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Referendum against privatising Paris airports marred by glitches

French government moves to privatise the Paris airports company (ADP), but critics accuse it of selling the state's "crown's jewels".
French government moves to privatise the Paris airports company (ADP), but critics accuse it of selling the state's "crown's jewels". ERIC PIERMONT / AFP

A referendum to delay or block the French government from privatising the Paris airport company (ADP) faced technical glitches Thursday just hours after it was launched online. The interior ministry has insisted the website is now fully functional, but critics denounce a "denial of democracy."


Within hours of the referendum's launch on the government's website Thursday, users reported facing difficulties signing the petition.

A coincidence? Perhaps, but it will do little to reassure critics who are hell-bent on ensuring that the Paris airports company is never privatised.

On Twitter, lawmaker François Cornut-Gentille from the conservative Les Republicains party tweeted: "Denial of democracy."

While Alexis Corbière from the far-left France Unbowed (LFI) wrote that he tried to sign the petition three times before eventually succeeding.

It might seem unusual for politicians with diametrically opposed views to agree on anything, but the issue of privatisation has banded together an unusual alliance of parliamentarians stretching from the Communists right down to the far-right National Rally of Marine Le Pen.

Le Pen's party issued a statement Thursday urging French citizens to back the public referendum and say 'No' to the Paris airport company going private.

Would it really be all bad?

Critics say it represents an "attack on national heritage".

On top of owning the French capital’s main airports, Charles-de-Gaulle and Orly, the Paris airports company holds stakes in a host of other hubs around the world, making it a global leader in its sector. 

Opponents also argue it would mean surrendering control of France's main port of entry--more than 105 million passengers travelled through the Paris airports last year.

"With privatisation, the state is taking a liberal path and disengaging from the economy sector," says Maxime Combes, an economist with the rights group ATTAC.

"The state is opening up the airports to private businesses who don't have the faintest idea what is good for France's economy," he told RFI.

Financially sound?

The government wants to sell part of the state’s majority stake in the Paris airports company (ADP)--worth an estimated 9 billion euros. The aim is to cut the budget deficit.

And crucially, the extra cash would pay for a long-promised technology innovation fund. Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire has repeatedly argued that the deal is "essential" both for the state's finances and the competitiveness of France's airports.

"When you sell your shares, you might recover billions from the sale, but what happens 20, 30 or 40 years down the line? You will no longer earn anything," comments Combes.

"On the other hand, if the state remains a shareholder, it will still be able to receive dividends from these high-profit making companies, so it makes financial sense to remain a shareholder," he said.

Race to collect names

Opposition lawmakers need to garner signatures of 4.7 million voters over the internet over the next 9 months, which means persuading around 10 percent of the electorate to block the sale.

It will be a tough challenge admits Combes.

"The next nine months will be tough, but we have already clinched a victory just by getting to this stage in the first place," he says.

Opposition lawmakers used a device known as – the Popular Initiative Referendum or RIP – to thwart the government’s plans for the airports and the Constitutional Council, surprisingly, validated it.

"Now, the next challenge will be to collect those 4.7 million signatures," said Combes.

The race is on.

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