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Analysis: France

Dam death dogs government as French farmers ready tractors

Protesting against the Sivens Dam in southwestern France
Protesting against the Sivens Dam in southwestern France AFP PHOTO / REMY GABALDA

The government might drop a plan to build a dam in southwestern France after the death of an environmental activist in a protest last month – if it does it could face the wrath of local farmers.

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It's unclear how Rémi Fraisse died on 26th October - an enquiry has been set up - but he was apparently hit by a police grenade at the site of the proposed Sivens dam, inflaming an already serious conflict.

This weekend, demonstrations organised as a tribute to the young activist turned violent in several towns including Nantes and Dijon, after infiltration by far-left militant groups.

The political fallout from the tragedy for the beleaguered government has been significant.

The EELV (Green) party, which until March was the junior partner in coalition with the Socialist government, delivered a bitter attack on its former government allies last week.

EELV former minister Cécile Duflot called the death of Fraisse “an indelible stain on the action of the government”.

Many of her Socialist former government partners and some in her own EELV party are furious at Duflot, who rarely misses a chance to snipe from the sidelines since she left government and is judged to be opportunistically distancing herself from the government in time for the 2017 presidential election.

But some have noted that the government was slow to express suitable regret for the death of the youth and failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation.

Critics claim it is yet another example of an ineptitude which they maintain has characterised Hollande’s presidency.

President François Hollande’s popularity rating has plummeted to 13%, the lowest ever recorded for a French president.

Never clear about where he was taking France, Hollande in January espoused more centrist policies, to the fury of many on the left of his Socialist party.

Now Hollande and his Prime Minister Manuel Valls are contending with both Socialist party rebels and openly hostile greens – and that is without counting the official opposition.

What now?

Environment minister Ségolène Royal is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Opponents of the dam say it will destroy precious wetland areas which are home to rare species.

Supporters say the dam is needed to irrigate agricultural land and provide more water for the increasing numbers of people in the area.

On Tuesday evening she will hold a meeting with all parties concerned and says she hopes to find some middle ground.

Although the government had previously supported the dam, she hinted at the weekend that the project might now be dropped, saying that “such a project would no longer be possible today.”

But local politicians in the Tarn area where the barrage is planned are furious over the whole business. They point out that the project was examined carefully over a period of ten years and finally approved by nearly all local representatives from across the political spectrum.

They have lambasted Royal, fearing what they see as a capitulation. They say opponents of the dam have not been mandated by the local community and point out that they have the support of the area’s electorate, which they label the ‘silent majority.’

Meanwhile, the largest union of agriculture workers, the FNSEA, which supports the construction of the dam, has planned a major show of force tomorrow. Union member Floriant Belot says hundreds of tractors will block roads and create traffic chaos in the area. A smaller agricultural union, the Confederation Paysanne, does not back the dam, saying it is part of the infrastructure of massive single-crop farming which is outdated.

On Thursday night President Hollande will be answering questions from a selected audience on prime time television, to mark the half way point in his five year term as president. This dam issue will certainly come up.

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