On April 29th, 2009, the day of the opening of the public display of the work of the ten teams of the international consultation, President Sarkozy gave a speech. His words were ambitious: “[The future city] may be the greatest political challenge of the twenty-first century. I want France to meet that challenge. I want France to give the example. That is the ambition of Le Grand Paris.“
He used many of the words and expressions of the consultation teams, peppering his speech with quotes from their reports. He brought up specific proposals they had made. He even firmly approved the criticism of the regulations and called for a “change in the philosophy of our urban law.”
Once the President got through with the lengthy lyrical bit, he turned to concrete direction. This boiled down to three things:
1. The creation of eight “poles” around Paris proper, each dedicated to an economic theme, in other words, clusters.
2. A stated ambition to build 70,000 new homes a year in the Paris region (compared with the 38,000 new homes actually started in 2008)
3. An 80-mile automated, high-capacity, high-speed public transportation network connecting the new poles of the city.
In reality, the Minister for Le Grand Paris, Christian Blanc, had already been preparing the new transportation network, as well as a law that would allow its implementation as a national government project. He had presented his plans to the architects leading the consultation teams as early as March 6th, 2009, before the ten teams of the consultation presented their work to President Sarkozy and Minister Blanc. In no way was this transportation scheme an outcome of the consultation; it was prepared simultaneously and independently to the consultation.
A draft law on Le Grand Paris was made public in September 2009. It would enshrine the new transportation network and create a new corporation, the Société du Grand Paris, to lead the project, including expropriations and associated development. Local governments would be associated through a consultative role, but the Société du Grand Paris was in all executive respects an extension of the national government. The law would also create yet another urban planning mechanism (and acronym), the Territorial Development Contract (CDT), a contract to be signed between the national government and the municipality, aimed at managing development around the new transportation infrastructure.
The Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, responded: “through the creation of the Société du Grand Paris, the national government is trying to take back control of the organisation of transportation, only four years after that responsibility had been transferred to the Île-de-France region and the other local governments that form the STIF [the Paris region’s transportation authority].”
The law was called the Grand Paris Law, despite the suggestion by Christian de Portzamparc that it be called what it was, a Grand Paris Transportation Law. Indeed, at times it seemed that the people at the Ministry for Le Grand Paris thought that the bold vision for the future of the region requested by the President boiled down to a spiffy public transportation system, which incidentally had the hallmarks of a wasteful, gold-plated, duplicative solution, sure to please the builders’ lobby.
By fall, the architects who had led the ten teams of the international consultation were very unhappy. The exhibition of the consultation results had been a great success and President Sarkozy had paid eloquent homage to the work. But it was perfectly clear that the Minister for Le Grand Paris, Christian Blanc, had not taken any account of what they had done. The bureaucrats were moving ahead with their plan, regardless of what the architects, urban planners, sociologists and other professionals had to suggest.
In October 2009, Jean Nouvel took to the media. In an opinion piece in Le Monde, he wrote: “It is urgent to regain the initial amibition and collective imagination. Seven months after the submission of the strategic analyses, six months after the President’s firm positions, where are we ? Nowhere. The confusion is total.”
He explained that there had been efforts since the spring – including by some members of the President’s staff – to get Christian Blanc to incorporate some of the thinking of the international consultation. According to Nouvel, Blanc had stubbornly resisted any change to his top-down plan.
President Sarkozy responded by inviting the leaders of the ten teams of the consultation to the Élysée Palace on December 15th, 2009. He announced the creation of the Atelier International du Grand Paris, an ongoing structure associating the ten teams of the consultation, with its own operating budget. The AIGP was officially launched in February, 2010.
The Grand Paris law was voted by the National Assembly in December, 2009 and by the Senate in April, 2010. The vote was down party lines, won thanks to the majority held by the President’s supporters. The opposition parties voted against a measure that seemed to go directly against the earlier decentralization laws.
Christian Blanc was ebullient. On May 14th, 2010, he told Paris-Match: “We will have the world’s highest-performance subway system: the double loop, an entirely automated system – therefore highly secure – moving between 40 and 50 miles per hour over an 80 mile network with 40 stations. No other major city in the world will have an equivalent system. In thirty or forty years, Paris will be a major platform for global economic activities.”
But his scheme was in fact only one of two competing transportation schemes. In addition to Blanc’s scheme, soon dubbed Métro Grand Paris, the regional government had a pre-existing scheme named Arc Express. To simplify, the Region’s scheme focused on meeting existing transportation needs in Paris’s near suburbs, while Blanc’s scheme was more prospective, seeking to make high-speed connections between the future economic development poles – in other words places which currently have little need for new transportation.
On June 3rd, 2010, the Grand Paris law was officially promulgated. It created the Société du Grand Paris and laid the legal groundwork required to implement the new transportation scheme. But as regarded the layout and characteristics of the new network, no decision was made. The plans of the regional government and the national government would both go forward to the public consultation, the legally-required next stage of the process.
Incidentally, with the law in force, the government could now freely pass the regional plan it had been hanging on to for a year and a half – without any legal justification – to the State Council. There was no chance that the State Council could approve a regional plan that was now contradictory to the law of the land. And indeed, on October 28th, 2010, the State Council handed down its decision on the regional plan, naturally ruling that was not compatible with the new Grand Paris law. The national government had successfully circumvented the planning process put in place in the law of 1995. It had held up the approval of the regional plan due to a procedural loophole while addressing the content of the plan directly through legislative means. The regional government was, of course, upset at the seven years of wasted time, money, and energy. Furthermore, with no approved plan, it was now unclear on what legal basis any investments and development activity in the Paris region could take place.
As for Christian Blanc, it was alleged in June 2010 that he had spent 12,000 euros of the government’s money on cigars and other personal items. He was forced to resign on July 4th, 2010. His duties were transferred to an existing Ministry, marking the end of a separate Ministry for Le Grand Paris.
On January 26th, 2011, the regional and national governments finally announced a compromise plan for a new transportation network for the Paris region. The new network is called Grand Paris Express. It is expected to cost 32.5 billion euros and to be completed in 2025. The agreement, naturally, includes a break-down of the contributions from the two governments and from other sources (including debt financing).
We see from the plan below that the two governments were able to agree on the general idea of a network connecting the suburbs, with a fairly clear positioning of key nodes in most places, although the itinerary seems less clearly determined in the north-east. The most modern existing subway line, line 14, in blue below, will be extended north and south to connect with the new network. As for the south-west loop in green below, which the national government desperately wants in order to serve its plan for a “French Silicon Valley,” there is an “agreement to disagree.” The regional government continues to oppose this loop, claiming it is economically unrealistic until there is actual demand in the area.
On May 31st, 2011, the national and regional governments reached another compromise, this time regarding the regional plan. The French Parliament voted a law allowing local governments temporarily to apply the new regional plan in all its aspects that are not contradictory to the Grand Paris law of 2010 (in other words in any area unaffected by Grand Paris Express). On this wobbly foundation, which seems to satisfy the lawyers, the development of the Paris region can continue for now. The Île-de-France region has announced that it will relaunch the regional plan process in the fall of 2011 in order to have the new plan in place by the end of 2013, when the current temporary framework expires.
For the conclusion of this series, summarizing where Le Grand Paris stands as of October 2011 and providing a personal perspective on the undertaking, go to Part 4: Where Things Stand.