blog by John Stewart
Up to 40,000 people turned out to protest against new airport
I am going to enjoy writing this blog. It is the account of a remarkable protest I attended last weekend (Saturday 11th May) when up to 40,000 people tuned out to protest against building an airport. But it is more than that: it is the story of campaigners from an unfashionable part of rural France on the verge of defeating plans for a major international airport. If they do succeed, the impact will be felt way beyond the French borders. It will add to the belief that it is becoming increasingly hard to build new runways or new airports anywhere in Western Europe.
In 2010, the UK Government dropped proposals for new runways at Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick. Last year, plans for a third runway at Munich suffered a real setback when they were rejected in a referendum. And, of course, more than 18 months after it opened, huge protests continue to take place over the fourth runway at Frankfurt.
The fight against the proposed new Nantes Airport has become a cause-celebre across France. There are support groups, called “committees”, in 200 towns and cities. Each group stages demonstrations in their own towns and lobbies politicians in their own areas in support of the Nantes campaigners. Hardly a week goes by without one of the committees cycling or walking through France to the site of the proposed airport. Last weekend on my way back from the protest I spied a billboard in Le Mans– over 100 miles from Nantes– opposing the airport.
The question of the airport is now regarded as one of the top half dozen most pressing problems in Francois Hollande’s in-tray; complicated by the fact that Hollande’s Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, is a former Mayor of Nantes and a strong supporter of the new airport.
Last Saturday up to 40,000 people formed a 25 kilometre-long human chain around the site of the proposed airport. These are astonishing numbers but made the more remarkable by the fact the protest is rooted in the small towns and villages of rural France; not in a major metropolitan area. Nantes, the nearest big city, is 15-20 miles away.
So what has turned a campaign by a handful of farmers and villagers into the biggest protest against airport expansion in Europe? The campaign has always been rooted in the radical French ‘peasant farmers’ movement. They have been joined by climate campaigners and local people fearful of the way the new airport will blight their homes.
But it was the events of last 18 months which catapulted the protest into the international headlines. During last year’s presidential election four peasant farmers staged a 28 day hunger strike against the plan to evict them from their properties. Then, during the winter, there were tear-gas battles in the woods as police fought to remove hundreds of young protestors who had set up make-shift homes in support of the local community. The courage of the protestors from the self-styled ZAD as they resisted the police in the bitter cold and driving rain of last winter both cemented their support in the local community and inspired people from around France and beyond.
I first met the Nantes campaigners when they came to a big demonstration against the 3rd runway at Heathrow in 2008. We have kept in contact ever since. I have visited them on four occasions and spoken at their Paris rally. They adopted strategies used in the Heathrow campaign: to build a broad coalition; to organize pro-active, high-profile stunts and demonstrations; and to challenge the economic justification for the airport.
They commissioned their own independent study from the Dutch consultants CE Delft which questioned the economic case for the airport. The regional Government argues that the new two-runway airport – “Nantes International” – is required to replace the single runway airport in the city in order to attract investment into the area. The opponents of the airport have maintained that there is not the demand to sustain an international airport; that the existing airport – nowhere near full – has sufficient capacity for a city like Nantes and that the area is just a little over two hours by fast train from Charles de Gaulle Airport.
The campaigners also used the courts. Recently they got a critical ruling in their favour. The French court found that the airport’s promoters had failed to carry out proper flood plain and environmental assessments of the project, as required by the European Union. They cannot proceed with the airport until these are done. It would require a lot of work. The campaigners believe that the ruling from the court may provide a way for the Government to drop the airport and save face. It could blame the European Union for stopping the airport.
No wonder the 40,000 campaigners were in carnival mood last Saturday. They believe that, perhaps as early as next year, they will be celebrating a famous victory. As Genevieve Lebouteux, a long-time local activist and regional councillor for the Green Party said, “Quite simply, if they try to build the airport, there will be uprisings across France. The reaction to both the hunger strike and the resistance in the woods, as well as the recent court ruling, means it will be very hard for the authorities to go-ahead with the airport.”