Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Cleared for take-off?

Last week, a three-man committee of mediators submitted a report to the French Prime Minister on the pros and cons of going ahead with a project to build an entirely new international airport not far from the city of Nantes in the West of France, around the small farming village of Notre-Dame-des-Landes. The current Nantes airport is located at the very edge of the city, has just one runway and is near saturation.  As an extension would be complicated and as many city dwellers suffer a high level of aircraft noise and pollution, not to speak of the danger of an aircraft accident over the city, it seemed logical, given the almost empty countryside just a few dozen mile away, to design and build a green field airport there and eventually close the city airport altogether.

Logical perhaps, but even in a country that sets very high store by logic, the project has been controversial from the outset. It was first mooted 50 years ago when economic and traffic projections concluded that the existing Nantes airport would have to be replaced or extended sooner or later. Since then a “deferred development area” (Zone d’aménagement différé), known by the acronym of “ZAD,” has been gradually cleared of its inhabitants and farms. Some farmers have accepted an expropriation package and gone quietly, others have not. And that is where the problem lies. As happens with many such projects that would change the face of the surrounding area for ever, the airport project at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, has become a focus for demonstrations and protests by green activists, anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation protesters from all over France and even other parts of Europe. An estimated 200 to 300 protestors have set up camps in the area and refuse be dislodged, renaming the area a “zone à defendre” and calling themselves “ZADists”. After a lengthy public enquiry, a whole host of legal challenges on environmental grounds, an aborted attempt to evacuate the protestors last year, a local referendum won by those in favour of the new airport by a majority of 55%, the reluctance of several governments to decide one way or another, President Macron has finally let it be know that a decision will be taken by the end of January 2018.

Although France is a large country with vast, sparsely populated areas, the country’s deeply entrenched attachment to rural values and small farming sits uneasily with large infrastructure projects in the middle of green pastures. Even more so if such projects are decided, as they invariably are, by central government in distant Paris. This is particularly true in Brittany, of which the Loire Atlantique department, the home of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, is historically a part and which has a long history of rebellion against the crown, the revolution and the centralised state. Back in the 1970s for instance, a project to build a nuclear power station in Plogoff, near one of Brittany’s most spectacular coastal beauty spots, was violently contested by protestors of all persuasions until the newly elected President Mitterrand decided to abandon it in 1981. More recently a national project to introduce tolls for heavy lorries using the country’s main roads and motorways was derailed in Brittany by an ad hoc coalition of protestors wearing red Phrygian bonnets, reminiscent of the reign of terror in 1794. (see my post: ”Punitive ecology”  - June 11). It is worth noting in passing that Brittany has never allowed any toll motorway on its territory either and gets by with two-lane dual carriageways linking its large towns.

Luckily, neither of the two protests referred to above led to any fatalities, unlike two other popular protests in other parts of France, one against the building of a fast breeder nuclear reactor in central France in 1977, during which one protestor was killed by a police stun grenade (since outlawed as a means of riot control) and another, more recently, in the South West against the construction of a dam over a river, in which a green activist also lost his life, again as the result of a police charge.

The fear of loss of life among protestors and the police is clearly the main factor that has held back successive governments from trying to evacuate the area around Notre-Dame-des-Landes. French riot police are not known for their pussy-footedness and determined protestors, armed with sharpened wooden stakes, various projectiles and shielded behind makeshift barricades are no pushover. Reading between the lines, the mediators’ report offers the government a face-saving climb down by suggesting that an extension of the current Nantes airport, whatever its other drawbacks, would cost less than building the new airport and all the infrastructure serving it. In addition, having just last week hosted a climate summit and clearly wishing to give himself a leading role in the campaign to fight global warming, the “make-our-planet-great-again” President Macron would find it very awkward to give the go-ahead to an environmentally destructive project that could severely damage his image as a climate saviour. Add to that the well-known views of his “Minister of Ecological Transition” Nicolas Hulot and the revelation by former minister and green party leader, Cécile Duflot, that President Hollande himself was no fan of the new airport, whatever he might have said in public, and the balance seems to be tipping in favour of abandoning the project altogether.

If he does go for that solution however, Macron will probably find it easier to placate the local and national politicians who have always been in favour of the project, as well as find the money to pay the construction companies for breach of contract, than oversee an orderly evacuation and dispersal of the protestors. After all, pitched battles with riot police in muddy fields and narrow country roads would not look good on the evening news and would certainly do no good for the image of France in the world, let alone that of its President.  Whether events come to a head in that way, especially if the protestors have won their fight to kill the project, remains to be seen, but France may be in for a hotter winter than usual  -  and not just because of global warming!

Monday, 11 December 2017

My song, your song.

Emmanuel Macron made two remarkable speeches on two successive days in Paris last week. They were both funeral orations, the first at a ceremony in the courtyard of the Hôtel des Invalides, to honour the passing of Jean d’Ormesson, a patrician writer, senior member of the Académie Française and well known public figure who died on Monday, the second at a ceremony on the steps of the Eglise de la Madeleine, to honour the memory of the uniquely French rock star Johnny Hallyday, who died just the next day.

These two very different but equally famous figures in French society were both judged worthy of a national farewell ceremony, a more solemn one for the man of literature and a popular one for the popular singer. Once such occasions are organised, it is the task of the Head of State to give public expression to the country’s sense of gratitude and grief. On both occasions, Macron acquitted himself with panache and style, using both speeches to conjure up the unity of the nation around two remarkable men, but at the same time, subtly casting himself in their reflected glory and revealing a lot about his own values and ambitions.

The theme of his tribute to Jean d’Ormesson was, unsurprisingly, literature. Macron referred to famous French writers of the past and linked them to d’Ormesson in what France, over and above the divisions within its society, “treasures as its most precious and enduring feature: its literature”. “The very essence of France” he went on, "is its love of literature and its affection for its writers”.

It is true of course that the French expect their political leaders to be steeped in culture, knowing their classics and skilled in expressing themselves both orally and in writing.  De Gaulle was famous for his seemingly spontaneous and often colourful turns of phrase during his legendary press conferences. He started his memoirs with the memorable sentence: “All my life I have had my own vision of France”. (“Toute ma vie je me suis fait une certaine idée de la France”). Pompidou was a literature scholar and loved poetry. Mitterand was a compulsive reader and a prolific writer. Any candidate for the presidency, even the least literary, has to write at least one book to be taken seriously. Macron is no exception. In a recent interview, his wife, Brigitte, said that she could easily have imagined her husband as a successful writer, but never thought he would go into politics. He is said to devote his rare moments of leisure to writing.

This being said, some of course would take issue with the idea that literature and writers are “the very essence of France”, but Macron was surely making a political point too. Especially at a time when the results of the PIRLS  (Progress in International Reading Literacy) comparative study that were released last week, put France in 34th position, out of 50 comparable countries, for reading skills among 10 year olds and one of only two European countries to have a lower score than five years ago, when the last test was run. Jean-Michel Blanquer, the Minister of Education, made an appearance on prime time news last week to say what the government is doing about it: cutting Ist year primary school class sizes by half in underprivileged areas, as Macron promised during his presidential campaign, and concentrating on what he called the four basic skills of reading, writing, arithmetic and “respect for others ". He made it clear too that the “pedagogical freedom” hitherto enjoyed by teachers in the choice of teaching methods must take second place to the imperative of ensuring that no child leaves primary school without mastering these basic skills. As a sign of his determination he announced that primary school teachers would be required henceforth to give their pupils one dictation every day. The clear message is that the quest for integration, inclusion and national unity starts in the first year of primary school with the mastering of language, numeracy and social awareness.

On Saturday, in his brief tribute to the popular idol, Johnny Hallyday, Macron himself returned to the theme of national unity. “Johnny cut through”, he said, “everything that divides our society, expressing emotion that is one of those energies that defines a people”.

But It was surely in another part of his tribute that Macron was the most revealing: “That this young man, … should have sought inspiration in the blues of America’s black community and the rock and roll of Nashville and made them popular in every part of France was highly improbable and yet, it is a (typical) French destiny. He changed the words and the music, worked with the very best….. ".

No politician crafts a speech without giving careful consideration to its possible political impact, however subtle and well disguised, and certainly not a young Head of State in the first year of a mandate to profoundly transform his country. In speaking about the “improbability” of importing new ideas into France, and persuading the French to adopt them regardless of their job, social class or where they live, he was not only talking about Johnny Hallyday. He was also, I think, talking about his own vision for changing the prevalent political discourse and culture and ultimately France itself. “I hope that Johnny’s improbable destiny will also be mine”, he seemed to be saying to a crowd of almost one million people at the ceremony and fifteen million following on television. I imagine the subtext as: “You believed in Johnny and you loved his songs. Listen to my song – and make it yours too.”

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Brexit won't happen !

“Ma’am, you are the first British monarch to return from a foreign adventure by land!” These words, spoken by Alastair Morton, co-chairman of Eurotunnel to Queen Elizabeth, at the tunnel’s official opening in Folkestone in May 1994, symbolise more than anything else the historic and indissoluble link between the United Kingdom and the European Continent. The UK’s accession to the European Economic Community, as it then was, on January 1st 1973, was of course a momentous event in itself, putting an end, or so it seemed at the time, to 25 years of British hesitation about its future relationship with Europe. But the tunnel cemented that link for good, both literally and metaphorically.  Nothing would ever be the same again after cars and lorries could simply drive on to a shuttle train and drive off at the other end or passengers board a train in one capital city and alight less than 3 hours later in another. Despite the initial traffic figures, far below those predicted and a devastating fire in 1996, the tunnel has gone from strength to strength, been rescued from the verge of bankruptcy and today notches up record figures, month after month, for crossings of passengers, trains, cars and lorries. Remarkably, and somewhat counter-intuitively, its business has continued to prosper since the Brexit referendum in June 2016. After an initial fall, its share price has now recovered to its pre-referendum level, reflecting investors’ confidence in its future.

It’s not difficult to see why. After arriving at St. Pancras station, a passenger’s first stop may be a coffee shop on the station concourse. More often than not, it is staffed by young men and women from France, Spain or Italy, keen to take advantage of the UK’s flexible labour market, earn a bit of money and improve their English, even if it means living in a cramped shared flat with several others. In a more up-market pub and restaurant upstairs, the waiters and waitresses are Polish. The last time I had lunch there, a couple of months ago, the faces were all new but still Polish. The last time I stayed at a hotel in London the receptionist was …Polish. If you are unlucky enough to have to go to an Accident and Emergency department at a British hospital you might well be attended to by a German junior doctor and a Spanish nurse. Walking through Camden market not so long ago, I struck up a conversation with two young Frenchmen who spend their week preparing meals for corporate dining rooms in the City and their weekends selling imported French cheeses on a market stall.

This anecdotal evidence however, that any casual visitor to London cannot fail to pick up, is just the tip of an economic iceberg that has seen exchanges of all kinds between the UK and the European continent grow and multiply over the last 45 years as the whole of the EU has slowly become more integrated. The tunnel has definitely accelerated that trend. Japanese car makers like Honda and Nissan import car parts into the UK on a just-in-time basis, assemble cars in ultra modern plants and then export the finished products to be sold on the continent. British start-ups, like start-ups everywhere, rely on a range of skilled employees from all over Europe and the rest of the world. Britain’s thriving financial services industry, thanks to “passporting” rights, can engage in financial business throughout the EU. The examples could go on and on and on.

Why then did 52% of those who voted in the 2016 referendum decide to turn their back on all this and feel that Britain could go it alone? Why did the area around Sunderland for instance, home of the Nissan car plant, one of the largest local employers and dependent on exports to the rest of the EU, decide by 61% to leave? Part of the answer is surely the political mood at the time with many voters still suffering from the slow-burning impact of the 2007-08 crisis and happy to take the referendum as an excuse to vent their displeasure with their country’s aloof government. Political scientists have long established that voters, called on to vote in a referendum, often use it to protest about what might be peeving them at the time rather than answering the question they are asked. Over and above these immediate reasons however, the UK’s more fundamental ambivalence towards Europe has not changed much since the end of World War Two. Anybody who reads Hugo Young’s masterful account of relations between Britain and Europe from 1945 to 1998 (“This Blessed Plot – Britain and Europe from Churchill to Blair”, Macmillan, 1998) cannot help being struck by the permanence of the British establishment’s attitudes towards the European project in general, starting with the Schuman plan in 1950. As Lord David Hannay, who was deeply involved in the first negotiations to join the Common Market in 1961 (vetoed by President de Gaulle in 1963) is reported to have said in a recent speech: “In 1961-63, much like today, we had not really made up our minds what on earth we wanted to do.”

Seen against this background, the outcome of the Brexit referendum is perhaps therefore little more than another hiccup in the troubled relationship between Britain and the EU, on a par with the 1975 referendum, Prime Minister Thatcher’s successful but damaging campaign to gain a budget rebate in 1984, the opt-outs from Schengen and the Euro. My guess is that Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, who ran the successful “Leave” campaign on the grounds that Britain should “take back control”, rid itself from “interference” by the European Court of Justice and spend the money sent to “Brussels” on the NHS, together with their small band of extremist supporters, will not be treated kindly by the history books.  But beyond these increasingly ridiculous and opportunistic figures, the whole idea of Brexit may just be the final gasp of imperial glory, the now futile pretence that Britain is still strong enough to dictate its terms to the rest of the world, as it did when it presided over an Empire on which the sun never set. Together with the popular press that panders to the prejudices of those who have come off badly from globalisation and blame it all on Brussels, they will eventually have to concede, probably sooner rather than later, that they have made a big mistake and put their country’s future prosperity at risk.

The truth is that Britain’s European dimension has loomed increasingly large over the past 45 years and short of closing the tunnel, that nobody has suggested, that trend can only continue. As the Erasmus generation takes over from the imperial blimps, as employers from all sectors realise that they desperately need employees from the rest of the EU, as opinion leaders come to terms with the prospect of seriously compromising 60% of the country’s foreign trade, as civil servants are faced with the mind-boggling complexity of unpicking every single thread of a 45 year old alliance, opinion will surely shift and many of those who voted “Leave” in 2016 will come to regret their decision. If reports and polls are to be believed, some already do.

Prime Minister May has often repeated that: “Brexit means Brexit”. My guess is that Brexit will not happen.  Whether it is derailed by a new Prime Minister heading a reshuffled Conservative government, a change of government after a general election, a showdown vote in the House of Commons or the European Parliament or quite simply a second referendum, remains to be seen. But as the economist Herbert Stein said famously: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop”.