'Dubai in Paris': French climate protesters fight plans for €3bn theme park
Tending her rows of courgettes, leeks and potatoes, Cécile Coquel, a telecoms worker and guerilla gardener, stood firm despite local authorities’ recent warning that everything must be ripped up and the field vacated.
“These are the vegetables of the resistance!” she proclaimed. “We’ll fight to save this land.”
The patchwork of highly fertile fields 15km (9 miles) from Notre Dame cathedral, as the crow flies, is the closest remaining farmland to northern Paris, nudging up against some of the most deprived towns on the French capital’s outskirts.
But it has become a political and environmental battlefield as the state and private investors prepare to concrete over around 280 hectares of it. They plan to create a business park and a vast €3bn (£2.6bn) theme park, leisure and tourism complex called EuropaCity.
With a giant indoor snow dome and fake ski slopes, enormous waterpark, virtual reality rollercoasters, art exhibition spaces, a circus, hotels and a shopping “experience”, it aims to attract a staggering 30 million visitors a year, rivalling Disneyland Paris. The project has been dubbed “Dubai in Paris.”
“The irony is that we’re right next to Le Bourget where signed the Paris climate accords and then Emmanuel Macron promised to ‘make our planet great again’,” sighed Coquel, 46, a former Communist councillor. “This type of giant out-of-town development seems like a relic of the past. If we instead replanted this land with market-gardening, we could feed the surrounding area with local produce.”
EuropaCity, which would cover 80 hectares and take almost 10 years to create, would be the biggest private investment in France since the construction of Disneyland Paris in 1992. Its supporters, along with some local mayors, say that it would bring 10,000 jobs to the northern suburbs, parts of which have unemployment rates that are more than double the national average.
But protesters warn that building a giant out-of-town leisure and tourism complex goes against the government’s green credentials. Even president Macron’s environment minister, Nicolas Hulot, has been critical of the idea of building on agricultural land. But the state supports the project.
In March a local court suspended the development permit saying the public needed to be better informed over the environmental impact. The state has lodged an appeal.
The row comes at a time of theme park expansion in France, which the pro-business president Macron has welcomed. Disneyland Paris, Europe’s most visited theme park, recently announced a €2bn investment to expand and build three new areas based on Marvel superheroes such as Spider-Man and the Hulk, a snow-queen inspired attraction based on the animated film Frozen as well as another Star Wars zone. Macron hailed the Disney expansion, declaring “France is back!”
Disneyland Paris sits on a 2,230-hectare site about 32km east of Paris and the company already owns the land for the new development. The park, which has struggled with vast debt in the past, accounts for 6% of France’s tourism income, and employs more than 16,000 people – although workers come from more than 100 countries, not just from the local area. Further north of Paris, Parc Asterix, the theme-park devoted to the comic book crusader from ancient Gaul, is also building new attractions.
At a protest picnic on the farmland known as the Triangle de Gonesse, where EuropaCity is planned, Jean-Yves Souben remembered cycling his bike near here as a child. The Green councillor said: “Right now the mayor of Paris is planting greenery on walls and roofs in Paris to combat climate change and fight the city’s rising temperatures. And yet this prime farmland bordering the capital is about to be concreted over. It makes no sense!”
Environmentalists opposing the theme park have presented their own project to turn the area into a market-gardening hub to meet organic food targets in local school canteens. “This is about the climate,” said Robert Levesque, an agricultural engineer. He said concreting over this land so near Paris could raise the temperature of future heatwaves in the city and surrounding area.
“It’s a rare jewel,” said the economist and urban-planner Jacqueline Lorthiois. “It makes no sense to develop this, it would be an environmental aberration and I don’t believe the jobs created will go to local people.”
In the nearby town of Aulnay-sous-Bois, Kamel Lakal sat in a cafe by an independent bookseller and a long parade of local shops. He is head of the local association of shopkeepers, and ran a florist and an opticians. “Developing a vast out-of-town complex with hundreds of shops threatens to siphon off local trade and wipe us out,” he said. “We’ve built up a town centre here, but it’s very hard and we’re at the end of our rope. Putting in a huge new shopping development would kill us”.
Maria Da Silva, a market-stall holder and representative of the markets federation, said that with local small business unable to compete, thousands of jobs in the area would be lost. “The government had promised to do more to protect town-centres - this goes against that. We’re angry.”
Benoît Chang, the head of the EuropaCity project, which is led by the French group Auchan and the Chinese conglomerate Wanda, denied the project would harm local businesses, insisting it would bring 10,000 jobs and increase the dynamism of the area. He said EuropaCity would be “extremely innovative” and go beyond environmental and sustainability targets.
“We have fixed extremely high environmental standards that’s why the project is so expensive,” he said. He argued that the project would be concentrated on the south of the current farmland area in order to preserve around 400 hectares of the farmland to the north.
But on the guerilla gardening patch, the protesters were determined. “Imagine this covered in concrete, it breaks my heart,” said a local translator, Rabha Belbachir. “We’re smaller than David and they’re 100 times bigger than Goliath. But this is about the future of the planet.”