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French government slams ‘eco-terrorism’ as water protesters dig in

French protesters on Monday defied a massive police presence to try to stop an agriculture water storage project, as the government vowed to prevent any encampment while denouncing vandalism and “eco-terrorism”.

Clashes with security forces marked the launch of the protest Saturday near Sainte-Soline in the western Deux-Sevres department, where officials said 4,000 people had turned out and six were arrested.

A group of 400 farmers is hoping to build a network of 16 giant retention basins for groundwater pumped out during the winter, which can then be used for irrigation in summers that have experienced severe drought in recent years.

But climate activists and local opponents see a “water grab” by intensive farmers that will deprive smaller producers of access by disrupting natural groundwater recharge.

One farmer has allowed the protesters to set up camp on his land adjacent one of the basins, where watchtowers and fences are being built to create a “village of Gauls”, a reference to the popular “Asterix” comic books.

“We fully intend to use them, it will be a base for all types of harassment operations we’re going to carry out if the construction continues,” said Julien Le Guet, a spokesman for the protest collective.

Masked protesters also tore out a water pipe thought to be used to fill the basin, with video of the vandalism circulating widely on social media.

– Officials wary –

France has seen the emergence of several such camps in recent years — called Zones to Defend, or ZADs — by left-wing or anti-capitalist opponents of new airports, dams, nuclear power plants and other projects.

Efforts by security forces to dislodge them have at times degenerated into weeks-long clashes, with demonstrators often accusing police of using excessive force.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said Sunday 1,000 police would remain on site so that “no ZAD is installed in the Deux-Sevres department nor anywhere else in France.”

He also condemned “eco-terrorism” by some of the protesters who used high-power fireworks and “blunt objects” to attack security forces on Saturday, leaving 61 officers injured.

His comments drew criticism from left-wing opposition groups, with lawmaker Clementine Autain of the France Unbowed party denouncing “a smokescreen”.

“Eco-terrorism is an insult to ecology activists, and it’s an insult to the victims of terrorism to associate the word with ecology,” she told BFM television.

“By conflating everything you end up making the debate hysterical,” Socialist Party chief Olivier Faure responded on Twitter.

Regional authorities in Bordeaux said Monday around 300 demonstrators were still at the camp near the basin, and extended a ban on protests to Wednesday, when construction work is set to resume.

“The goal is not to organise a ZAD but to be here on the ground to keep an eye on the site,” Jean-Jacques Guillet, another spokesman for the protesters, told AFP.

The farmers’ cooperative behind the basins project, Coop de l’Eau 79, condemned “unacceptably intense violence”.

“We had to call farmers to tell them to stay home, and to stay calm,” its president Thierry Boudaud said.