the condition of adopting more environmentally friendly agricultural practices, yet to date, none of the beneficiaries of the reservoir has reduced their usage of pesticides.

Activists denounce the project as an act of water grabbing by the agricultural industry as a privatization of water that benefits only a minority of large-scale industrial farmers that push smaller farms out of business. Already a year ago, a collective of 200 people including scientists, took a critical stand in Le Monde, warning that "[t]he mega-reservoirs benefit but a small minority which will continue to expand while their neighbors disappear. It is aimed solely at maintaining in the face of climate change a type of production which is intrinsically dependent on chemicals, which sterilizes the soils, causes fauna and flora to disappear, pollutes aquatic milieus and tap water." The anti-reservoir activists argue that another form of agriculture is possible. One that is not based on intensive monoculture, but which naturally stocks water reserves in the ground and prevents the land from becoming barren.

"The Firm Hand of the State Will Be There to Meet Them.’

In a statement on TV, Gérald Darmanin, Minister of the Interior, claims that the protests at Sainte-Soline were steered by "around forty ultra-leftist persons who are fichés S [under surveillance by the security services]" and whose "operational mode amounts to - I am not afraid to say it – ecoterrorism." He described the protesters as "extremely violent" and summarized their motive as wanting "disorder and chaos". Consequently, Darmanin announced that "[t]he firm hand of the state will be there to meet them".

Darmanin was later joined in his likening of environmental and climate activists to "ecoterrorists" by Laurent Nuñez, police prefect and former Secretary of State, and Marc Fesneau, Minister of Agriculture. Nuñez suggested that "several individuals develop a form of violent radicalism connected to the environmental cause" and that they, some of them "fichés S just like Islamist terrorists" present "an enormous potential of violence". Similarly, Fesneau stated that he took no issue with the term "ecoterrorism" as "there are a number of acts that threaten not only objects but also people".

This likening of protesters at Saint-Soline to terrorists appears to be only the latest of cases in which environmental and climate activism is compared to (Islamist) terrorism. Since several years now environmental and climate activists are denounced by some as "environmentalist ayatollahs", "green jihadists" or "green Khmers". The latter insinuates an extreme, punitive and totalitarian environmentalism through this reference to the massacre committed by the Khmers rouges in Cambodia in the 1970s.

During the debate that ensued following Darmanin’s statement, political scientist Clément Viktorovitch commented: "Juridical concepts have been turned on their head to discredit the mobilisation. That ministers of the Republic manipulate language to this point without impunity… It should raise our concern." Attac France classified the use of the term "ecoterrorism" as a "calculated provocation" paired with other repressive measures taken against protesters. They recalled that "[p]rotesting is a constitutional right [...] And this protest has been declared adhering to regulations weeks prior. But it has been banned a few days before [...] despite its motive having been and continuing to be perfectly legitimate." Attac state that this discourse resembles a strategy to attempt to cover up the responsibility of the government regarding climate change and environmental degradation. According to Attac, the likening of protesters to terrorists is an insult to the victims of actual terrorism and their families.

Mediapart journalists Mathieu Dejean and Fabien Escalona highlight that the only person in France who is known to have ties to ‘ecoterrorism’ is right-wing politician Marine LePen’s health advisor, Patrick Barriot. Barriot, who has no connection to the climate and environmental movement, claims to have had a correspondence with the US American terrorist Theodore Kaczynski who, in his manifesto, wrote on the problems of modern society which he finds in, i.e., industrialization, the political left and environmental degradation. Dejean and Escalona argue that Darmanin’s discourse depoliticizes and criminalizes protests and activism as it denies the activists' the legitimacy of their demands and instead justifies legal action against them.

Read part 2 of the ecoterrorism series here.

Written by Merle Emrich.


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