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Violent clashes erupt in western France over agro-industry water project

By RFI
France AFP - THIBAUD MORITZ
SAT, 25 MAR 2023 LISTEN
AFP - THIBAUD MORITZ

Dozens of people were injured on Saturday as French security forces clashed with environmental campaigners in Sainte-Soline in western France. The activists were protesting against the construction of water reservoirs for the agricultural industry.

According to local authorities at least 6,000 people formed a long procession earlier on Saturday morning, culminating at the construction site of the Sainte-Soline water reservoir.

Organisers put the turnout at closer to 25,000 people, despite demonstrations having been banned by the police.

"While the country is rising up to defend pensions, we will simultaneously stand up to defend water," protesters said, holding a banner with the words "Bassines non merci" ("Reservoirs, no thank you"), also the name of a collective.

They were joined by members of the environmental movement Soulèvements de la Terre (Earth Uprisings) and the Confédération paysanne (Peasant Confederation).

More than 3,000 members of the security forces were deployed, with "at least 1,000" potentially violent activists, including some from Italy, present, officials said.

Around the construction site, defended by the police, violent clashes quickly broke out between the security forces and radical activists, correspondents from the French news agency AFP said.

Weapons seized, numerous injuries

Multiple projectiles and improvised explosives were thrown by protesters, with police responding with tear gas and water cannon.

Some of the protesters managed to pierce the steel of the reservoir project slightly using a grinder, a journalist from Franceinfo reported.

Eleven people were detained after police seized weapons, including petanque balls and meat knives, as well as explosives.

Several protesters and a photographer were injured according to organisers.

"It was a scenario written in advance with excessive intervention by the police", Daniel Salmon, a Green senator of Ille-et-Vilaine who came to demonstrate with other elected environmentalists and France Unbowed party (France Insoumise) told the press.

The leader of the LFI Jean-Luc Mélenchon, wrote on social media that he accused the police of allowing things to get out of hand.

"No one should tolerate this. Full support for our law enforcement," responded Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin on Twitter.

Controversial solution to recurring droughts

Saint-Soline is part of a set of 16 reservoirs, with a total capacity of around six million cubic meters, which are to be built as part of a project carried out since 2018 by a cooperative of 450 farmers, and supported by the state.

The aim is to store water drawn from surface water tables in winter, in order to irrigate crops in summer when rainfall is scarce.

Its supporters say it is essential for the survival of farms in the face of the threat of recurring droughts.

Opponents -- who have been occupying the site for the past few months -- denounce a "water grabbing" scheme by the agriculture industry.

They are demanding a moratorium on the construction to launch "a real territorial project" by bringing into force better farming techniques, choice of crops and the management of water resources.

The debate comes amid a worsening situation in France, in part due to climate change and unsustainable agricultural and industrial practices.

Saturday's demonstration came against a backdrop of national agitation over President Emmanuel Macron's pension reform with daily clashes in the streets of Paris and other cities.

Now the biggest domestic crisis of Macron's second mandate, it has been cited as the reason for the cancellation of a visit by King Charles III of the UK next week.

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