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Ayrault dampens talk of Socialist Green coalition split after violent airport protest

20 000 - 50 000 people, including EELV MPs, joined Saturday's protest
20 000 - 50 000 people, including EELV MPs, joined Saturday's protest REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault on Monday tried to smooth over tensions within the Socialist-Green government coalition, following a violent weekend protest over a proposed new airport in Nantes.


On Sunday the Socialist premier had criticised leaders of the environmentalist EELV party for what he called their ambiguous position over violent clashes and damage to property in the centre of Nantes in western France on Saturday evening.

The EELV had condemned the violence, while praising the size and strength of the mobilisation against the proposed construction of a major new airport on a site near Nantes which is known as Notre-Dame des Landes.

As a former mayor of Nantes, Ayrault has been a leading advocate of the project, which is being fiercely resisted by an army of eco warriors who have occupied parts of a site they regard as a valuable wetland environment and a haven for wildlife.

Ayrault's comments on Sunday triggered a wave of speculation about an imminent reshuffle, possibly involving EELV's departure from the government.

"For me there is only one solution and that is the Greens leaving the government once and for all," said Jean-Francois Cope, leader of the centre-right UMP party, on Monday.

Ayrault made it clear that was not on the immediate agenda. "We need everyone [in the government], all those who want to take part," he told reporters.

A departure of the Greens would not threaten the stability of the government as the Socialist Party commands a parliamentary majority without the need to rely on the EELV.

Tens of thousands of opponents of the airport project turned out in Nantes on Saturday for a protest which degenerated into violent clashes involving hundreds of people and riot police.

Scores of shop windows were smashed by masked black-clad rioters hurling paving stones, bottles and flares while the police responded with volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets.

The new airport was approved in 2008, with an initial construction budget of 580 million euros.

Building is due to begin this year, with completion now scheduled for 2019 at the earliest, revised from the initial deadline of of 2017.



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