(Corrects date in first paragraph.)
Nantes, the historic capital of Brittany, is celebrating. Aircraft manufacturer Airbus SAS last week signed tens of billions of euros of new orders, meaning that thousands of workers here have their jobs assured for years to come.
Yet Nantes is also the scene of a developing war over the plan to build a new airport, providing a focal point for France’s anti-capitalist militants gaining strength from the recession. Why Nantes? Because the godfather of the airport project is the city’s former mayor and now prime minister of France, Jean-Marc Ayrault.
In a country where many are angry at their political and financial elite, the confrontation over Nantes’ planned airport looks likely to turn violent. You only to have take a visit to the Chataigneraie, which means Chestnut Grove, to see why.
The Chataigneraie is in a country wood in the Loire Valley just north of Nantes. That may sound like the idyllic setting for a boutique hotel, but in reality it is a ramshackle collection of wooden buildings that forms the epicenter of a protest camp sprinkled over some 4,000 acres. These muddy fields and woods are due to be turned into a massive construction site by Vinci SA, the French construction company that won the concession to build and operate the new airport (Nantes already has one).
The necessary land has been acquired and most, though not all, of the farmers who owned it have accepted compensation and gone. Yet the struggle is intensifying. Last month anti-airport protestors took the fight to the European Parliament and the European Commission in Brussels.
The reason why the airport issue has leapt from local to national prominence is Ayrault, the mayor of Nantes from 1989 until last May, and now the prime minister leading economic policy for the nation.
If Ayrault can do for France what he has done for Nantes, then the country’s future should be bright. The city of about 600,000 was once an important industrial center. In the 1980s, though, it fell into decline as the shipbuilding business, once a mainstay of the local economy, collapsed. In the last 15 years or so the city has seen a remarkable reversal of fortunes, in no small measure thanks to Ayrault.
Sleek modern trams glide through city. The old industrial area has been revamped and is now home to the companies that make giant marionette puppets, which have been exhibited all over Europe and delight tourists and locals alike. This year Nantes is the European Union’s Green Capital of the year.
High-tech industries are moving here, as are young professionals who can find work and who want to live within 45 minutes of the sea. “We are a kind of island of prosperity in a France in crisis,” says Benoit Ferrandon, who is head of “Public Innovation” for the department of Loire-Atlantique, where Nantes is situated.
Since the signing of a contract on March 18 between Airbus and Indonesia’s Lion Air, which ordered 234 planes in a contract worth 18.4 billion euros ($23.7 billion), the champagne corks have been popping. The news came just days after Turkish Airlines placed a 9.3 billion euro order and Deutsche Lufthansa AG made another for 9 billion euros. Airbus employs 4,650 people directly in Nantes and nearby St Nazaire. If you include sub-contractors, that figure swells to about 20,000.
Marc Dejean, the editor of Presse Ocean, the regional newspaper, says that ultimately the issue of the airport is a political choice, because the arguments for and against are based on speculation. “Who knows how much air traffic there will be in 20 years?” he asks.
None of the news about the expanding business at Airbus impresses the protesters over at the Chataigneraie, where they are bracing for an assault by police to evict them. A case over their illegal encampment will come to court on March 26. About 150 to 200 people live here full-time, expanding to several thousands at protests or anti-airport festivals according to a spokeswoman.
After a trek through muddy fields to avoid a police roadblock, I found a barricade built by the protestors, some of whom had metal bars ready in case of attack. The camp contained a mix of people, seemingly of every type and background, chatting or helping to make dinner. They weren’t friendly -- they say they don’t trust the capitalist media. They wouldn't give their names or say what they do in their normal lives. Some said this was their normal life.
At the bus that serves as a media office for the protestors, the German spokeswoman described the struggle over the airport as a fight against capitalism, rather than a defense of the farmers and their land. A series of homemade road signs pointed in the direction of other environmental struggles, one for example in the direction of Khimki close to Moscow, where Vinci SA has also been involved, in a motorway project.
Those that live here are mostly a hardcore of self-described “altermondialistes,” which translates loosely as “alternative-globalizers.” In the nearby Bar des Landes, local electrician and former village councilor Christian Guilbaud says that when in 2004 to 2005 the first ecologist protestors arrived, they were welcomed. Now a worrying number of them are violent “ultras,” he says. The fact that Ayrault became prime minister has brought renewed scrutiny to the airport project, says Guilbard. If hundreds of thousands of people turn up to a planned anti-Ayraultport festival, as the protesters call it, this might prove the make-or-break moment that frightens the government into pulling the plug on construction, he says.
When I got to the police roadblock on leaving the Chataigneraie, they grilled me for about 10 minutes. “How many people are there?” they asked, and “Did you see any arms?” They ran a check on my passport. Last November there were violent clashes here between police and protestors. Watch this space.
(Tim Judah, the Europe correspondent for the World View blog, is a correspondent for the Economist and author of several books on the Balkans. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed are his own.)