Five hundred gendarmes were deployed today at dawn in eastern France to dislodge about 20 protesters from woods destined to become an underground storage site for highly radioactive nuclear waste.

President Macron’s government had ordered the site at Bure to be cleared amid concerns that it could become a magnet for ecologists and anarchists. Gérard Collomb, the interior minister, said: “We don’t want places where there is no law and order in France.”

The protesters at Bure, many of whom were living in tree houses and wearing bird-like masks, call themselves “the owls”. They fear that the area will suffer from nuclear pollution for hundreds of thousands of years and say that the military intervention has only made them more determined. They have called on left-wing activists from across France and Europe to join them.

The site has been chosen to store the 3 per cent of waste produced by France’s 58 nuclear reactors that has the highest level of radioactivity. The aim is to bury it in impermeable clay 500 metres below ground level.

The French National Agency for the Management of Radioactive Waste says that the waste destined for Bure will be radioactive for a long time. Chlorine-36 has a lifespan of 300,000 years and iodine-129 has a lifespan of 16 million years.