On Sunday, February 7, 2021, just under a hundred people—comprising members of the Collectif pour le Triangle de Gonesse (Collective for the Gonesse Triangle; hereafter “CPTG” or “the collective”)  and others sympathetic to the cause defended by this collective since 2011—began to occupy an area of wasteland on the edge of farmland in the municipality of Gonesse, 15 kilometers (9 miles) to the north of Paris. One of the collective’s members, Vingt, aged about 30, perched on a palette, read out the following declaration, which was also broadcast on social media:
We have decided to step up the action that we have been undertaking for several years by occupying the Triangle. We hope many of you will join us; there’s still time to get around the table to discuss the future. The Triangle protects us from heatwaves and can feed us. We will defend it to the end (broadcast via the Twitter account of Jade Lindgaard, a journalist at Mediapart, 2021).
Bernard Loup, aged almost 80, an emblematic figure of the struggle and president of the collective, added for those present:
The CPTG’s position is not new. We have always insisted, each time that journalists have asked us whether we were going to occupy the land, that it was a ZAD in the sense of a Zone à Défendre [Zone to Defend] and that we would defend it. If groups were capable of occupying the land, of course we would support them and welcome them. Earlier, I said to the police who asked if we were leaving this evening: “I’d be surprised if everyone left this evening. There are doubtless some who will stay—and if they stay, I’ll stay too!”
At the end of the day, two big tops, composting toilets, and two semi-enclosed huts were set up. A brazier made out of a rusty old oil drum helped the occupants stand up to the freezing cold temperatures and damp. After the 6 p.m. curfew, 15 or so volunteers camped out for the night under the surveillance of the national police  on the other side of the fences. And so this was how, almost unnoticed, the first occupied ZAD in the Paris region came into being. How did the situation get to this stage? And what does this action mean, after so many years of campaigning and action? 
© Stéphane Tonnelat.
An already well-established campaign
The name Gonesse Triangle (“Triangle de Gonesse”) designates a space of some 670 hectares (1 655 acres) of arable land on the northeastern outskirts of Paris. It is bounded by two express highways: the A1 freeway to the east and the D317 highway to the west (Figure 2). Within this perimeter, the land has remained agricultural while surrounding areas have been gradually urbanized over the last 50 years. This is not surprising given the proximity of two international airports (Charles de Gaulle, France’s largest hub, and Le Bourget, essentially for business travel): an airplane flies overhead roughly once a minute in the daytime (and once every four minutes between midnight and 5 a.m.).  Noise pollution exposure plans prohibit the construction of any housing, explaining why this haven of unbuilt land, between highways, logistics sites and retail parks, has continued to exist.
However, the Paris–Île-de-France Regional Master Plan (Schéma Directeur de la Région Île-de-France), revised in 2013, now authorizes the urbanization of the southern half of the Triangle, on the condition that the site is served by a mass-transit line. As early as 2010, the Auchan group—one of France’s largest grocery and retail groups—managed to obtain provisional planning for a station on the northern section of the future Line 17 of the metro, as part of the Grand Paris Express project, with the aim of building EuropaCity. This project, promoted by Auchan’s real-estate subsidiary Ceetrus (formerly known as Immochan), was intended to save the supermarket and retail sector by combining Europe’s largest shopping mall with hyperconnected leisure parks, including an indoor ski slope, in accordance with the “experiential marketing” theory. It would have occupied 80 hectares (200 acres) of a 280-hectare (700-acre) mixed development zone (zone d’aménagement concertée, or ZAC in French) planned by the public-sector promoter Grand Paris Aménagement. Under this plan, almost half of the Gonesse Triangle’s agricultural land would have been urbanized.
The collective fought for almost a decade before finally succeeding, in 2019, in its efforts to obtain the cancelation of the highly contested EuropaCity retail and tourism complex, announced by the French government following the sitting of its third Environmental Defense Council (Conseil de Défense Écologique). The collective’s action was built on a number of complementary strands: demonstrations, lobbying elected representatives, public relations, participation in various consultation forums, lawsuits, and the drafting of a counterproposal to the project. With this alternate project, named CARMA (Coopération pour une Ambition Agricole, Rurale et Métropolitaine d’Avenir – Cooperation for an Agricultural, Rural and Metropolitan Ambition for the Future),  the collective sought not only to challenge the urbanization of the Gonesse Triangle, but also to propose a new form of agriculture that looks to and connects with the city, and which respects the environment (see the excellent article (in French) published in 2019 by Alice Le Roy for more information about the movement). In 2019, shortly before the EuropaCity project was abandoned, the collective added a new strand of action: civil disobedience, taking the form, for example, of temporarily blocking the work site or occupying the lobby of the developer, Société du Grand Paris. This strategy paid off. The mainstream media proved amenable to the cause, which was also relayed by other initiatives such as the Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat (Citizens’ Climate Convention), which recommends a moratorium on (human-made) development of land.
After the announcement that the EuropaCity project was to be abandoned, following pressure from the collective’s action (such as a two-day march from Gonesse to the French prime minister’s office—the Hôtel de Matignon—two weeks earlier), and from press that seemed to be firmly on the collective’s side, activists hoped to see farmland preserved from the combined appetites of developers, promoters, builders, and pro-construction elected officials. To the activists’ minds, without this project to drive the rest of the development, the ZAC and the station no longer had any reason to exist. Moreover, in winter 2019, the administrative court of Cergy (which covers Gonesse), at the collective’s request, had also canceled the municipality of Gonesse’s new local master plan (plan local d’urbanisme, or PLU), which had classed the farmland as an “area to be urbanized.” In particular, the court was of the opinion that the sacrifice of so many acres of farmland was not justified by unquantified promises of new jobs in the area.
The government’s deafening silence
However, one year later, in December 2020, to everyone’s surprise, the administrative appeal court of Versailles decided to re‑establish Gonesse’s PLU, going against convergent advice provided by its own public rapporteur, the environmental authority, the natural, agricultural and protected areas committee of the Val-d’Oise département (in which Gonesse is situated), and the rapporteur of the public inquiry. Just a few days later, Société du Grand Paris announced that work was to resume on the northern section of line 17 of the Grand Paris Express between Saint-Denis and Le Mesnil-Amelot, going via Charles de Gaulle airport and the Gonesse Triangle. The plan for a station in the area had therefore not been abandoned. But why maintain this station in the absence of any project in the Gonesse Triangle, at a location more than a mile from the nearest dwellings?
Five months earlier, in July 2020, Francis Rol-Tanguy, the former director of the City of Paris urban-planning agency, APUR (Atelier Parisien d’Urbanisme), had submitted a report to the government outlining three scenarios for the future of the site. The first, whereby the 280‑hectare (700‑acre) ZAC would be maintained, was dismissed as unfeasible. The second scenario involved the urbanization of a smaller area, of 110 hectares (270 acres) that had already been compulsorily purchased around the future station site, but the report pointed out that there was no longer any project to justify this urbanization. In the third and final scenario, all farmland would be maintained and the metro line would pass through the area without a new station stop—or, instead, with the new station relocated to Villiers-le-Bel–Gonesse, where it would connect with the existing RER (express regional metro) line D, and thus actually be of some practical use. At this time, the government was still in a position to use this study in order to make its decision. It could also consider the proposals made by associations in the Val-d’Oise département that the government itself had requested as a matter of urgency, in the context of a future contract for a joint plan between the French state and the regional council. And yet, for over six months, not only did the government refuse to publish the report (which had already been leaked), but it also remained silent on the issue of the future of the Gonesse Triangle. The vice-president of the collective, Jean‑Yves Souben, interpreted this silence as a fait accompli strategy: once work on the station had begun, it would have to be finished, and once the station had been built in the middle of the fields, the area would have to be urbanized. And yet the collective’s investigations, built on research by economist and urban planner Jacqueline Lorthiois,  showed that there was no demand for either offices or commercial space. With the Covid crises, even logistics warehouses were running under capacity. What’s more, warehouses have bo need for a metro; so why build a station? The government remained silent.
An instituting approach
Faced with this refusal to accept the consequences of previous decisions and this new judgment by the Versailles administrative appeal court, activists decided to take things into their own hands. On January 17, 2021, on the anniversary of the cancelation of the Notre-Dame-des-Landes (NDDL) airport project in western France, during a “ZAD Sunday” on a small plot of land they had been cultivating since 2017, they read and called for the signing of the “Serment du Triangle” (“Triangle Oath”; Figure 3). More than 500 people in attendance—including many well-known politicians, scientists, and artists—signed a declaration and pledge that made this land a piece of common heritage, and the signatories co‑owners committed to defending it. The reference to the Tennis Court Oath (Serment du Jeu de Paume) of 1789 was deliberate. The parallel between the deputies of the Third Estate, ignored by Louis XVI, and the militants ignored by the government was intended as a symbol reversing the location of power.
© CPTG, 2021.
En décidant du statut des terres dont ils se déclarent copropriétaires et coresponsables, les militants inaugurent un nouveau régime d’appropriation foncière (É. Le Roy 2011), ici qualifié de patrimoine commun. Ils s’accordent sur ce à quoi ils tiennent (Hache 2019) : ils veulent préserver ces terres avec lesquelles ils construisent une relation de codépendance. Sur un plan symbolique et médiatique, ils se substituent ainsi à un gouvernement et une Cour administrative d’appel qu’ils perçoivent comme incapables de se saisir d’un problème qu’ils ont pourtant contribué à rendre public.
By deciding on the status of the land of which they declared themselves co‑owners and for which they declared themselves jointly responsible, the activists inaugurated a new regime of land appropriation (É. Le Roy 2011), here described as common heritage. They agreed on what they valued (Hache 2019): they wanted to preserve these lands with which they had built a relationship of codependence. On a symbolic and media level, they were thus substituting themselves for a government and an administrative court of appeal that they perceived as incapable of dealing with a problem that they had nonetheless helped to make public.
For the sociology of public problems, this type of movement is an institutional gesture to palliate the inadequacies of public authorities (Spector and Kitsuse 2001; Cefaï 2007). A problem becomes public when it affects a portion of the population that is indirectly concerned, and that is important enough to warrant action: an institution is then charged with dealing with the problem by the powers that be (Dewey 2010). However, this administration is often not able to deal with the problem in the way that the mobilized public understands it. This was the case here. The government appointed an official who wrote a report that was promptly buried. In this situation, the public, often demobilized after its first victory, usually does not have the strength to continue the struggle. However, in some cases, such as at the Gonesse Triangle, the activists never became demobilized. They are then in a position to try to force the public authorities to recognize their powerlessness, or their unwillingness, and push for the institution of new ad hoc organizations, that are able to be accountable to them.
The institution through acts
Although published on the website of the association Agir pour l’Environnement,  and signed by over 10,000 people in the space of a month—including by former minister Nicolas Hulot—the Oath was not enough to transform the status of land in practice. For that to happen, the signatories had to keep their word and respect their pledge.
This is why, during the “first co‑owners’ assembly,” held the following Sunday on the site of the Oath, a hundred or so mobilized people decided, by consensus, to permanently occupy a parcel of land, in order to prevent any work beginning on the construction site. An initial preparatory exploration made it possible to identify an area of wasteland accessible by car and closed by a fence and a trench. Société du Grand Paris had already used it in the summer of 2019 as a rear base, installing a sewage pipe through the fields to the location of the planned metro station. The activists had blocked work for a few days to denounce this attempt to force the project through, despite the fact that all legal avenues had not yet been exhausted.
On Sunday, February 7, at 5:00 a.m., a first group entered the plot. The ZAD was launched. In three days of occupation, the news spread in the media as well as in the communication networks of the militants. In addition to the expected coverage by left- and green-leaning media sources such as Mediapart and Reporterre, articles and reports were published in the press and in TV media such as Le Parisien, L’Obs, Le Monde, BFM TV, among others. They all used the expression “station in the middle of the fields” proposed by the collective. Two days in a row, the occupation was covered on the France 3 Île-de-France regional news. On social networks, the message also got through. The coverage of the CPTG’s Facebook posts went from 500 views to 34,000, overnight. On the first day, a team of activists arrived from the NDDL ZAD to support the action and show how to build a dormitory hut. Activists from the group Extinction Rebellion, from Youth for Climate, from the Yellow Vests (Gilets Jaunes) or from other campaigns in the region, such as the one on the Saclay plateau (to the southwest of Paris), joined the scene. On site, help was pouring in. Food and building materials were delivered in large quantities, by people unknown to the movement until then. The huts were reinforced, and the self-media, legal, rear base and other committees were organized. Plantations were planned.
This very positive reaction, both in the general press and in more specialized circles, is a strong sign that this kind of action is now not only accepted, but also considered legitimate, even necessary, by a growing part of the population.  So the occupation has already contributed to putting back into the news a problem that was thought to be resolved. It contributes to keeping this problem connected with the reality of the terrain (Tonnelat 2012), and if the station project is finally abandoned, it will have succeeded in giving substance to the regime of common heritage.
A ZAD at the gates of power
This brief history does not do enough justice to the energy deployed by activists over the past decade, their investigation into the nature of the problem of land artificialisation and the solutions to it, their creativity, and above all their ability to publicize and politicize their mobilization (Terzi and Tonnelat 2017). It simply explains why a ZAD has appeared, in this landscape that nevertheless lends itself so little. As Bernard Loup often says to journalists, “the Plaine de France [the plain to the northeast of Paris] is not the Bocage de Nantes [in western France].” He means that the fields are open and that there are no woods or abandoned farms to take shelter in. When the collective called for it, it did not do so without careful consideration.
Albert Hirschman (1970) explained in a famous essay that when faced with institutional failures, people have three choices: they can remain silent and keep their backs to the wall (loyalty), they can challenge (voice), or they can withdraw (exit). The collective has chosen the challenge, with some success, but with mixed results. Faced with this situation, a logical action would have been to renounce (loyalty) or to withdraw into a form of independent autonomy, like some self-managed communes or survivalist movements (exit). However, this is not the choice collectively made. With the “Triangle Oath” and the ensuing occupation, the collective chooses to set an example by calling upon others sympathetic to its cause to erect, on the contested land, a counter-model of action, organization and vision. He does so almost reluctantly, aware of the dangers that this action could bring to the occupants and the risks of misinterpretation, even in his own camp. But he considers that he no longer has a choice. If it is difficult to hold, the Triangle is a place close to the center of the political and economic life of the country, a stone’s throw from Le Bourget, where the Paris Agreement on climate was signed. It has become a focal point of public attention in the capital region, on the doorstep of power. The government’s reaction was swift. After sixteen days, the ZAD was evacuated in the early hours of the morning by the mobile gendarmes. But the effect is already there: a public is mobilized, the Gonesse Triangle is once again under the media spotlight, and the station in the middle of the field seems more useless than ever. It was a ZAD at the gates of Paris. Its appearance was not only logical, but necessary.
- Cefaï, D. 2007. Pourquoi se mobilise-t-on ? Les théories de l’action collective, Paris: La Découverte.
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- Hirschman, A. O. 1970. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, Cambridge (Massachusetts): Harvard University Press.
- Le Roy, A. 2019. “Terres fertiles contre projet stérile : la lutte contre EuropaCity”, Métropolitiques [online], 3 October.
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- Lindgaard, J. 2021. “Écologie : terres à prendre et nouvelles zones à défendre”, Mediapart [online], 8 February.
- Lorthiois, J. 2021. “Les zadistes de Gonesse ont-ils raison de s’opposer à une gare en plein champ ?”, L’Obs [online], 11 February.
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- Terzi, C., and Tonnelat, S. 2017. “The Publicization of Public Space”, Environment and Planning A, vol. 49, no. 3, pp. 519–536.
- Tonnelat, S. 2012. “La dimension sensible des problèmes publics”, Raisons pratiques, no. 22.