‘Readings in Nonviolence’ features extracts from our favourite books, pamphlets, articles or other material on nonviolence, or reviews of important works in the field (suggestions and contributions welcome)n bringing together different sectors.
By Roberta Bacic, Benone, 18th June 2011
The idea of writing a piece on the LARZAC struggle came during a visit of my old friend Wolfgang Hertle when I saw him reading the book, just published in 2011, entitled LARZAC, De la lutte paysanne à l’altermondialisme (LARZAC from the peasants’ struggles to antiglobalisation). This started a conversation that I record here as an interview. But we had had similar talks in the past, having to do with the use of nonviolence as a strategy for social change. The book came out to mark 40 years of the start of the struggle and 30 years since they achieved their goal, in Wolfgang’s words: “The right to live, stay and make their living in the Larzac plain”.
The Causse du Larzac is a limestone plateau in the south of the Massif Central of France between Millau (Aveyron region) and Lodève (Hérault region). It is an agricultural area, where sheep are bred to produce milk for Roquefort cheese.
In October 1970, Michel Debré, The French Minister of Defense, decided for strategic purposes to enlarge a military camp from 30km to 170km without consulting the local population of the nearby town Millau. Local farmers objected and decided to fight against the project. One thing they did was to occupy empty farms purchased by the army in anticipation of the projected expansion. Communards from the nearby Community of the Ark, led by the pacifist Lanza del Vasto, also took action to oppose enlargement of the army camp, as did the workers of the occupied and self-managed Lip factory that produced watches. 
French syndicalist and peasant activist José Bové, among others, moved to Larzac during this period to support the protesters and their cause. (He still lives in Larzac.) Some actions focused on stopping the military from moving into the allotted land either by blockading army manoeuvres or ploughing land already owned by the army. There were also actions all over the country to raise awareness about the Larzac struggle.
Wolfgang points out that one organized and meaningful action by the peasants was to take their protest to Paris four times to call national attention to their plight. The first time they brought 60 sheep to graze in front of the Tour Eiffel. Then they drove the 700km to the capital on their tractors. The third time they walked all the long way. Finally, they camped in front of the Eiffel Tower to dramatize and make explicit their protest against being expelled from their homes.
Following ten years of non-violent resistance, the expansionist plan of the French military was cancelled by President François Mitterrand after his election in May 1981.
Because of its history, Larzac was chosen as the site of a massive meeting against the World Trade Organization in August 2003.
Roberta Bacic: Wolfgang, please tell me when you first began following the Larzac struggle.
Wolfgang Hertle: I was lucky to have read about this in a Catholic-Socialist magazine at the very beginning of the struggle. I tried to learn more about this from different newspapers and decided to go and visit the place myself. Of course this interest and curiosity came from my long and strong commitment to nonviolence. This belief was strengthened every time I want to Larzac, which was at least once a year. This engagement with the people at the very heart of the struggle made me feel part of it. Together we discussed the progress of the struggle as well as the shortcomings in strategy.
RB: I hear you were there a few weeks ago. What made you go back at this particular time?
WH: I wanted to hear and feel how much of the motivations and feelings from the beginnings of the struggle were still alive. I was also interested in hearing about developments in the last few years. I feel much at home there, with the people, land and language. Something of the mood there makes me feel at ease with a sense of belonging. It is not only a case study; it is a real and immediate experience.
RB: What did you find?
WH: I would say that the feeling of legitimacy after having been acting against the law, and having been able to resist the State is still strong and makes the people who live there proud of the struggle and themselves. The strongest bond and linkage among the people was the resistance to the expansion of the army. A total of 103 families were to have been evicted and they did manage to stay, which is a success and an incentive to keep up their determination.
One outstanding element of the Larzac experience is that it has become a movement that struggles not only for its own issues, but also connecting and relating to other struggles near and far. This has happened by sharing the learning and shortcomings of their own actions, and also by supporting other struggles that are of a different nature.
RB: How did this experience influence groups in your own country of Germany?
WH: At the time Larzac was happening, three nuclear plants and a chemical plant that were planned by the government were stopped by the use of non-violent intervention taken on board by local people and also supporters from outside. These local groups were helped by learning the theory and practice of the Larzac success directly from Larzac activists, who came to my country around 1974 to participate in the four protests.
Across the borders between France, Germany and Switzerland, a total of 32 initiatives came together and created a body of expertise. The geographical closeness of the three borders was helpful for co-ordination as was the fact that the people could talk to each other through dialects based on the common language of German.
RB: What crucial issues in our present times do you think could be approached by following the example of Larzac? I mean not only to be considered as a source of inspiration but also as a strategy to pursue.
WH: To be exact, there was not one strategy but clear principles that were periodically evaluated and implemented according to changing situations and political contexts. For example, nonviolence as a principle managed to be kept over the years, though not all who joined the struggle were committed to it beforehand. Consensus among the participants was crucial when reaching agreements on how to proceed. What seems to be very fundamental is that the 103 families kept independent from the support groups that came to show solidarity, though welcoming suggestions and that solidarity.
To try to answer your question, non-violent strategies seem especially appropriate today when protesting the use of genetically modified plants; to stop the use and the building of nuclear plants; and to oppose hydraulic fracturing, just to name a few from the top of my head.
1 Pierre-Marie Terral: LARZAC - De la lutte paysanne à l’altermondialisme, Editions Privat. Toulouse, 2011
2 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larzac for an historical account.
3 Roger Rawlinson : The Battle of Larzac, 1976, Fellowship of Reconciliation & A victory for Nonviolence, 1983, William Sessions Ltd, both in English
4 See www.larzac.org in French only.
5 See also, in German, Wolfgang Hertle’s Larzac 1971-1981, published by Weber and Zucht, Kassel ( http://zuendbuch.de/de/larzac_19711981 )