Battle lines drawn over new airport for Nantes

Demonstrators hold a banner saying "Airport, Stop" at a demonstration on Saturday Clashes between police and demonstrators over the proposed new airport at Nantes have become violent

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In the fields and woods of southern Brittany, protesters are waging a protracted, dirty and occasionally violent campaign to halt France's latest "grand projet" - a new airport for the west of the country.

For months activists have been living rough in cabins and treehouses in the countryside 10 miles (16km) north of Nantes, occupying part of the area designated for the Aeroport du Grand Ouest, in the commune of Notre-Dame-des-Landes.

A combination of political greens and reds, they say the airport is costly, unnecessary and will do serious damage to the environment.

Far better, they argue, to keep the fields for their original purpose: grazing cows.

But the Socialist government, backed by the Socialist region and the Socialist-run city of Nantes, is determined to press on.

Anti- Nantes-airport protesters Protesters say they want Nantes to remain as it is

In recent weeks things have come to a head. With the legal process finally exhausted, police have used force to clear out protesters so that the initial phase of work can begin.

On 17 November, a mass demonstration at Notre-Dames-des-Landes by some 20,000 opponents of the airport provided cover for activists to reoccupy the site and start rebuilding their huts.

But now, riot police have moved back in, and there were clashes over this past weekend. Tear gas and rubber bullets were fired and several police officers and protesters were injured.


With the story getting front-page treatment in the press, Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault is under pressure to explain how - at a time of growing environmental concerns and dwindling financial resources - building a 550m euro (£445m) airport in a city that already has one is the right course of action.

As a former mayor of Nantes, Mr Ayrault is one of the airport's most vociferous supporters. Protesters have dubbed it the "Ayraultport" in his honour.

But he presides over a coalition government whose other main participant - the Green Party - opposes the scheme.

To defuse the tension, Mr Ayrault announced over the weekend a moratorium on work at the site. A "dialogue commission" is to be created so that opponents can once again express their concerns.

But the government remains adamant: the airport will go ahead.

A riot policeman confronts a masked protester at the proposed site of the new airport on Saturday Police are again trying to evict protesters from the site of the proposed airport

A farming village of 200 inhabitants, Notre-Dame-des-Landes was selected as a possible site for an airport as long ago as the 1970s.

Back then, the idea was for a new international hub that would draw traffic away from the two Paris airports. The supersonic airliner, Concorde, would have used it.

But over the years the project changed in focus. When it was finally given the go-ahead in 2008, the aim was to provide a new communications centre for France's fastest-growing region.

"The population of western France is getting bigger and bigger, with people moving in for jobs or for the sun. These people need direct routes by air to cities in other parts of Europe," says Nicolas Notebaert, chairman of the contractor, Vinci Airports.

Nantes has an existing airport - Nantes-Atlantique - but according to Mr Notebaert, it will soon be unable to cope with the projected growth in traffic.

"What the people of the Nantes region need is a lot of small planes heading to a lot of different destinations. That means many more plane positions and more terminals than the current airport can handle," he says.

Start Quote

Francoise Verchere

In 25 years as a local elected official, I never once had a complaint about noise”

End Quote Francoise Verchere Left Party

Mr Notebaert's figures are hotly disputed by opponents of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, who argue that with proper investment the existing airport could be sufficiently enlarged.

Opponents also question other arguments put forward by Vinci and the government: for example that the current airport presents a noise and safety hazard for the people of Nantes, because most aircraft that land there have to overfly the city.

"In 25 years as a local elected official, I never once had a complaint about noise," says Francoise Verchere of the Left Party.

As for the claim that the new airport will bring jobs and growth, campaigners say that after the construction phase the impact will be minimal - with many jobs simply being transferred from the existing airport.

Vanity project

Rather, argues Genevieve Lebouteur of the local Green Party, proponents are acting for the worst of motives: "What we think is that the airport is a vanity project for politicians like Jean-Marc Ayrault, who want to end their careers with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at some major regional installation."

"That and the fact that once a project like this starts rolling, no-one has the guts to stop it."

According to Mr Notebaert, Vinci's plans for the new airport will make it one of the "greenest" in the world - with energy per passenger one third of the level at the existing airport.

A riot police officer sprays tear gas at a protester up a tree The Green Party says police are using "military-style force"

But environmentalists say the whole notion of a "green" airport is laughable. They say that its construction will endanger rare animals like the crested newt, which lives in the wetlands designated to be drained and concreted over.

And they believe the "growth-at-all-costs" vision of the world is outmoded and dangerous.

"I don't want Nantes to be some European megalopolis. I just want Nantes to stay as it is," said Natalie, a young demonstrator at the site.

With the airport protests becoming of national interest, Green Party leaders are going through contortions to justify staying part of the coalition.

Jean-Vincent Place, who heads the Greens in the Senate, points out that in their pre-election agreement with the Socialists, the airport issue was left to one side.

"But it has been very difficult these last few weeks, especially seeing the military-style use of force being taken against the campaigners," he says.

For the constructors Vinci, Mr Notebaert says democracy is at stake.

"The police are not using excessive force. They are simply acting to ensure that the law is respected, and that work can commence."

"Our agents on the ground are the ones who are afraid - of the protesters," he says.

"Nothing has been done secretly. At every election locally, regionally and nationally, the plan was on the table. The voters chose parties who supported the airport. So it must go ahead."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    In your report, you refer to the activists - what is not included is the strength of feeling amongst local farmers who have opposed this plan , with its destruction of their houses and farmlands for years - and who are now fully supporting the protesters - using their tractors to help with rebuilding, barricading the new cabins, putting fields at their disposal for camping etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    48. However as there is a shortage of helium it is unlikely that your blimps will get off the ground.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Perhaps an increase in moorings would be appropriate as the latest once in a hundred year deluge should make us wake up that something very real is changing in our climate and changing fast. Their are too many elephants about and far too many myopic fools.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Good luck to the protesters. There is no excuse good enough to build runways on green fields. Tax gratuitous flying out of the sky.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    Did see a blurb on a Company in California offering lighter than air (blimps-using helium) travel between cities. Its a nice view and does not require the long runway jets require.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    In reply to Vvds's comment about 'Classic nimbyism' I can assure you that this is not the case as I live a good two hrs north of Nantes. Surely making better use of existing infrastructure and co-ordinating airline landing slots together with the use of very good public transport connections makes the idea of a new airport quite redundant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    France's cachet has been in its food & wine - seems their government thinks it would be better to get rid of farm land.

    Methane from cow poop can be used to make electricity - and grass fed cows do not have smelly poop because grass is their natural diet.

    As to the wet lands - that water will go somewhere - so someones nice front yard may turn into a swamp.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    The problem with the UK is that it is totally over populated. Yes more people want to fly on the cheapo airlines, but of course they don't want an airport near them.

    Flying in 30 years time, might be unecononmical when oil might be $2000 a barrel. The money would be better spent on low tech railway network improvements around Europe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    I worry that the French genuinely still think it is the 1980s and the world looks on in awe. No longer; my good friends, time to wake up and smell the need for economic advancement. Including building a decent infrastructure and hence airport.

    It is frightening to watch the country self-destruct economically; Lost the AAA, losing ArcelorMittal, what next?

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    @41.The Bloke ,
    I'm not anti-immigration either.Maybe I agree with the Greens there, too.Western Europe has wonderful traditions & culture but is shrinking.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Western France already has airports at Rennes, Dinard, Lorient and Nantes and that's not counting the smaller aerodromes that allow small, noisy aircraft to disturb the peace and quiet on sunny days. If the residents of Notre Dame Des Landes don't want an airport then the money should be invested in education by building a much needed state Lycée in the Ploërmel area just 1 hour away.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    I'm deeply conservative & rarely agree with the "Green Party"& their ilk, but I think the protestors here have a point.//

    The so-called 'Greens' should be protesting very strongly against Tory urban sprawl plans.

    But like the BBC, they are committed to believing and propagating pro-immigration lies.

    They can't see the truth or face the consequence of what they've done.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    I'd suggest a thorough re-evaluation of actual transport needs.

    The reasons stated for the likes of airport expansion and new rail lines do seem tenuous, at best. More air transport for London? Why?
    Is it really 'necessary for growth?' Is 'growth' such a good thing anyway?

    We are not in an international race, which we 'have' to win.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    I'm deeply conservative & rarely agree with the "Green Party"& their ilk, but I think the protestors here have a point.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.


    Yep, there's plenty of research going on about this, but very little media backbone as usual..

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    // Peter_Sym

    I quite agree that we DO need more rail lines building (most of our rail infastructure is basically victoria) but look at the opposition to it. Start with #21//

    Start with developing your reading ability and some common sense.

    Rail upgrades are fine and welcome, but HS2 is daft and pointless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    I see the 'humans are responsible for warming the planet myth' is still alive and kicking!

    @30 yes jets produce carbon in their exhaust, and also a lot of other nasty chemicals too, when did you ever hear a debate or a news story on that?//

    I often suspect CO2 is the least of the environmental probs associated with air travel. Contrails, other chemicals, disease...

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Well if the French don't want the investment or Mittal's steel works let's make sure the investment comes to the UK. We need the transport improvements and the jobs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    @32 I can't talk to the state of all motorways, but around here, we have more road than is good for us - all poorly laid out and falling apart. It'd be better (and cheaper) to knock it down and replace it with light rail on the same right of way. Though I admit I'm in the minority as an anti-highway American. Our problem is that the rails are taxed, the roads subsized and the airports state owned.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    I see the 'humans are responsible for warming the planet myth' is still alive and kicking!

    @30 yes jets produce carbon in their exhaust, and also a lot of other nasty chemicals too, when did you ever hear a debate or a news story on that?

    Check it out, it's worth being enlighted..


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