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Opponents work for referendum on Macron's plan to privatise Paris Airports

Buttons from a gathering against the plan to privatise Paris Airports are seen at the Place de la République in Paris on November 30, 2019.
Buttons from a gathering against the plan to privatise Paris Airports are seen at the Place de la République in Paris on November 30, 2019. Jean-Luc Mounier/FRANCE 24

Opponents of a French government plan to privatise Paris Airports sought to step up public support on Saturday for a petition they hope will trigger a referendum that could block the initiative.

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Representatives from across the political spectrum, unions and activists set up stalls and banners at the Place de la République in Paris on Saturday where they lobbied passersby to sign the petition against the sale of the airports.

French President Emmanuel Macron has come under intense pressure from all sides since he declared that he would sell all or part of the government’s 50.6 percent share in Paris Airports (ADP), which many consider to be the state’s “crown jewels”.

Macron’s bid to privatise ADP hit a nerve in parliament back in April, making unlikely bedfellows of lawmakers from the left – the Communists who ideologically oppose the sale of public assets – and the right – Les Républicains, who ordinarily favour privatisation – who agreed to jointly fight the sell-off.

In a rare show of bipartisan support, more than 200 of them sent a stern warning to Macron laying the foundations for a referendum to try to block the privatisation proposal. Not only did it signal the strength of their opposition to the plan but it set up a parliamentary precedent as the defiant MPs invoked an untested provision – the Popular Initiative Referendum (RIP) – that would set in a motion a people’s vote on the issue.

It’s a risky measure with numerous obstacles. To trigger the referendum, a tenth of the electorate of 47 million people have to sign the petition. So far, proponents have managed to obtain 960,000 signatories. Macron said he would consider a referendum if that figure exceeds 1 million.

Socialist Party representative Aïmane Bassiouni, who was working a stall at the Place de la République on Saturday, told FRANCE 24 that he was confident of reaching the 1 million mark because many on the left believed the sale represented an “insult to public services”.

“These airports give a lot of money to the state and if the privatisation is enacted it opens the door to other sales. It could be hospitals next,’ Bassiouni said.

“It’s about more than the money. People are disappointed, exhausted and have had enough of governments that don’t want to be responsible for managing public services.”

If the sale goes ahead it could net the government an estimated 9 billion euros and is part of a wider strategy to cut the budget deficit and finance a much-lauded technology innovation fund.

Aside from owning the French capital’s main airports, Charles-de-Gaulle and Orly, ADP holds a financial interest in a vast number of 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 helped fill the state coffers.

Critics like Vincent Gay, a spokesperson for ATTAC, a French association that advocates for social justice, told FRANCE 24 that putting the airport in private hands could have implications for customs control.

“There are questions around how customs will work and the control of the flow of goods and how private freight companies, whose interests are in maximising the transport of goods, might seek to increase their transit capacity. This raises environmental concerns too, so having public control is extremely important.”

Others have pointed to the sell-off of France’s motorways a decade ago as an example of a deal that went sour, undervalued the asset and resulted in drivers paying increasingly higher tolls. They have advised that the government use the dividends from its stake in ADP to finance its tech innovation fund without relinquishing such a precious a source of funds.

Whether the opposition has the numbers to force through a referendum remains uncertain, but the message is clear: Many in France are unwilling to condone large-scale government sell-offs of public assets regardless of their political leanings.

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