The Fight to Defend the Aubervilliers Workers’ Gardens from Paris 2024 [INTERVIEW]

JAD toolkit. Photo by Camille McOuat for Liberá

A group of people in Aubervilliers, near Paris, are occupying the city’s workers’ gardens to protest and prevent their conversion into an Olympics-sized swimming pool, to be used for Paris 2024 training events. We checked in with Natsuko Sasaki, a member of NON aux JO2024 à Paris and the Saccage 2024 coalition, and a participant in the occupation.

Olympics Watch: Can you give us some background on the Aubervilliers garden allotments?

Natsuko Sasaki: Jardins Ouvriers d’Aubervilliers means the workers’ gardens of Aubervilliers, if you translate word to word. It’s a public garden, owned and managed by the City of Aubervilliers. I think gardeners pay a token price to use an allotment, but I’m not sure: maybe they don’t pay anything at all. The idea is that working-class people cultivate gardens to support their lives. They’re not supposed to plant roses or tulips; they’re supposed to plant carrots, cabbage, or potatoes to support their daily life. Nowadays, many people do plant flowers as well. This garden was founded in 1930 — almost a century ago. The socialist government at the time established the concept that workers should have green spaces in urban areas. The place is well-situated, just two minutes from the nearest subway station, called Fort Aubervilliers. So it’s been a target of developers for some time. The gardens have already lost some of their original space. And the point of view of developers is that this garden, as well-placed as it is, shouldn’t exist, because Paris needs more housing, and such a nice place should be replaced by housing. That’s their logic. One important point is that this garden is not an open space. It is not open to everyone. Only the gardeners and those they invite. So it’s one of the difficulties for getting support from people in the neighborhood, because not everyone has access to it.

OW: Are the garden allotments part of a larger park?

NS: It’s just the gardens but it’s really big. From an administrative point of view, there are two gardens, because one part belongs to the city of Aubervillers and the other part of the gardens belongs to the City of Pantin. It’s the section belonging to Aubervilliers that’s losing its plots because of the Olympics project.

Vegetable gardens at Aubervilliers in May 2021. Photo by Camille McOuat for Liberá

OW: What is the planned Olympic project?

NS: It’s an Olympic pool. The International Swimming Federation requires Olympic pools to be 50 meters long. Organizers of Paris 2024 insist this pool is necessary but France already has several dozen Olympic pools all over the country, so we do not think that this pool is really necessary. The background story is that the City of Aubervilliers wanted to have the main Olympic competition pool, the Olympic Aquatic Center. But there was a battle between the mayor of Aubervillers and the mayor of Saint-Denis, and Saint-Denis won — they got the Olympic Aquatic Center. So to compensate the City of Aubervilliers, the Olympic Delivery Authority proposed a training pool, which will not be used for the competition during Paris 2024, but just for training. So we think it’s not really necessary to have this big pool in such a working-class neighborhood in Aubervilliers.

OW: It’s so interesting that developers have wanted to develop this land for a while. That fits with so many other Olympics stories, right? The land Vila Autódromo [a favela adjacent to Rio’s Olympic Park site] was on in Rio — developers had wanted to develop that for decades. And then finally the Olympics gave them the excuse they needed to justify it.

NS: Yes it’s really a parallel. As you may know, Paris was a candidate city for 2012 and 1992. And each time the City of Aubervilliers has planned to have a pool. It’s a decades-long dream of the communist mayors of this city. The important point is that they had to wait until finally Paris won the Games. Otherwise it was impossible for them to obtain a big Olympic pool.

OW: What does Jardins à Defendre mean?

NS: Jardins à Defendre (JAD) literally means Gardens to Defend. This is of course inspired by Zone à Defendre, ZAD, which has been really active since the victory of the struggle in Notre Dame des Landes. It was a struggle against a new airport in the region of Brittany. So we call our occupation here Jardins à Defendre in honor of other struggles all over France.

OW: Who’s involved in occupying the Aubervilliers gardens and why are they there?

NS: Some gardeners. They’re not happy with the destruction of their own gardens. But they’re really a minority. Most gardeners are not against the project — just a very small portion of gardeners are determined to fight against it. Most of what we call the JADistes, people in JAD, are supporters of the resisting gardeners, mostly young climate activists. Jardins à Defendre’s strategy is occupation, which has been used against many Grands Projects Inutiles et Imposés (Unnecessary and Imposed Mega-Projects).

JAD occupation. Photo from Basta Magazine.

OW: What are the goals of JAD?

NS: We’re fighting to preserve the gardens, to save many birds, trees, and small animals like hedgehogs, which have become a symbol of our struggle. We’re here to preserve the green space here and the species that live here. An important point is that some of the occupants are not against the Olympics. Especially at the beginning of the struggle, it was gardeners and architects who led this struggle and their strategy was to present an alternative plan for the Olympic pool project. The current project calls for an Olympic pool as well as a solarium. I don’t know what this is really, I’ve never been to a solarium in my life. But the architect believes it is specifically the solarium which will destroy our gardens. So he presented a Plan B for the Olympic pool without the solarium. But in my point of view, JAD relied on this Plan B for too long. Now, many people are realizing it wasn’t a good strategy because a bulldozer came here [last Thursday]. So some people are thinking we should have taken a different approach from the beginning. Many people here are thinking, no, we have to fight something bigger behind this specific pool — for some, it’s the Olympics, for others it’s the gentrification of Grand Paris, the surrounding suburbs of Paris, or the further metropolization of French capital.

OW: Interesting, so these internal conversations are happening.

NS: Yep, they’ve been happening since the arrival of the bulldozer, and since the occupation of the garden. With the occupation, this concrete action, more people came. Newer, younger, more radical people came, and the conversation is shifting at each meeting.

OW: There’s another parallel between what you’re describing and Vila Autódromo, where residents put together an alternative plan, developed with architects as well, showing how you could have the Olympic Park right next to the community and only relocate a few households within the neighborhood. And the Olympic Committee and the City of Rio just ignored it and went ahead with the plan that involved demolishing most of the neighborhood. It’s wild to hear such similarities happening in Paris as well.

NS: Yes, I’d heard the story of this Plan B by Vila Autódromo and architects. Maybe it’s time to rethink the way we fight with architects. Because if architects propose an alternative plan, it means they believe that negotiation is possible with the authorities or Olympics organizers. And what we want, based on our own experience, is total opposition. Negotiation has never worked. It never worked in Rio de Janeiro, it didn’t work in Tokyo, it hasn’t worked in Paris. We just say, ‘no.’ It’s the only strategy that will work.

OW: Agreed! Let’s talk a bit about what the occupation is like physically.

NS: I don’t know if you know a lot about Zone à Defendre in Notre Dame des Landes, but in this famous struggle in France people occupied houses. Here in our Jardins à Defendre, there are not houses but there are some garden sheds — which are not meant for people to live in permanently, but we are living here. There are only a few people staying here permanently. Mostly we come here to spend one night at a time. It’s like camping, collective camping. The point is that at least someone is here at any time to sustain the occupation. Some people enjoy camping, especially the young people. I personally didn’t enjoy sleeping here so much — I’m not a big fan of camping! But it’s because I’m a spoiled middle aged woman. We don’t have electricity. We do have water but not in all the places we want it.

Camping at JAD. Photo by Camille McOuat for Liberá

OW: And you mentioned before that you constructed living spaces like a kitchen, bathroom, and library.

NS: Yes, we have gas, so we can cook fairly well.

OW: What’s daily life like? What kind of activities are happening?

NS: We try to have at least one workshop — political or otherwise — per day, but it’s difficult to keep that up. So some days we don’t have any workshops. But we’re always doing construction work and gardening work. Gardening is a required daily activity, we have to keep things watered. So we have lots of work. We don’t want to have a hierarchical structure, so we are trying to make this space self-organized. Managing it in a horizontal way. And of course it’s not always easy. On our last meeting on Sunday some people raised concerns about our toilet, for example, and how it’s always the same people washing the dishes — this kind of a problem.

OW: Sounds normal!

NS: Yeah, completely normal!

JAD workspace. Photo from Le Monde.

OW: So let’s talk about the bulldozer. Did you know it was coming or was it a surprise?

NS: It was a surprise. As you know, we received the notification that at any time police can come here to remove us, so we’re prepared psychologically and organizationally for a police attack. But we didn’t expect the bulldozer to come like this, so we were shocked. I have to specify that the bulldozer didn’t directly target our gardens but it was in the nearby external spaces. But it’s all green space — natural space — so it’s all a continuation. Some people saw that some hedgehogs died because of the bulldozer.

OW: I think I read that there was a court decision that allowed the police to clear the JAD occupation at any time?

NS: I think it was the Grand Paris Aménagement [the public body in charge of urban regeneration in the Ile-de-France region surrounding Paris] who requested that the police could clear us out at any time we want.

OW: Right, and there was something about the formal association of the Aubervilliers gardeners making a deal with the authorities?

NS: Yes, it’s important to emphasize we are not a formal collective that represents all the gardeners. Our group is just a few gardeners and many supporters. There is an official organization that represents the gardeners, around 80 people. And this association is actually our enemy — they made a deal with the Société de Livraison des Ouvrages Olympiques [the French counterpart of the Olympic Delivery Authority for London 2012], Grand Paris Aménagement and the City of Aubervilliers that says, ‘okay, you can destroy our gardens and construct what you want. We won’t cause any trouble if you give alternative plots to each gardener.’ And every gardener is getting an alternative plot.

OW: Where are the alternative plots?

NS: Somewhere in the same area of two gardens, because there are many unused plots. The point is that this garden is really big — the Aubervilliers Gardens are two hectares. According to activists, the construction project will destroy one hectare. According to official documents, the area to be destroyed is less than one hectare. So the gardeners who lose their plots will be given plots in another part of the area, maybe not in the City of Aubervilliers’ section but in the City of Pantin’s section. So the Association made this deal. But we are ecologists here. So we do not fight just for our own interests as human beings, but we are here to defend the trees, hedgehogs and birds as well.

JAD wall. Photo from Le Monde

OW: Since the bulldozer last week, has work fully begun on the pool project?

NS: No, not really — since the bulldozer, there’s just been a few workers here.

OW: As a member of the anti-Olympic group, NON aux JO2024 à Paris, how do you see this specific case of JAD connecting to the broader problems of the Paris 2024 Olympics?

NS: Because I’ve been an anti-Olympic activist for some time, and because I knew what happened in Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo, I knew that alternative plans, like the one our architect proposed, are not a wise strategy. So I’ve been frustrated by this strategy of negotiation with authority. I’ve always wanted to say ‘no’ to the pool and to the Olympics. But when I first came here to these gardens in winter 2020 I immediately understood the political potential of this place. If an Olympic pool destroys such an important space, it’ll make many people angry. So I decided to give my full support to this JAD struggle, even though I don’t always agree with their strategy. But people came because this specific place was threatened, but the struggle has become more radical. People are starting to take more explicit positions against the Olympics.

OW: Awesome.

NS: Yes, but maybe this shift has happened too late. The bulldozer came and some people are still hoping that they can win this struggle, but for me, it’s the beginning of the end. When the bulldozer shows up, you have to recognize we are losing this struggle, otherwise you set yourself up for psychological trauma. I am prepared for the possibility this place will be destroyed.

OW: Perhaps it has the potential to inspire more questions and concerns about what the Olympics means for Paris. Because there are these other sites, right, like the Georges-Valbon Park [the planned site of the media village] where there are still question marks over what happens there?

NS: Yes, it’s possible.

OW: Anything else you want to share?

This plan to destroy the Aubervilliers gardens is just one of many cases of Olympics destruction: there are many like this all over the world. Do you know the Manor Garden Allotments in London? They were destroyed for the 2012 Games, and it’s a clear parallel for me with the Aubervillers gardens. I’ve mentioned Manor Garden several times in my own writing but it doesn’t seem to appeal to readers here and it’s a shame — why don’t they see the clear parallels? But fighting against the Olympics, I’ve discovered one thing that was not obvious to me before. The translation of struggle is really hard. Now we’re fighting against the Olympics in Japan, in Paris, in Los Angeles, and it’s really difficult to translate other struggles. It’s rare to find people who are really interested in transnational work. It’s hard to get across the message that each time, in each city, every Olympics has the same problem. We have people, like Jules Boykoff, who repeat this every time but I think few people really grasp the message. It’s frustrating. But the only thing we can do is continue our work. There is no miracle solution. We just have to keep fighting.

Video report (in French) on the fight to defend the gardens from April 2021, before the occupation began: