Follow the Protest: Exploring the Limits and Torsions of Collaborative Governance in Nantes

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In this post Steven Griggs, David Howarth and Andrés Feandeiro  report the findings from the exploratory research in Nantes, carried out as part of the collaborative governance under austerity project, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its Urban Transformations Network, and led by Prof. Jonathan Davies.

Referendum watchers in June 2016 may have been rightly fixated on the Brexit vote, which led to the people of the United Kingdom choosing to leave the European Union. But there was another referendum that took place just three days later, even if its political legitimacy as a referendum or consultation was more open to question. On Sunday June 26, in the French department of Loire Atlantique, local citizens voted on whether to give a green light to the construction of a new international airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes. The new airport, some 20 kilometres to the north-west of Nantes, would replace the existing Nantes Atlantique airport.

Roughly half of the electorate turned out to vote (51.08 per cent) in the referendum, with a little over 55 per cent of the local residents (55.17 per cent) voting in favour of the construction of the new airport. However, this overall victory masks a fragmented electorate, with villages and towns close to the proposed site for the new airport voting against the project. In the city of Nantes itself, opponents and supporters of the new airport were divided by only 100 votes, with the ‘yes’ vote winning just 50.05 per cent of the share of the vote.

Plans to build a new airport were first mooted in the 1960s. They dropped off the political agenda in the wake of the 1970s oil crisis. But they reappeared in the early 2000s, driven in part by the lobbying of the then Mayor of Nantes, Jean-Marc Ayrault, and his particular brand of urban boosterism. Renewed interest in the airport also served to re-ignite opposition to the proposed development. Campaigners brought together farmers, local residents, politicians, and environmental activists, thus giving a voice to a counter-expertise throughout the legal and planning processes, while drawing in support from across France and Europe. Protesters set up camps and took over vacant compulsory-purchased farms on the proposed site of the airport, transforming the government purchased ‘zone to develop’ into the ‘zone to defend’, where they pursued alternative forms of social organisation. Indeed, their expulsion from the proposed site in 2012 attracted national and international media attention as protesters clashed with riot police.

What, if anything, does this mean for the study of austerity and collaboration in Nantes? At first glance, it may appear that this story of the airport development operates outside of – or parallel to – the everyday practices of governance in the city. After all, it is, despite claims to the contrary, a national infrastructure project, which is subject to national planning practices. Indeed, the decision to hold a referendum was presented as an initiative of François Hollande, the French president. Here, however, we argue that the construction of the airport has come to act as a symbolic issue for protest and contestation across the city of Nantes. It has brought together a broad coalition of groups and campaigns, and poses a challenge to the dominant model of collaborative governance and the Nantes project of urban regeneration and economic boosterism. In other words, it has (potentially) come to define the very limits of collaborative governance and the Nantes model of participatory engagement.

Nantes has arguably not suffered the vagaries of austerity associated with other cities in France. The city continues to attract people and investment; it has reasserted its status as the capital of the west of France, transforming its workforce in the process. Since the closure of its shipyards in the 1980s, the city has been associated with a series of urban renewal initiatives, for example the development of its tram system, the regeneration of the Malakoff neighbourhood and the Ile de Nantes. Successive municipal leaders, not least Jean-Marc Ayrault, have sought to position Nantes at the forefront of European cities, developing its international reputation and attractiveness for its practices of innovation, culture and the environment. In 2015, Nantes was the European Green Capital.

This is not to deny the existence of deprivation across many neighbourhoods of the city. One of the key challenges facing politicians and policymakers in Nantes, repeatedly expressed in interviews, is the increasing number of people in various communities who were deemed to be at risk of falling off the back of the economic growth motor of Nantes. Yet, this risk of social exclusion was not constructed by local officials as a simple consequence of austerity. Budgetary constraints were clearly recognized. But viewed against the backdrop of a city that continues to grow and broaden its local tax base, Nantes was seen as facing a triple crisis. Economic constraints were interwoven with political challenges, as French citizens turn away from traditional politics, and social challenges were discerned in the form of the weakening of established community networks; all of which have prompted demands for new forms of service delivery and governance.

Much of the policy and political response to this triple crisis comes firmly under the rubric of collaborative governance. On the one hand, Nantes has embraced inter-communal collaboration, which has led to the sharing and coordinating of services with its local municipal partners in the inter-communal organisation that is Nantes Métropole. Nantes has indeed become one of the new metropolitan areas recently established by the French state. On the other hand, Nantes city council has invested markedly in moves towards citizen dialogue and co-governance. Like many other developments, this tradition within the city dates back at least to the mayoral term of Jean-Marc Ayrault. But it has become the defining policy commitment of the current Mayor Johanna Rolland. Indeed, building on its neighbourhood forums across the new urban space, the city has engaged in a number of ‘big conversations’, most notably its nine-month consultation on the management of the Loire river, which flows through the city and its region.

However, what are the limits of this collaborative governance in addressing this triple crisis? To answer this question, let us return to the plan to build an international airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes. In many ways, this issue has become a mobilising or “nodal” issue for a number of demands against both national and local policies, in which protesters against the airport have also contested the dominant narrative of urban boosterism which has underpinned the official discourses of Nantes. At the end of February 2016, demonstrators against the new airport linked the campaign against the airport to a number of adjacent grievances and demands.

Such articulations were captured in a statement from Christine Poupin, one of the national leaders of the New AntiCapitalist  Party, who participating at the February 2016 anti-airport protest in Nantes claimed that ‘there is a moment when it becomes necessary to say “STOP” … STOP to the airport obviously, but also STOP to its world, and its world is the same as that as the state of emergency as that of the destruction of the employment law…’ Students protesting in Nantes against the reform of labour rights made similar equivalences between struggles, with the regional newspaper, Ouest-France reporting: ‘they shout against police violence, the airport, capitalism, government, bosses.’. Indeed, the project at Notre-Dame-des-Landes has come to be seen as an ‘ideological battle’, in which there is a challenge both to the entire growth model, which many commentators have suggested is a key motif of the Nantes project, and to the very legitimacy of the French state. As expected, the referendum, which François Hollande publicly constructed as putting an end once and for all to debate over the airport has clearly failed to do so.  Local residents have vowed to continue their campaign, with judicial reviews still in place over environmental impacts of the planned infrastructure on water and on rare species. Moreover, as we suggested above, protesters on the ZAD, the renamed  ‘zone to defend’, which covers the proposed airport site, have established their own camps; they have built spaces in which to develop and showcase new ways of living, as well as exhibiting new forms of relationships. They are also preparing to defend another attempt to evict them forcibly from the site.

Such protests and campaigns, coupled with the painful creation of alternative spaces, evoke the limits of new forms of collaborative governance, while exposing various techniques and forms of depoliticisation. The latter might be seen as endeavours to exclude potential alternatives to the current regimes and models of governance under the guise of ‘pragmatic politics’ and the reaching of a rational consensus. Our intuition in this regard is that certain forms of protest and alienation may be rendered invisible or displaced by the dominant discourse of integration and community cohesion (as was arguably the case in the UK as part of the Third Way discourse). It is also possible in this regard that the local and national media focus on the overt and intense protests against the building of a new international airport in Nantes may serve unwittingly to conceal other sets of underlying tensions and cleavages. The protests against the airport have been largely spearheaded by middle-class environmentalists, peasants and anarchists, whereas the troubled neighbourhoods affected by the financial crisis tend to reflect class and ethnic divisions. By ‘following the protest’, while remaining attentive to the way in which ‘political resistance discloses the true operation of power’, our future fieldwork will focus on these related issues.

Steven Griggs is Professor of Public Policy at De Montfort University, David Howarth is Professor in Social and Political Theory at the University of Essex, and Dr. Andrés Feandeiro is a research assistant on the Collaborative Governance under Austerity project at De Montfort University.

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