Thousands of protesters clashed with police in western France on Saturday, opposing the creation of a large water reservoir for farm irrigation in the rural district of Sainte-Soline.
The protesters, numbering at least 6,000, defied a ban on gatherings and marched towards the site of the planned reservoir. According to Emmanuelle Dubee, the prefect of the surrounding region, around a thousand radical individuals were expected among the protesters.
Police had to fire tear gas to repel some protesters who threw fireworks and other projectiles as they crossed fields to approach the fenced-off construction area. At least two police vehicles caught fire, according to television footage. The government had deployed over 3,000 police for the demonstration, said Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin.
A similar protest last October had resulted in injuries, and the government has faced weeks of demonstrations over a pension reform that turned violent after the legislation was pushed through without a final parliamentary vote.
France faced its worst drought on record last summer, sharpening the debate over water resources in the European Union’s largest agricultural sector. Supporters of artificial reservoirs argue that they are an efficient way to use water when needed, while critics argue that they are oversized and favor large farms.
Opponents of the irrigation project fear the impact of the new reservoir on the local environment and agriculture.
The government says it will help prevent water shortages in the region, which has been plagued by drought in recent years. The Sainte-Soline district is known for its melons and vegetables, and critics say the irrigation project will harm smaller farmers while benefiting larger, industrial-scale operations.
Saturday’s clashes highlight the ongoing tensions between the French government and rural communities, who feel their concerns are being ignored. The conflict over the water reservoir project is likely to continue, with both sides holding firm on their positions.