Violent clashes between police and protesters at French anti-reservoir protest
Thousands of environmental activists in Western France clashed with police on Saturday during a demonstration against irrigation reservoirs in the rural community of Sainte-Soline.
According to the latest count provided by the local public prosecutor’s office, seven injured demonstrators were treated by the emergency services, three of whom were treated as absolute emergencies and hospitalised; 28 police officers were injured, two of them seriously. Two journalists were also injured.
The protest organisers claim a much higher toll of 200 injured demonstrators, one of whom has been reported as being in a coma, information that has not been confirmed by the authorities.
In a post on Twitter, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne denounced what she described as an “intolerable outpouring of violence”, blaming “the irresponsibility of the radical discourse that encourages these acts.”
The clashes around the reservoir being built in the rural community of Sainte-Soline, in the Deux-Sèvres region, highlighted increasing tensions over water sharing in the face of climate change.
French authorities argue that giant irrigation reservoirs are necessary to allow farmers to continue growing food crops but opponents see the project as an attempt by agribusiness to monopolise water supplies.
Tear gas and Molotov cocktails
At least 6,000 people according to the prefecture, and up to 30,000 according to the organisers, converged on Sainte-Soline, with the aim of “stopping” the construction of an open-air reservoir, intended for agricultural irrigation, which has long been contested.
They were met by more than 3,000 police and gendarmes mobilised to defend the site, with the authorities claiming that “at least a thousand violent activists” had joined the protesters.
As the demonstrators reached the site, violent clashes broke out for an hour, turning the place into a scene of war, with loud bangs and burning vehicles.
The attackers used “fireworks mortars, Roman candles and large Molotov cocktails” among other projectiles, according to police, who retaliated with 4,000 tear gas and non-lethal projectiles.
No arrests were made during the demonstration, according to the public prosecutor. Eleven people had been arrested beforehand during controls which led to the seizure of many weapons.
Authorities and organisers blame each other for the clashes. The Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, denounced the “inexcusable” violence of the “extreme left”, while the organisers blamed “absolutely criminal violence” by the police.
Water sharing and climate change
Before leaving the scene, the demonstrators claimed to have damaged a pump and a pipe in the basin. “We will continue the fight,” said organisers in the nearby village of Melle, where an “international water forum” is being held in parallel until Sunday.
As with an earlier demonstration in the autumn, the clashes have largely overshadowed the fundamental debate on water sharing in the face of climate change.
The Sainte-Soline basin is part of a set of 16 reservoirs, with a total capacity of six million cubic metres, planned by a cooperative of 450 farmers with the support of the state.
They aim to store water drawn from the surface in winter to irrigate crops in summer when rainfall is scarce. Its supporters see it as a condition for the survival of farms in the face of the threat of recurrent droughts.