French police fired tear gas Friday as they sought to evict protesting squatters from the site of a proposed new airport to be built on protected swampland, a pet project of Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.
The crackdown at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, outside the western city of Nantes, came a day ahead of a planned protest that is expected to gather thousands of activists.
A policeman and two television journalists were slightly wounded as the angry protestors hurled bottles, stones and firecrackers at the estimated 500 policemen, an AFP correspondent said.
The policeman had an injured hand and the journalists appeared to have mild head injuries.
Two excavators and a large waste receptacle were deployed to clear an area where the protestors had set up shacks at the 1,650-hectare (4,000-acre) site.
In Paris, police detained several dozen protesters who were demonstrating in support of the squatters, carting them off by bus for identity checks.
Interior Minister Manuel Valls adopted a tough tone, saying: “It is out of the question to let a cyst grow” and vowing to do “all we can to ensure the law is respected and construction can start”.
“It’s a useful project … for millions of inhabitants of our country,” he said.
The airport north of Nantes, which is scheduled to replace the city’s current airport in 2017, is a pet project of Socialist Prime Minister Ayrault, who was the city’s mayor from 1989 until this year.
It has been opposed by the Greens and various politicians on environmental grounds. Eco-warrior protestors have set up numerous camps around the area.
Interior ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet confirmed that a sweep was under way. “This operation is aimed at clearing three sites occupied illegally,” he said.
Squatters have occupied the site for months, and many of them were unfazed by the police crackdown.
“We will continue,” said a woman, identifying herself only as Sophie. “We will remain on track. The moment we are driven out, we will reoccupy.”
Last Saturday, thousands of people held an initial protest in Nantes to protest the new airport. The movement has pitted the Socialist government against its environmentalist allies, who have called for President Francois Hollande to name a team of mediators to hold talks on the standoff.
The 580 million euro ($747 million) project was approved in 2008, with construction expected to start in 2014. The airport is set to have an initial annual capacity of four million passengers, and supporters say it will provide a major boost to tourism in western France.