Protests continue at French farm reservoir site after clashes with police

Protests continued on Sunday against the construction of a water reservoir intended for farm irrigation in western France, at a site that saw violent clashes between demonstrators and police the previous day.

There was no new attempt to enter the site but a pipeline was ransacked, the day after the disturbances at Sainte-Soline, in the Deux-Sèvres department. Earlier, authorities put the number of protesters at around 2,000.

Protesters have occupied a piece of land loaned to them by a farmer opposed to the project. So-called "Gallic village" wooden watchtowers have been put up, which the demonstrators say are designed to "anchor the struggle" on the ground.

Large protests at the site on Saturday left 61 police officers injured, including 22 seriously, according to officials. The local prefect said some were attacked with fireworks and petrol bombs. Four protestors were injured and six arrested, the prefect added.

Several thousand people defied a ban on protests at the planned reservoir in the rural area. French television showed protestors roaming across fields towards the fenced-off construction area and being repelled by tear gas.

French Agriculture Minister Marc Fesneau condemned on Twitter the violence against police and criticised protestors for "the intention to block a project developed locally over years".

France's worst drought on record this summer has sharpened debate over water resources in the European Union's biggest agricultural sector. Artificial reservoirs have been supported by some farmers as a way to use water efficiently, but have been decried by critics as outsized and favouring large farms.

The water reservoir under construction is one of 16 planned in the department. The project was developed by a group of 400 farmers to reduce their water withdrawals for irrigation in the summer by pumping from the shallow water table in winter.

The reservoirs, which have a capacity of 650,000 cubic metres — the equivalent of 260 Olympic swimming pools — are denounced by critics as a "water grab" by the agro-industry, particularly for maize production, and an ecological aberration in the face of global warming.

This weekend's protests follow an earlier mobilisation in the spring, and come at a time when the historic summer drought has crystallised tensions around the basins and, beyond that, the uses of water.

French Agriculture Minister Marc Fesneau called on Sunday for the protests against an "authorised" and "general interest" project to stop. Another MP from the right-wing Republicans party said it was "crazy to see environmentalists attacking projects that in reality allow us to better regulate our water consumption".

The protesters were joined on Saturday by this year's presidential candidate for the ecological movement, the MEP Yannick Jadot. Green MP Sandrine Rousseau, who also took part, gave her support to "the activists who are occupying the land... to show that these projects are leading us to disaster".