France abandons plans to build new airport in the west

January 17, 2018
An activist of the "ZAD" movement (Zone to Defend) sprays champagne while celebrating with others after French PM announced the government's official decision to abandon the airport project, in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, outside the city of Nantes, western France, Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2018. French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe says that the government has decided against building an airport in western France that has mobilized nearly a decade of sometimes violent protests and he told protesters occupying the site that they must leave. (AP Photo/Mathieu Pattier)

PARIS (AP) — France will abandon plans to build a new airport in the west, the prime minister announced Wednesday, ordering the activists who have been protesting the project for nearly a decade to leave their makeshift settlement and unblock nearby roads.

Despite their long-sought political victory, the activists refused. Nantes Mayor Johanna Rolland, meanwhile, said the national government “ceded to blackmail and threats.”

Security forces began deploying extra forces to the area near Nantes even before the announcement, among the most divisive decisions since President Emmanuel Macron took office eight months ago.

“The Notre-Dame-des-Landes project will be abandoned,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said. “This is a logical decision, considering the dead-end where this project has found itself.”

He noted that plans for the airport were first made 50 years ago and “the debate should have ended long ago.”

Philippe said the activists who have camped out for years to protest the plan must start clearing roads they have blocked or police would step in. He gave the squatters until spring to pull up their stakes.

Still, the decision failed to quell a potentially explosive situation.

Activists in the hundreds cheered the announcement, popping bottles of bubbly and scheduling a victory party for Feb. 10. But at a news conference, they said they would refuse to leave their makeshift settlement — and hoped to transform the occupied land into “a space of social, environmental and agricultural experimentation.”

Philippe said the decision was an “impossible dilemma” because of the passions for and against the airport, but that his decision aimed to calm a volatile situation. Earlier attempts to dislodge the squatters had ended in violent clashes with police.

“We will end this zone of lawlessness that has prospered for nearly 10 years,” the prime minister said.

Proponents had argued the region needed a larger airport to boost its economic prospects. Opponents said a new airport was unnecessary and a symbol of exploitative globalization.

To appease those favoring a new airport, Philippe said airport in both Nantes and Rennes would be expanded to help the region develop.

Philippe Grosvalet, president of the Loire-Atlantique department, told BFM TV that the government had “ceded to disorder.” He also said the prime minister’s decision “tramples democracy,” a reference to a 2016 referendum in which the Notre-Dames-des-Landes airport received the majority of votes.

Farmers who clung to their land had joined forces with the anarchists against the airport. The prime minister said farmers whose land was expropriated for the proposed airport could get their land back if they wanted.

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