France scrapped highly-contested plans Wednesday for a new Atlantic coast airport and vowed to evict hundreds of environmental protesters who have lived in an anti-capitalist commune on the sprawling site for more than a decade.
Instead of building a new airport, Philippe said the government will pour resources into modernizing the existing terminal at Nantes and extending its runway, as suggested by mediators between the two sides last month.
He added that it was impossible to go ahead with the original plans given the "climate of bitter opposition between two sides of the population that are nearly equal in size".
The government's announcement was greeted with an explosion of joy inside the ZAD — a government acronym for a development site, appropriated by the demonstrators to stand for "Zone a Defendre" (Zone to Defend).
Champagne corks popped amongst the "zadists", who honked celebratory horns as a defiant banner reading "So there!" hung from the watchtower.
"It's a huge relief," said activist Claude Colas.
However, the government also wishes to clear the camp, as environmental activists, farmers and anti-capitalist militants have turned the rural 1,600-hectare site at Notre-Dame-des-Landes into a protest area with huts and small farms since 2008, where they promote sustainable farming and political debate.
"We will put a stop to the no-go zone which has flourished in this area for nearly 10 years," Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said, giving the protesters a few weeks until spring to leave of their own accord.
But the activists "reject any expulsion of those who have come to live here", they replied in a statement, urging the government to instead let them continue with their "social, environmental and agricultural experiment".
About 500 police were deployed around the site Wednesday, according to a source close to the highly sensitive operation, with up to 2,000 expected to take part in clearing the camp.
A similar attempt to evict the protesters in 2012 descended into clashes, with more than 1,000 police trying unsuccessfully for weeks to oust them.
Reports in conservative media have depicted the protesters as radicals prepared to use violence to defend their cause, but the reality is different, as proved the death of zadist Remi Fraisse, hit by a stun grenade in police clashes on a different controversial project in the south west of France, sparking riots in 2014.
Plans for the airport first envisioned in the 1960s were relaunched in 2000 and the project later became a symbol of foot-dragging under Macron's unpopular Socialist predecessor Francois Hollande.
Environmentalists argued that the area had unique flora and fauna and that the new airport was unnecessary given relatively light traffic at the existing terminal 30 kilometers away.