Can a 'people's vote' stop Paris airports from going private?

Joël Saget, AFP | An Air France jet at Charles-de-Gaulle Airport, north of Paris.

French opposition lawmakers from left and right who banded together to trigger a public referendum on President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to privatise Paris airports have cleared a first hurdle in a complex process often regarded as nearly impossible.


It seems French President Emmanuel Macron’s divisive proposal to privatise one of the French state’s “crown jewels”, Aéroports de Paris (ADP), has succeeded in uniting both right and left against him.

On Tuesday, beaming opposition lawmakers announced they had gathered enough support in parliament to begin the process of triggering a national referendum on the government’s plan to sell all or part of the French state’s 50.6% stake in the company.

The move – a first since the referendum procedure was added to the French Constitution in 2008 – followed an unusual alliance of parliamentarians stretching from the Communists, who want to nationalise private firms, to the conservative Les Républicains, who rather like privatisations but not this one.

It came as the Senate bowed to pressure to rescind its invitation to discuss the proposed privatisation with so-called “Yellow Vest” anti-government protesters, who have made citizen referendums – and opposition to the sell-off of state assets – a cornerstone of their demands.

“Aéroports de Paris is not just any other company […], it is a public service of national interest,” said Boris Vallaud of the Socialist Party, one of the referendum’s main sponsors, even as Macron’s government mocked a “baroque” and “opportunistic” alliance of opposition lawmakers with little else in common.

A prized asset

Selling the state’s stake in ADP, worth an estimated €9 billion, is part of the government’s strategy to cut the budget deficit and finance a long-promised technology innovation fund. Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire has repeatedly argued that the deal is “essential”, both for state finances and the competitiveness of France’s airports, but the opposition beg to differ.

On top of owning the French capital’s main airports, Charles-de-Gaulle and Orly, ADP holds stakes in a host of other hubs around the world, making it a global leader in its sector. It is the French state’s second-most-valuable asset on the Paris stock exchange – ahead of Airbus or Renault – and its strong profits in recent years have made it a welcome source of income for state coffers.

Opponents of ADP’s privatisation say it would mean surrendering control of France’s main port of entry (more than 105 million passengers transited through the Paris airports last year) and giving the buyer a virtual monopoly over air traffic in a region with no other international hubs. They point out that most countries, including the US, have opted to keep international airports in public hands, though the number of privatised hubs in Europe is actually on the rise.

Critics have regularly pointed to the sell-off of France’s motorways a decade ago as an example of a rotten deal that undervalued the asset and resulted in drivers paying ever-higher tolls. They argue that the government would be better advised to use the dividends from its stake in ADP to finance its much-touted tech innovation fund without giving away such a precious asset.

‘A leap into the unknown’

The row over ADP comes as Macron’s government is presenting the conclusions of a three-month national consultation, known as the Grand National Debate, called in response to the Yellow Vest protest movement. It touched on themes that were repeatedly evoked both during street protests and the more than 10,000 local debates organised across the country: namely, protecting public services and giving people a say in their fate.

While a Citizens’ Initiative Referendum (RIC), one of the Yellow Vests’ main demands, was noticeably absent from the national debate conclusions unveiled by Prime Minister Édouard Philippe on Monday, opposition lawmakers have turned to an existing device – the Popular Initiative Referendum (RIP) – in a bid to thwart the government’s plans for the airports. The trouble with a RIP is that it comes with stringent conditions that make it very hard to trigger – so hard that it has never been used before.

Vallaud’s “baroque” coalition has cleared a first hurdle by winning the support of more than 185 lawmakers, but more obstacles lie in wait. For the referendum to be triggered, its proponents have nine months to persuade a tenth of the electorate – 4.5 million people – to sign an online petition. Before they can start collecting signatures, they need to submit their referendum bill for approval from the Constitutional Council – and they must do so before the law privatising ADP comes into force.

The Senate, where Macron’s LREM party is outnumbered, has twice rejected the government bill, which also paves the way for the privatisation of other companies, including the lottery monopoly Francaise des Jeux. But the lower-house National Assembly, which is dominated by LREM, will have the last say, and the government is expected to push the legislation through this week.

“It’s a leap into the unknown, for all of us,” acknowledged Socialist lawmaker Valérie Rabault, an advocate of the referendum. If nothing else, she and her colleagues will have earned the appreciation of the Yellow Vests – a feat in itself.

As Jérôme Rodrigues, one of the movement's leaders, told France Info radio: "For once they did what they are paid for – to listen to, and carry the voice of the people into French institutions.”

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