From the Notre-Dame-des-Landes ZAD to the March 2023 demonstration in Sainte-Soline, not forgetting the Paris Agreement, the past decade of ecological struggles in France has been significant, going through phases of varying intensity and focus. This decade has repeatedly raised the question of the proper forms of social struggle on a warming planet. It is crucial not to disconnect this sequence of environmental struggles from the more general context of social struggles. The present text aims to show the different levels on which French ecological struggles have emerged and combined : from local struggles about territorial management, to popular uprisings, ‘eco-unionist’ struggles and the political agenda of ecological planning.

The ecological movements in France in the 2010s were centrally marked by the ZAD of Notre-Dame-Des-Landes (NDDL), a territorial struggle against an useless airport near Nantes. This struggle is the most famous of its kind, although other Zones à Défendr_e (Areas to be defended) have emerged with varying degrees of success elsewhere in France, such as the _ZAD du Testet.1 The ZADs are first and foremost territorial struggles, as their name indicates: they have been able to put the question of territorial management back on the agenda, this time against its neo-liberal form of the public-private partnerships that capital is so fond of in France.2 Another achievement of the ZADs movement has been in its’ capacity build vast coalitions around local associations, with the support of some structuring organisations of the No-Global movement, such as the farmers’ union La confédération paysanne.3 Furthermore, they have played an important role in shaping the political imaginaries produced within ecological struggles, even conjuring ideals of utopia. For all these reasons, the ZAD form has been widely discussed during the last decade in France, and has been all the more striking since, despite all the difficulties, this long-run struggle achieved its main goal: the NDDL airport project was finally abandoned in 2018.

Alongside or in conjunction with these movements, this decade in France has also been marked by global issues, with the peak of mobilisation related to COP 21 in Paris in 2015 (a meeting of the ‘Conference of the Parties’, referring to those countries who signed the 1992 Convention on Climate Change). This COP 21, which removed the binding elements of the Kyoto Protocol on carbon emissions, has been an important part of the French state’s environmental discourse. The agreement was presented as historic while, at the same time, the repressive arsenal of the state of emergency was used against environmental activists, and construction of the ZADist figure as an ecoterrorist and enemy of the state began to develop. In addition to the house arrests of environmental activists during the COP, the only rally against COP 21 on 29 November 2015 was repressed and demonstrators were arrested en masse. The French state has thus managed to converge its agenda of ‘anti-terrorist emergency’ in the wake of the ISIS attacks in Paris and ‘climate emergency’ into a single movement of repression and political communication.

The Gilets Jaunes movement as an ecological struggle?

In France, the Yellow Vest movement has been the first one to raise ecological issues without them being framed simply as “local” struggles, nor as simply part of an international campaign of activism for the “climate emergency” (an ‘emergency’ which is itself was meant to emerge as a general framework for the COP 21’s development of public policies, corporate policies and international relations). This movement centrally responds to the question of the ‘carbon price’, and therefore to the consequences of the Paris agreement, which prompted Macron to show the French State’s concern for reducing carbon emissions by increasing taxes on petrol at the expense of consumers.

The Yellow Vest movement, in fact, has contributed to the irreversible emergence of a battlefield within the discourse and practices of the French ecological movement. It could be read with an ecological grid at three levels: in terms of its primary aim ( contesting the carbon tax); at the level of a possible convergence of tactics and of certain targets within the climate movement (rioting, blockades against large polluting companies and centres of power); and at the level of its territorial anchoring (the movement was mostly, even if not exclusively, a movement that rose and organised itself in the French province, shedding light on the crisis of a fossil-fuel based model of suburban life, that was central in shaping the life-style of the working class after the Second World War).

These aspects were hypothesised in ‘Yellow/Green/Red Force’, published by Plateforme d’Enquête Militante, five weeks after the movement began in 2019. The article highlighted how, first of all, the movement had erupted in response to the “carbon tax”, presented by Macron as a tool to free households from their fossil dependency and to start the “ecological transition”. The refusal of the Gilets Jaunes to pay for the destruction of fossil capital was a clear response to the ideology of a neoliberal ecological transition, punitive only for the poorest households and completely permissive towards capital, so as to be not only unjust, but also totally inefficient. Since then, “one has split into two”: within the French environmentalist camp it has been increasingly difficult to argue for an abstract unity, getting rid of class struggle and social justice demands. And if the concerns that the territorial anchoring of the Gilets Jaunes would lead them to nationalist and conservative forms of ecological politics4 were justified at the beginning of the movement, the subjective experience of the struggle and the militant work of weaving alliances with other social movements have ruled out this option.

It was particularly in the autumn of 2019, with the global emergence of the XR movement, that one of these alliances took shape. XR often took on a particularly radical posture in France: it openly carried an anti-capitalist discourse which, however abstract it may have been, nevertheless led to strong actions, such as the occupation of the Italie 2 shopping mall in the centre of Paris on a Saturday afternoon, i.e. during a moment of mobilisation of the Gilets Jaunes. This period was a mass school for many activists because it was the first moment of translation of these different political languages into each other. It is finally in this period that we find the lineaments of the construction of an ‘ecology from below’, with an interest in questions of subsistence and possible alliance with trade union struggles, in particular within the health and garbage sectors. In this context, the slogan “end of the world/end of the month - the same fight!” was popularised as an appeal to convergence of struggles.

Work and Ecology in the time of coronavirus

After the global wave of Climate Strikes that gave birth to new environmentalist organisations, including in France, the pandemic was a moment of halt in mobilisation, but also a moment of growing awareness of the magnitude and multiple facets of the ongoing ecological crisis. In that moment, the trade unions, together with ecological organisations and NGOs, launched ‘Plus jamais ça‘ (Never Again), a call for the convergence of ecological and social struggles, with a strong focus on the issue of ecological planning. This focus had already been developed by the France Insoumise (FI) party, to the point of carrying, two years later, the most consistent ecological planning programme in the 2022 elections4: the FI thus came to be not only the hegemonic radical and popular left party in its camp (with 22% at the presidential election) but also the political representative of the radical ecological movement capable of marginalising the EELV (Europe-Écologie Les Verts) on these issues. This renewed interest in ecological planning was able to anticipate, in a critical way, the phase that was to open up at the level of the European institutions after the pandemic: a recovery plan steered by the State, accompanied by an ideology of ecological transition. The French trade union appeal, in this post-pandemic context, served as a framework for making demands of institutional actors and updating the positions of trade union leaderships with contemporary issues, which could no longer avoid serious reflection on ecology. However, the call ‘Plus jamais ça’ remained limited to very abstract principles from the trade union leadership.

However, one of the decisive articulations of environmental and trade union struggles has been manifested in the refiners’ strike against Total6 in Grandpuits: the French giant company’s attempt to legitimise its plans to dismantle a refinery in the name of ecological transition, with the social break-up that went with it, was unmasked by the alliance of environmentalist organisations and striking workers. The neo-colonial and imperialist intentions of Total, aiming simply at relocating the refinery activity, were well pointed out by this alliance which constituted an important example in the advancement of ecosocialist reflections in France. Aiming at working to multiply and consolidate these kinds of eco-union alliances, in particular by building strong links at the level of the union base and the most radical eco-activists, an eco-syndicalist network was created in 2021. One of the sectors in which it has begun to engage in the Paris area, that of the strikers in the waste collection and treatment sector, has proven to be crucial during the ongoing movement against pension reform, as we shall see later.

Alongside the emergence of eco-union struggles from below, a very important dynamic since the pandemic has been the multiplication of voices carrying a radical ecological orientation, particularly amongst workers from sectors that were not historically the most advanced on these issues. The mobilisation of middle-managers and engineers (cadres in French7), i.e. people from engineering or business schools, is becoming more and more noticeable. The most characteristic event of this phenomenon is a statement made by graduates of the Agro-Paris Tech school in 2022: “There are several of us who do not want to pretend to be proud and deserving of obtaining this diploma at the end of a training course which, on the whole, encourages us to take part in the social and ecological devastation that is underway”.8 Many managers and especially middle-managers see an ethical contradiction between the corporate hierarchy, their own life-forms and environmental goals. In the context of the resignation wave that followed COVID-19, these contradictions are often cited by ‘bifurcating’ managers’9. As the political crisis of the centrist-neoliberal bloc grows, embodied by Macron, the national political stakes are posed in terms of attracting this middle class to a project of planning eco-socialism. This is one of the goals of France Insoumise, in order to reclaim hegemony in this social strata against liberals or neo-fascists.

Towards a new theoretical and political paradigm of ecology

The issue of pensions has often been seen as a distant point from ecological struggles.This was notably the case during the 2019 attempt of pension reform, although the fringes of radical ecology we have mentioned carried the demand for a reduction in working time as an ecological imperative. By 2023, the situation has changed considerably, as even a party as fascinated by green capitalism as Europe-Ecologie Les Verts now publicly endorse this line. The popularisation of the reduction of working time as an environmental imperative will thus have contributed to a fundamental break between the project of the Macronist bloc and the popular bloc. However, it is probably in the garbage collectors’ strike that the convergence between ‘the end of the world’ and ‘the end of the month’’ is concretely constructed. For one of the organisers of this strike, the struggle is about going beyond the abstract character of such slogans: it makes waste visible in the metropolis (because waste is everywhere), and it also builds a solidarity from below, on the pickets between workers and users, undermining the legitimacy of the hierarchy at work.

In fact, this strike was exemplary in terms of organisation: designed according to the logistical specificities of the sector, it was based on an empirical knowledge of the waste sector, but also on significant support from trade union activists, students and pensioners, resulting in a strike movement built over the long term.

Another movement, which had already grown in numbers and in influence over the past two years, made its mark on the political scene, in strong resonance with the highest point of the mobilisation against the pension reform, after the government overrode the parliament at the end of March 2022. This is the Soulèvements de la Terre (SDT - The uprising of the Earth), a broad coalition of local collectives, trade unions (in particular, the Conféderation Paysanne), NGOs and environmental activists from the Notre Dame de Landes ZAD. The SdT are particularly effective in combining a repertoire of action that includes eco-sabotage (called désarmament), festive rallies and media stunts. The movement comes together in two ways : in interludes which are strategic and tactical discussions, and saisons, which are agendas for action.

This mix has resulted in massive demonstrations (30,000 people in the middle of the countryside on 25th of March 2023) with a very high level of conflict, which have received open and collective support, thanks to the very effective communication and solidarity carried out by even the more institutional organisations of the French left (including the France Insoumise party and EELV) in the face of the Macron government’s authoritarianism and brutal police repression. The SdT decided to focus the saisons on targets such as the soil concretisation and ‘méga bassines’, huge water reservoirs in rural areas increasingly hit by droughts. These reservoirs allow for the de facto privatisation of water by large polluting agro-industrial farms. As Andreas Malm has pointed out, this struggle is groundbreaking in Europe, as it targets infrastructures that are a striking example of maladaptation to climate change, in which we see an unfair sharing of a fundamental common good; water9. The two axes of action taken by the SdT might be defined as “earthly”, in how they have politically radicalised an ecological notion of “the living”. This theoretical current, which in France draws its inspiration from thinkers like Bruno Latour and Phillipe Déscola, has been reworked into a political framework of class composition and building alliances10, inviting the ecological movement to put at the centre of their agenda not only the global stakes of the climate, but also a defence of territory and an experimentation in forms of life and subsistence.

To conclude, it seems clear that the specificities of French ecological struggles of the last decade are determined by different factors. First of all, as we tried to point out, they were all in connection (and sometimes in tension) with the other ongoing social struggles that have shaken the country at least since 2016. This is why, in France, the global climate strike movement was influenced by past autonomous ecological struggles like the ZADs, and also immediately forced to engage in fruitful exchanges with the Yellow Vests and the mobilisation against the pension reform. Thanks to the context in which it emerges, the latest wave of ecological struggle in France has taken a more antagonistic form than elsewhere in Europe. Secondly, the strengthening of the France Insoumise party can be ascribed to its receptive attitude toward radical social demands, including ecological ones. The outcome of this process is the existence of a radical-left party with serious ecological claims: again, a very special fact in the European political framework. Finally, the authoritarian and repressive turn of the French State has pushed many parts of the population and of political organisations into a form of hatred for the police state, which greatly surpasses the non-violent dogma of other ecological and civil disobedience movements, opening the way to a wider arsenal of tactics. This is a very striking aspect of the contemporary French political struggles in general, and in the conditions of Macron’s neoliberal authoritarianism, these struggles make the current political stalemate even more uncertain, explosive and risky.

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  1. The airport of Notre-Dame-de-Landes was to be constructed with a concession to Vinci, a private company, in the form of a PPP. Public-private partnerships (PPPs) are long-term contractual arrangements where the private sector provides infrastructure, assets and services that have traditionally been directly funded by government, such as hospitals, schools, prisons, roads, bridges, tunnels, railways, and water and sanitation plants, and where there is also some form of risk sharing between the public and the private sector.” For a critical analysis, see Why public-private partnerships (PPPs) are still not delivering by Jane Lethbridge and Pippa Gallop. In France, this form of private-public management constitutes a big source of profit for private investors, at the expense of public services quality and democratic control over territorial management. 

  2. La Confédération Paysanne (or La Conf’) is a farmers’ union and member of the Via Campesina, an international farmers’ organisation. 

  3. The same demands in Sweden resulted in a Far Right movement. In general, forms of far-right ecology tend to focus on the defence of national territory without taking into account class issues; on the contrary, it points out the supposed migrants’ fault for the contradiction between natural resources and national population. The Yellow Vest slogan “on est chez nous” (“we are at home”) could have led to a similar perspective, but during the protests it acquired a very different and progressive form of attachment to the territory. For an insight on this issue, see: A Darker Shade of Green: Understanding Ecofascism by Elaina Hancock

  4. You can view an English language version of the programme at

  5. TotalEnergies is a French multinational integrated energy and petroleum company. In the first quarter of 2023, it made the largest profit in the history of French capitalism. See also: Andreas Malm: « Il faut nationaliser Total » by Philippe Vion-Dury 

  6. To understand the specificities of this social category, see The Making of a Class: Cadres in French Society by Luc Boltanski 

  7. You can watch this speech in this YouTube video

  8. The expression “cadres bifurqueurs” has become popular to indicate managers who choose to “bifurcate” from their life-path, often by resigning from jobs that contribute to devastating the planet. 

  9. Correia, Mickaël and Dejean, Mathieu (27 March 2023) ‘Andreas Malm: « Sainte-Soline est une lutte avant-gardiste »’, Mediapart. 

  10. For a general overview of this “earthly” trend, see the online magazine Terrestres. Revue de livres, des idées et des écologies; for the most accomplished proposal of inter-specific alliances which takes root into an operaist methodology of class composition analysis and intervention, see the book Nous ne sommes pas seuls. Politique des soulèvements terrestres by Léna Balaud and Antoine Chopot 


FX Hutteau

is a militant and researcher based in Paris.

Sara Marano

is a militant and researcher based between Paris and Turin