By Niccolo Milanese
The burning streets of Paris have filled newsreels and newsfeeds around the world, instantly memefied on the model of a burning house or burning world: ‘everything is fine’, or ‘tout va bien’ says the speech bubble emerging ironically from people eating dinner or drinking their coffee looking calmly at a barricade in flames. These videos mix with the scenes of police charging and striking protestors against pension reforms being forced through by President Macron and his psycho-rigid government against both public and the parliament’s wishes.
In rural France this last weekend, some 400 kilometers south-west of Paris in Sainte-Soline, with less attention from the international press – but more attention from the international police – thousands of peasants, ecologists and scientists brutally clashed with specialized police forces brought in from across France, Germany, Italy and Spain. They were protesting against the construction of mega water basins, which are being constructed to hold water pumped from underground so that a small number of corporations can continue to profit from massively wasteful and water-intensive agricultural practices despite increasing water scarcity and unpredictability caused by climate change. Such mega-water basins have been condemned by the French legal system and by independent authorities on multiple occasions, but continue to be built. The human casualties of this weekend’s clash are alarming: 250 injured, several hospitalized on life support, over 4000 grenades launched by the police and reports of medics being blocked from helping the wounded.
Behind these images is a struggle for the future. On one side, protected by the police, are people profiting from a status quo they know is unsustainable, but who seek to make it last as long as they can by extracting as much from the future to be consumed in the present as possible. What are they extracting? They are extracting labour from the future – the idea that people in France will work two years longer. And they are extracting water from deep underground that would otherwise feed rivers and the ecosystem to make it immediately available for profit.
Both of these ideas are deeply misguided. France has one of the lowest rates of employment of older people in Europe: 60% in Germany, 70% in Sweden, 35% in France. The pension reform of Macron rests on people who started working when they were young working 2 years longer – if someone started work at the age of 22, they would have to work until 65 anyway under the current system to benefit from a full pension, so the reform is on the backs of those who started younger. What jobs will these people do? They are often with less qualifications, and doing more physically intensive work. This question is unanswered, with only the vague promise of reindustrializing the country.
Extracting water from the phreatic zone underground to sustain water intensive agriculture is what scientists call ‘mal-adaptation’: risking destablising the eco-system further, for the private benefit of a limited number of corporations at the expense of smaller farmers, all to maintain environmentally-damaging modes of production. The mobilization of the police of Europe against the protests in Saint-Soline, and the panicked branding of protestors as ‘extreme-left terrorists’ by the French government, reveals how unjustifiable this adaptation is: it opens no positive vision for a renewed future, only an image of massive amounts of enclosed stagnant water.
On the other side of this struggle are forces of life and renewal. We cannot be portrayed either as terrorists or as opposed to change. Quite the contrary, we are the ones who live the need for urgent change: change which means ending the reckless extraction of our labour from our bodies, and change which means ending the reckless extraction of resources from our planet. We are abundant with ideas how these things can be done: from a shorter working week, to basic income, to democratizing the workplace; smaller farms using water less intensively, peasant methods which work the earth in a way that turns it into a sustainable sponge of water not sucking it dry, taking care of our rivers rather than exploiting them. We are the ones with a radical vision of the future; more than that, in the current conflict we are the only ones with a plausible set of visions for the future at all. Everything is not fine – the elements of nature just like our tired bodies also tell us so – so we organize, we flow, and we rise.
European Alternatives and Studio Rizoma will launch a ‘School of Water Education’ for activists on Earth Day 22nd April in Palermo, Sicily.