Even if you are a big fan of aviation, you’d be hard-pushed to back the proposed new airport outside Nantes in west France.
The huge numbers which turned up last weekend (9th and 10th July) to two days of protest highlighted once again why the plan to build the airport has become the most controversial environmental project in France.
It is causing the Government of Francois Hollande a major headache. There are over 200 groups across Belgium and France which back the opponents of the airport and which carry out demonstrations in their own areas in support of them. There were violent scenes a few years ago when the French Police tried to evict some of the thousands of young activists who are camped in Le Zad on the site of the proposed new airport.
Hollande tried to get round his problem by calling a (non-binding) regional referendum this summer. People were asked to decide whether they wanted to retain the existing one-runway airport close to the city or back the new two-runway airport over 17 kilometres outside Nantes. Hundreds of thousands of people voted. The vote went 55% to 45% in favour of the new airport.
But, far from settling the issue as Holland had hoped, the breakdown of the result has highlighted the pointlessness of the new airport. The city of Nantes split 50/50 but the communities in the city close to the existing airport plus those under its flight path voted to keep it. They wanted to keep the jobs it provides and signalled that the flights to the half-empty airport are not a problem. They vote in favour of the new airport was swung by communities 20 – 50 kilometres north of Nantes, some of whom felt the new airport might provide them with jobs and others who believed it would be easier for them to get to than the exiting airport on the other side of the city.
So this is a major new airport, ‘Nantes International’, being proposed on prime farmland not to relieve congestion at the existing airport, nor in response to demands for noise relief for those under existing flight paths, nor even because Nantes is in the middle of nowhere; it is just two hours by train to Paris. And not because a convincing economic case has been made for it.
The justification for the new airport seems to be that it will act as a catalyst for economic growth in the west of France. Plonked in the middle of nowhere, the idea is will serve the surrounding towns, Nantes, Angers and Rennes, each of the many kilometers from the airport. But there are real doubts whether there are sufficient people in these medium-sized towns to sustain such a project. Almost certainly, any realistic assessment of the market would rule out the airport. And the links to these towns from it are unplanned. There may or may not be a rail link to Nantes. Rennes and Angers would be served by coaches! The campaigners claim that the airport has more to do with the egos of the local politicians than the needs of the local area.
The Government needs to start building the airport by February or the planning permission it got five years ago falls. That means it would need to start evicting the environmental activists in Le Zad and the local farmers in the autumn. It recognizes that, given the scale of the opposition across France and beyond, it will require the army rather than the police to do so. It may be a battle it cannot win.
You don’t need to be an anti-aviation activist to be against this new airport.