Having confronted terrorism and the rise of the far right in Europe, 'France is back' as the country's young and dynamic, highly eloquent president has asserted more than once with dazzling confidence. And indeed, as French cities reinvent themselves to meet future challenges and urban strategists prepare for a greener future, this ancient country of Gallic pride and tradition has every reason to hold its head high.
Back on the World Stage
Presidential elections in 2017 placed the country squarely on an upward path to renewal and regeneration. All the traditional parties were eliminated in the first round of voting, paving the way for savvy 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron – a former investment banker – to win the second round of voting and form a centrist government with his freshly formed, pro-EU movement En Marche (since repackaged as political party La République en Marche). Not only did Macron’s overwhelming victory mark a dramatic political break from political tradition in France, it also delivered a resoundingly blow to the country’s far-right hopes of gaining power: Macron defeated the Front National’s Marine Le Pen by a decisive 66.1% to 33.9% in the presidential second round.
With an absolute majority in the National Assembly, Macron is pursuing a rigorous reform program. His agenda: to reboot the economy, reduce taxes for businesses and make the country’s notoriously rigid labour laws more flexible. Moves to privatise the heavily indebted, state-run railway company SNCF in 2018 were met with months of hugely disruptive strikes by transport workers countrywide, but Macron remains bent on reform. On the world stage, he has quickly won a reputation as an eloquent global statesman and staunch champion of a unified Europe.
As the country’s youngest-ever president (aged 39 when he moved into the Élysée Palace), Macron is a digital native and innovator, and desires the same for France. Macron tweets and shares videos on Facebook in English and French, and speaks English at ease in public (describing the Australian prime minister's wife as 'delicious' – a wonderful faux pas derived from the high-society French 'délicieux' meaning 'delightful' – during a diplomatic visit to Australia in May 2018). In 2017 he unveiled the world's largest start-up campus in Paris, Station F, conceived and backed by French billionaire businessman Xavier Niel, where 3000 international entrepreneurs beaver away on ground-breaking new tech ideas and businesses, supported by 30 hi-tech incubators and accelerators. The unique start-up ecosystem squats inside a gargantuan steel, glass and concrete hangar built in the 1920s as a railway depot, and proves Macron’s determination to lure world talent – be it in science, tech or banking – to France. A similar digital eco-system, French Tech Totem, will open in Lyon in 2019.
Cities are enjoying a renaissance as brave new worlds mushroom on industrial wastelands and derelict riverbanks. In Lyon, the multimillion-euro Confluence project continues apace on the slip of land where the Rhône meets the Saône. Phase One is complete and Phase Two, overseen by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron (of Tate Modern and Beijing Olympic Stadium fame), is now introducing hi-tech residential buildings and landscaped leisure spaces into the environmentally sustainable mix. Ultimately, 50km of riverbanks along the Saône will sport pedestrian walkways, cycling lanes, picnic areas and parks peppered with art works for public recreational use.
Further south in Bordeaux, an equally ambitious urban-renewal project is underway at Euratlantique, a sizzling new business and residential district boasting glass-and-steel office towers, eco-smart skyscrapers, a groundbreaking arts incubator and old abattoirs upcycled as luxe shopping malls when complete in 2020. Riverbanks will likewise be greened up, with bags of space for urban walkers and cyclists to experience their city at a grassroots level.
Nothing can trump the gargantuan Grand Paris (Greater Paris) redevelopment project, designed to link the outer suburbs with each other as well as downtown through a new, decentralised metro system. Current completion date of the new Grand Paris: 2030.
A Greener France
Tackling climate change is of tantamount importance to President Emmanuel Macron who has made France’s commitment to limiting global warming very clear to the world. Following the withdrawal of the USA from the Paris climate-change agreement in June 2017, Macron openly invited American scientists and researchers to France to continue their vital climate research. During a subsequent official visit to the USA in April 2018, the French president urged the USA to reconsider its withdrawal, warning Congress, ‘There is no Planet B’. (It was in Paris, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in 2015, that world leaders agreed to limit global warming to less than 2°C by the end of the century.)
National measures recently introduced in France include banning single-use plastic bags, reducing supermarket food waste, banning the sale of all petrol and diesel cars by 2040 (currently just 1.2% and 3.5% of French cars are electric or hybrid) and introducing financial incentives to low-level income households to change polluting oil-fired boilers to renewable energies. In the capital €150 million is being invested in its environmentally friendly cycling infrastructure. However, this fell short of satisfying French Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot, who resigned on live radio in August 2018, citing his frustration at the government's 'small steps' to combat climate change as his reason for stepping down.