A judge is due to decide whether to authorise a fresh round of forced police evictions in Notre-Dame-des-Landes. Photograph: Jean-Sébastien Evrard/AFP/Getty Images
"This is a special place; it's a shame it is at war," sighed Marie and Alain as they sat at the wooden table of their historic stone farmhouse gazing out at the autumn colours of the forest of Rohanne.
Yet they were proud their idyllic view was now punctuated by scores of tents, yurts, rainbow camper vans and makeshift wooden cabins as
a growing front of local dairy farmers, residents and international eco-warriors unite against plans to build an ambitious second airport for the western French city of Nantes.
The vast stretch of woodland outside the tiny village of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, six times the surface of Monaco, is now Europe's biggest open air squat, according to the local police chief. Road signs spray-painted "Defence Zone" and bails of hay as roadblocks ring the proposed construction site.
On Tuesday a French judge will decide whether to authorise a fresh round of forced police evictions. Previous attempts to dislodge protesters brought hundreds of French riot police who fired teargas and rubber bullets, some climbing trees and teargassing people down from tree-houses, sparking dozens of injuries and what locals described as "war scenes".
In recent months, police swoops have razed wooden huts and vegetable gardens, immediately inspiring hundreds more squatters to arrive from across Europe to rebuild the camps and strengthen the protests.
The protesters, including farmers, locals and green politicians, argue that building a brand new airport for France's sixth largest city, which already has an award-winning airport, is both an environmental disaster and a waste of public money during an economic crisis. Support groups have sprung up across France.
"We are the resistance," said Alain, an electricity technician, who has rented his farmhouse for 20 years and whose dairy farmers ancestors have been rooted here since the 17th century. But the kitchen sits on the exact spot where the planned control tower will go. He, his partner, Marie, and their children should have left in July to allow the house to be demolished. They stayed, and are now considered squatters. Marie, a secretary, said: "Some of the environmental protesters living in self-built wood cabins have been here for years with their families and children. They refuse to give up and so do we. I can't believe the French left is acting like this, refusing to listen to the ecological arguments, and sending in totally disproportionate force against us."
From the house, a long, muddy walk deep through the forest leads to a series of intricate, makeshift roadblocks, manned at all hours. In a clearing, 40 tractors are chained together to protect the entrance to the Châtaignerie, a forest camp and communal living headquarters, with elaborate wooden huts. Volunteers are dishing out vegetable soup, activists are discussing schemes to plant vegetables, there is a bar, sanitary block and communications office with pirate radio frequency. If, as protesters say, the codename for the gendarmes' eviction operation is Operation Caesar, the squat is a kind of Asterix village, surrounded on all sides but holding out.
If a court this week orders the Châtaignerie camp to be forcefully evicted, locals fear another stand-off and injuries. At the heart of the camp, Camille, 42, not his real name, used to work in the French film industry. He was an activist during the Heathrow airport expansion protests and has been squatting in the Notre-Dame-des-Landes forest for a year and a half.
"All we can do is be present," he said. "We want to produce our own food, be auto-sufficient, show an alternative way for society."
Plans to build an airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, 12 miles (20km) north of Nantes, date back 45 years, and so does the opposition. At first the idea was a Nantes international air hub, which would compete with Paris and host Concorde, but that was dropped. The current plans are for a €556m (£446m) airport which would open in 2017 and host 9 million passengers a year in 2050.
Socialists say it is crucial for jobs and the development of the fast-growing city of Nantes, tucked away near France's Atlantic coast. Yannick Vaugrenard, Socialist senator for Loire-Atlantique, argued that without proper infrastructure, the area would be the "far west" of Europe, and the crucial new airport would respect the environment.
Opponents, including the Green party, which has two ministers in the government, say the project will destroy crucial humid woodland and hedgerow habitats and is totally unnecessary because Nantes's current airport, to the south of the city, was not at saturation point and could be expanded.
The row has become a major thorn in the side of the government. The Socialist prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, is a former mayor of Nantes and personal champion of the project. He is facing record unpopularity and to shelve the airport plans would be too much of a capitulation, observers say.
"This airport will happen," he told Paris Match last month. But Ayrault's latest attempts to call a six-month truce in which a new scientific report is conducted alongside a "dialogue commission" have not calmed the mood.
Demonstrators marched on the streets of central Nantes again this weekend.
"This airport is the prime example of what we shouldn't do anymore: it's about global warming, damaging the environment and setting the wrong example for society," said Julien Durand, a retired dairy farmer leading opposition in the village from a tiny drop-in centre near the town hall.
He backed local farmers who went on hunger-strike against it earlier this year. "In times of financial crisis, does Nantes need a new airport? No," said one village protester. Françoise Verchère, from the Parti de Gauche, leading a protest group of local politicians, said: "This the worst possible choice of site for an airport because we now know this type of important, humid wetland must be preserved."
Notre-Dame-des-Landes has become a national symbol, inspiring struggles against all types of development projects from transport to shopping centres. In a farm shed on the airport zone, a 23-year-old northern European treehouse activist, who wouldn't be named, was preparing to move back up to trees if police arrived this week. He had been squatting here for two years, after similar action in England and Scotland.
"The problem is this airport would be a ticket for even more urbanisation. Occupation is the last line of defence."