PARIS (Reuters) - The French government abandoned plans for a new 580 million euro ($710 million) airport in western France on Wednesday, a sensitive decision that past governments had shirked for decades.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told environmentalists and activists squatting on the site of the proposed new development in the village of Notre-Dame-Des-Landes, near Nantes, to leave before Spring or face expulsion.
Hundreds of riot police moved into the area to ensure public order amid fears militants might flock to the area to reinforce numbers. Many protesters have barricaded themselves in.
“The Notre-Dame-des-Landes airport will be abandoned,” Philippe said. “This is the logical decision given the dead-end in which this project has found itself.”
Supporters of Notre-Dame-Des-Landes, which had been designed to handle 4 million passengers a year initially, said it would aid economic development in the Loire-Atlantique region. They argued an old, inner-city airport 30 km (19 miles) to the south was congested and a security risk.
But opponents said it was too costly, environmentally unfriendly and that there was another under-utilised airport 110 km to the north near Rennes in Brittany.
The environment issue weighed heavily, with President Emmanuel Macron having championed the fight against climate change since his election, with promises to “make our planet great again”.
Construction giant Vinci said it was ready to discuss government compensation for loss of the contract to build and operate the new airport for 55 years. Independent experts have said the company could stand to receive up to 350 million euros — a sum the government questioned on Wednesday.
Plans for a “Great West” transatlantic gateway to France and Europe were first mooted in the 1960s and the Notre-Dame-Des-Landes site identified in 1967, but the project stalled until the Socialist government of Lionel Jospin revived it in 2000.
Early adverts for the airport boasted “Nantes to New York by Concorde” and after years of indecision, political squabbling and consultations, the project got the go-ahead in 2008, years after France and Britain took the Concorde out of service.
But opposition to the plans grew as local farmers, environmental activists and anti-capitalists joined forces.
Signs painted on roads and nailed to fences read “Non a L’Aeroport” and some 300 hundred militants have hunkered down in makeshift shelters, caravans and abandoned farmhouses.
They have promised to fight until the end. In 2012, riot police pulled back after an evacuation effort turned violent.
“(It would be) absurd to drop the project but pursue a strategy or repression and expel the people who took care of this land,” the protesters said in a statement issued shortly before Philippe’s announcement.
While Macron has challenged U.S. President Donald Trump on global warming, weighed into the Middle East and taken on France’s muscular trade unions over social reforms, the Notre-Dames-Des-Landes airport project has been a particular headache.
Giving the go-ahead would have damaged the young leader’s credibility on climate politics and set him on a collision course with his ecology minister, Nicolas Hulot, one of France’s most popular politicians and a former environmental campaigner.
Hulot, who as minister has already had to push back the timeline for reducing the country’s nuclear power output, never explicitly said the new airport represented a red line, but allies say it would have left him badly undermined.
Philippe said Nantes’ existing airport would be modernized before later studies on a possible expansion.
The decision to scrap Notre-Dame-Des-Landes will upset powerbrokers in the region who champion big air, rail and road projects to better connect their territories with the rest of Europe and reduce dependence on access via Paris.
Meanwhile, local officials and inhabitants of Nantes weary of low-level flights into the city’s existing airport will dread the prospect of its capacity being increased.
“This is a betrayal, and a big blow for the west of France,” said Johanna Rolland, mayor of Nantes. “The government has taken the easy way out and given in to violence and blackmail.”
Reporting by Brian Love and Paris bureau; Writing by Brian Love and Richard Lough; Editing by Richard Balmforth