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!