Artist's impression of the EuropaCity project in Gonesse (Val-d'Oise).
Artist's impression of the EuropaCity project in Gonesse (Val-d'Oise). HANDOUT / AFP

The government announced, Thursday, November 7, on the occasion of the third council of ecological defense, the outright abandonment of the megacomplex project of leisure and commerce which was supposed to open in 2027 in Gonesse, Val-d ' Oise, 15 kilometers north of Paris. After Notre-Dame-des-Landes, this is the second major construction site abandoned by the executive since the beginning of the five-year period.

For Philippe Subra, Director of the French Institute of Geopolitics of Paris-VIII University and author of the book Geopolitics of spatial planning (Armand Colin, 2018), "The expectations of the population have changed, we can no longer impose projects whose public opinion is no longer convinced of the general interest".

Read: EuropaCity, a megacomplex that was on the tightrope

Is the decision of Emmanuel Macron to abandon the construction of the megacomplex of EuropaCity surprising?

Philippe Subra: This abandonment can be surprising given the ideological background of Emmanuel Macron. A project creating jobs, growth, addressing a global market and especially to the Asian continent: all this corresponds to its political software.

Nevertheless, this abandonment is also very Macronian, because it is very pragmatic. Faced with the disenchantment of public opinion for this project, the president has measured that the political cost of this great project had become greater than the electoral benefit to be drawn from it. As for Notre-Dame-des-Landes, the project had become too controversial to be maintained.

This means that all major projects that are the subject of a dispute are doomed to fail?

The difficulty of these big projects is their duration. Between their genesis and their culmination, there may be one or more decades, during which public opinion may experience tipping points. This is what is happening today with a kind of "environmental moment". We have seen this with the results of the European elections, where green lists have progressed all over Europe.

But there are also counter-examples. In Strasbourg, the motorway bypass project site was able to start, while it consumes agricultural land, crosses a forest and heavily affects peri-urban communes. But at the same time, it will allow the transformation of the existing highway into an urban boulevard and divert part of transit traffic from the center of the agglomeration. Proponents of the project were able to argue that it is of general interest and public opinion, locally, is divided.

Read also Europacity and the urbanization of the Gonesse triangle in 5 infographics

In the case of EuropaCity, when did this change take place?

The promoters of the project committed, from the beginning, a major communication error by making it a sort of "Dubai at the gates of Paris". The artificial ski slope, originally planned, was the symbol, although the idea was abandoned rather quickly. All the efforts made in the last two years to "green" the project have arrived too late.

The defeat of the project is all the more interesting because there was no "area to defend", that is to say occupation of the site – which, it is true, did not lend itself to it not – unlike Notre-Dame-des-Landes. The proponents of the project have, above all, lost the battle of image, that of public opinion. They failed to convince by highlighting job creations. And the project was too emblematic of a type of society today more and more contested, consumerist and based on the sacrifice of nature.

Will there still be major projects in France in the future?

This is the way to design major projects in France that no longer works. We must understand that we have changed times. In the 1950s, France was an under-equipped country. When Germany had 3,000 kilometers of motorways, France had only thirty. At the time, the construction of Roissy airport, for example, a few kilometers from the Gonesse Triangle, and on farmland of exceptional quality, did not involve any dispute.

Today France is a country very well equipped, the expectations of the population have changed, the need for infrastructure is not so strong anymore. We can no longer impose projects whose public opinion is no longer convinced of the general interest.

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What conditions will be required to avoid the emergence of protest movements?

For a long time, and this is still partly true, the location of the projects was a determining factor: some were little disputed because they were located in territories with low potential for conflict, for sociological, demographic, historical or cultural reasons. .

Installing wind turbines has become almost impossible in the Gard, but there is no problem in Champagne, in areas of large crops and low density. But there are exceptions: in Bure, in the Meuse, a territory a priori little protest, the weakness of the local opposition was offset by the installation of anti-nuclear opponents from outside. Here, it is the mobilizing dimension of nuclear that has been decisive.

The second factor is, of course, the environmental impact of the project: the damage to the landscape, the noise nuisance, the consumption of natural or agricultural space are less and less tolerated and the compensation measures, like reforesting elsewhere, are not not credible. As a result, even ecologically virtuous projects, such as wind turbines, are often challenged.

How can politics defuse these conflicts?

First, by recalibrating the most problematic projects from the environmental point of view, or by obliging their promoters to improve them on this aspect. Avoiding the outbreak of a conflict is much easier than defusing a conflict that has already grown.

It is also necessary that these development or infrastructure projects are part of a territorial project built collectively with all local actors: elected officials, companies, chambers of commerce, employee unions, and environmental advocates. In other words, end the projects that land on the territories, to move to projects that emerge from the territories or, at least, actually take them into account.

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