Thousands of environmental activists in western France clashed with police on Saturday during a demonstration against watersheds in the rural community of Sainte-Soline.
According to the latest count provided by the local public prosecutor’s office, seven injured protesters were treated by the emergency services, three of whom were treated as absolute emergencies and hospitalised; 28 policemen were injured, two of them seriously. Two journalists were also injured.
Protest organizers are claiming a much higher toll of 200 injured protesters, one of whom was reported as in a coma, information which has not been confirmed by the authorities.
In a Twitter post, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne denounced what she called an “intolerable outburst of violence”, blaming “the irresponsibility of the radical discourse that encourages these acts”.
Clashes around the reservoir under construction in the rural community of Sainte-Soline, in the Deux-Sèvres region, highlighted growing tensions over water sharing in the face of climate change.
French authorities say giant irrigation tanks are needed to allow farmers to continue growing food crops, but opponents see the project as an attempt by agribusiness to monopolize water supplies.
Tear gas and Molotov cocktails
At least 6,000 people according to the prefecture, and up to 30,000 according to the organizers, converge in Sainte-Soline, with the aim of “stopping” the construction of an open-air basin, intended for agricultural irrigation, which has long been contested.
They were met by more than 3,000 police and gendarmes mobilized to defend the site, with authorities saying “at least a thousand violent activists” had joined the protesters.
When the protesters reached the place, violent clashes erupted for an hour, turning the place into a war scene, with loud bangs and burning vehicles.
The attackers used “pyrotechnic mortars, Roman candles and large Molotov cocktails” among other projectiles, according to police, who retaliated with 4,000 tear gas and non-lethal ammunition.
No arrests were made during the demonstration, according to the prosecutor. Eleven people had been previously arrested during the checks that led to the seizure of many weapons.
Authorities and organizers blame each other for the clashes. The interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, denounced the “unforgivable” violence of the “extreme left”, while the organizers accused “absolutely criminal violence” by the police.
Sharing water and climate change
Before leaving the scene, protesters claimed to have damaged a pump and pipe in the basin. “We will continue the fight,” organizers said in the nearby village of Melle, where an “international water forum” will be held until Sunday.
As with an earlier rally in the fall, the clashes have largely overshadowed the fundamental debate about sharing water in the face of climate change.
The Sainte-Soline reservoir is part of a set of 16 reservoirs, with a total capacity of six million cubic metres, designed by a cooperative of 450 farmers with state support.
They aim to store water drawn from the surface in winter to irrigate crops in summer when rainfall is low. Its supporters see it as a condition for farms to survive in the face of the threat of recurring droughts.