Nantes ablaze

On Saturday Nantes was ablaze.  The anger at the proposed new airport outside this city in Western France boiled over:  Up to 60,000 people took part in what was largely a peaceful demonstration:   The local campaign group ACIPA say that the tension rose when the police refused to allow the march to take the normal route through the city.   When part of the march tried to do so it “faced violent police repression shot with rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades”:  

I have been to Nantes several times over last few years (although wasn’t there not on Saturday).  The campaign has become a cause célèbre in France.  It has “support committees” in over 200 towns and cities across France and Belgium.  On a regular basis each committee lobbies and demonstrates in its own area.  Over 60 coaches arrived in Nantes on Saturday with supporters from across the nation.

During the last Presidential elections four “peasant” farmers, whose land was threatened by the new airport, went on hunger strike for a month.  They were visited by most of the presidential candidates.  All, except for Hollande and Sarkozy, came out against the airport.

The profile of the campaign wasn’t always so high.  I first met the campaigners in 2008 when five desperate farmers drove through the night to promote their case at a major Heathrow rally.  They subsequently modelled much of their campaign on the successful fight against the 3rd runway.  In particular, they built up the widest possible alliance of support.

The proposed new airport would be built around 15 miles from the city of Nantes in a landscape dotted with small farms and attractive villages.  It is the classic French countryside, but without the British and their second homes!

The rationale for the new airport has never been entirely clear.  Nantes already has a single runway airport which is under-used.  The regional government argues that the new airport would regenerate the area.  This is hotly contested by the campaigners who commissioned their own report which challenged the government’s economic case:   They argue that the new airport has more to do with boosting the egos of the local politicians – including the former Mayor of Nantes Jean-Marc Aryault who was made Prime Minister under Hollande – than beefing up the economy.

It remains unclear how much support there may be from people in Nantes living under flight path to the current airport for the new airport.  Certainly, it is not visible.  In contrast, the opposition has mushroomed over the last six years.  Local people have been joined by a range of political and environmental organizations as well as the direct action campaigners, many of whom live in tents and tree houses in a local wooded area known as the ZAD.

There have been tensions from time to time between the local community and the direct action activists in the ZAD but last winter the ZAD won huge respect from other parts of the coalition when, in freezing cold conditions, they defied attempts by authorities to remove them.

It is probably impossible at this stage to know what will happen next in Nantes.  But I think it is part of an emerging pattern:  it is becoming increasingly difficult to build major new projects anywhere in Western Europe.  The Nantes campaigners have links with those opposing the HS2 high-speed link in Britain ( through what is known as the Campaign against Useless Imposed Mega-Projects.  It is what is says on the tin!  It includes the NO-TAV movement against high-speed rail in Northern Italy and Save Rosia Montana, the Romanian campaign against a vast cyanide-mined gold extraction project in Western Transylvanian.  Last year the Nantes campaigners hosted the Useless Imposed Mega-Projects’ annual meeting. 

Iain Martin wrote in the Daily Telegraph (14/1/09) about the Heathrow anti-third campaign: “the coalition assembled outside Parliament is extraordinarily wide. It runs from radical eco-warriors to middle-class mothers in west London, hedge fund managers in Richmond, to pensioners and parents in Brentford”.  The links now being made by opponents of mega-projects are in some ways an extension of this.  The anarchist on the streets of Nantes has little in common with the millionaire executive in the Chilterns…….except they are both passionately against a mega-project.

Certain things seem to need to be present for a mega-project to attract opposition from very disparate people.  

  • There is a real doubt whether the mega-project is essential for the economy.  The economic case for the new Nantes Airport, HS2, the Rumanian gold-mine and the third runway at Heathrow are all hotly contested.
  • The mega-project is site-based, i.e. there is land, homes, countryside or communities to defend.
  • The mega-project is attracting significant local opposition.  If the local opposition is non-existent or small, the essential first building block is missing.
  • The mega-project must attract outside opposition.  Nantes has become a magnet that has drawn a diverse range of protesters each there for a differ reason: environmentalist; anti-capitalist etc.

The new Nantes airport proposed for this unfashionable part of France has become the classic ‘useless’ mega-project.  I suspect Heathrow Airport – and probably also the promoters of HS2 – will be looking closely at what happens next at Nantes.

But, win or lose, the Nantes protests are part of a pattern.  It is becoming increasingly difficult to build a new runway anywhere in West Europe.  The 3rd runway at Heathrow has been dropped (for now).  Attempts to build a new runway in Munich and new airports in Siena and Viterbo in Italy were defeated.  Plans for a third runway at Vienna have stalled.  The 4th runway at Frankfurt only went ahead after an almighyly struggle and  2 ½ years after it opened  there are still constant protests.

Airport expansion protests are bringing together a wide rahne of bedfellows from local residents to anti-captialist anarchists.  It has become an inevitabklre fact oif life.  And a challenge to aynbodty who wants to build a new runway, p[robably anywhere in Western Europe.

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