Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Question of Authority

If you haven't been following the Sivens affair, it can be summed up fairly quickly. There is a small stream in the Tarn on which a few dozen farmers depend to water their crops. For 20 years the regional authorities have been dickering with various interested groups about how to ensure an adequate supply of water through the summer months. A project was finally approved, and work began. Environmental activists mounted a protest, however, because in their view the damage to the environment would be excessive. What began as a peaceful protest was joined by an organized group of casseurs, apparently experienced in violent combat with the police from another long-running battle over Notre-Dame-des-Landes farther to the north. Gendarmes were attacked with rocks, bottles, iron bars, and Molotov cocktails. As things degenerated, the gendarmes were authorized to use so-called "offensive grenades," a stun weapon used as a last resort in these kinds of confrontations. A demonstrator, Rémi Fraisse, who belonged to the "peaceful" group and not the casseurs, was killed. The resulting outcry led to a review of the project by environment minister Ségolène Royal, who may or may not intervene to block or scale down what local authorities had finally agreed on.

In reacting to this affair, some commentators have spoken as though the tragic death of the young demonstrator forecloses all questions about the value of the project itself. It serves no purpose, they say, and will damage the environment, hence it should be ended. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the proposed dam does indeed serve a useful purpose, as local farmers attest. Whether that purpose outweighs actual and potential environmental damage is of course a question for debate, but it's not as if that debate hasn't occurred. It has been going on for twenty years, and the process ended in a decision whose conformity to the law no one disputes. There is, nevertheless, dispute about the influence exerted by various interests as the process unfolded. I'm not naive enough to think that these kinds of environmental reviews proceed in pristine purity. But still, the proper forms seem to have been observed, whatever one thinks of the process and its outcome.

The larger issue raised by this affair is the question of the authority of the state. If the national authorities overrule the local authorities in this instance, it will be a second major retreat in the face of violent opposition, the first being the withdrawal of the ecotax, which was initially approved by an overwhelming majority of deputies of all parties, resulting in a substantial expenditure of funds for highway monitoring equipment. But the Bonnets Rouges took care of all that in a few weeks by destroying several monitoring stations and confronting police. That was a loss for the environmental constituency, whose more violent adherents appear to have taken their vengeance in Sivens. If the state retreats again, which group might next be encouraged to try its hand at reversing by violence the result of due democratic deliberation? There has been a good deal of emotion around the death of Rémi Fraisse, but it's time for sober heads to reflect on how the general interest is best served.

9 comments:

Pierre said...

I couldn’t disagree more. Framing it solely as a matter of State authority may please Valls and Cazeneuve, but in this case it’s a downright shocking proposition. If we want to have a serious debate let us start by at least recognizing that there have been a succession of stunning conflicts of interest in the decision-making process, the CACG having recommended a project that it knew it would later carry out. The “collectif Testet” spent most of its energy trying to… access public documents (it only succeeded a few months ago). This problem extends to issues of legality. One of the main reasons local authorities were in such a hurry (aside from the issue of being on schedule to tap into European funds) was that they feared the project would end up being declared illegal, as it was for the nearby Fourogue dam.

As for the Police being forced to use First world war grenades to defend itself against batshit crazy “casseurs”, even though there was nothing left to protect on the ground, well… you might want to listen to this broadcast: http://www.franceculture.fr/emission-terre-a-terre-territoires-sans-menagement-2-sauvegarde-de-la-zone-humide-du-testet-2014-11-

I know, I know, ben Lefetey does not have State authority, but he is calm and worthwhile listening to nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

Art, I disagree. The project was voted on by elected officials, some of whom have vested interests in seeing it go through and others, well had no clue and voted just because (how much time have you spent in a Conseil Général in a rural Département? Next time you're in France, do try to spend a couple days. And the Elections départementales are coming up. Focus on a couple areas, Tarn et Garonne, Lozère, Cantal, Creuze, Nièvre, Somme...) The official report - ordered BEFORE Fraisse's death- concluded that the plan was not useless, but very, very poorly designed, engineered, and set up, and not adapted to the farmers' needs to boot - the dam is planned for 40 farms, when there are 20, for instance. The trees started getting removed before the ecological impact study was finished. etc...
As for the victim, he was a 21 year old college graduate with a degree in Environmental Science and a passion for plants. I am not among those who consider this an affair of State, but I am shocked the gendarme who threw the offensive grenade has not been suspended, nor his superior officer who gave the order when, at the minimum, visibility was close to nil. There is an inquiry and until they've been cleared they shouldn't be working.

Anonymous said...

As a resident of the area, I could not be more repulsed by the hyper-simplification and the I-am-an-emissary-of-repressive-"representative"-democracy- attitude of this article. Folks, it's not here that you will be learnèd.

Anonymous said...

offensive grenades will no longer be used by law enforcement forces against protesters (manifestants) and even violent rioters ("casseurs").
http://www.francetvinfo.fr/monde/environnement/barrage-de-sivens/mort-de-remi-fraisse-bernard-cazeneuve-interdit-definitivement-l-utilisation-des-grenades-offensives_743967.html#xtor=EPR-51-[mort-de-remi-fraisse-bernard-cazeneuve-interdit-definitivement-l-utilisation-des-grenades-offensives_743967]-20141113-[titre]

bernard said...

observing this from very far away, it appears to me that the issue is extremely local and small: we are talking about a small dam meant for a few dozen farmers. This should never have attained national status, which it has because a young man died during a demonstration.

It is extremely rare - once every 30 years maybe - that someone dies during a demonstration in France and this has, every time, had serious consequences. Last time, it marked the start of the decline of the Chirac government in the mid-eighties which culminated in President Mitterrand triumphal re-election in 1988. Therefore, the government should have reacted immediately and expressed condolences and regret for this event. Which it only did after 48 hours, an eternity in today's media time. That was the mistake.

What was not a mistake was the decision by the ecology Minister, S. Royal, to initiate a mediation between the local enemies. It is clear that local authorities have been incapable in the past to organise such a mediation and it is therefore right for the national authority to substitute to local authorities in this instance.

I have no idea whether this dam is necessary and whether alternative solutions do exist at a reasonable cost, but I am pretty confident that the local authorities have not looked at them seriously recently. The decision was made 20 years ago, and technology changes a lot in 20 years - including the cost of water and thus the economic benefit to the nation of farming where little water is available...

As for the few professional violent protesters, who are a nuisance even to the adversaries of this dam on top of being irrelevant, they need to face the judicial system.

Mitch Guthman said...

I wasn't aware of either the Sivens controversy or the killing of Rémi Fraisse by the police until now. I've now read the linked articles and a few others but I won't pretend that I have a genuine understanding of the underlying issues or of the appropriateness of building a dam there. Basically, though, I agree with Bernard’s analysis. If, as Bernard says, Royal is able to mediate among the parties and find a just solution---and is also seen as acting fairly and for the public interest---that really would be a far more desirable and legitimate outcome than upholding a bad decision by force simply to uphold authority.

There is, however, one point related point that I would like to make and it’s about why I believe the fight against corruption is central to the preservation of the liberal state. As I've suggested, respect for authority must be intertwined with respect for the legitimacy of that authority. That is what separates states where power is taken and held by force from genuine democracies. It is the difference between an mafia state like Russia and a democracy like France.

Every article or blog post I've read about this dam seems to take it for granted that the decision to build it wasn't necessarily in the public’s interest and that, of course, the decision making process was obviously "far from pristine". Most of the articles seem to accept rising levels of self dealing and corruption as being so deeply entrenched in the very fabric of France today that it should be accepted as long as the “proper forms are observed”. It is increasingly accepted as unfortunate but normal for office holders at all levels to balance campaign contributions and lucrative opportunities for themselves and their families against the public good.

In this instance, I sense that intensity of the protesters feelings about this particular project, which is really only of local importance, have more to do with unhappiness about the process than about the wisdom of building this dam. They are angry because they believe that the game is rigged against them. They are told that the democratic thing to do is to mobilize public support but increasingly even peaceful demonstrations are being met with overwhelming police violence and, in any case, the corrupt public officials no longer have any shame and tend to stay bought no matter what.

As I say, popular acceptance of authority necessary depends upon acceptance of the legitimacy of authority which, I suggest, depends, in large measure, on the fairness of the process. If the game is rigged, then it really isn’t a question of mobilizing public support or electing the right people. If the local decision was influenced by improper considerations then observing the proper forms reduces representative democracy to little more than a kabuki show.

ZI said...

Reading these comments, I am left to wonder why we bother with the democratic process. Let's fight it out in the street.

This is not to say that said process is perfect, far from it. But if the elected representatives ( no matter how imperfect they may be) of the people cannot take a decision without having it contested through violent means, where does that lead us?

If there was a guenine concern, the decision should have been contested before the local administrative court.

If interests groups such as environemental activists cannot convince voters to elect their own reprensentatives, that's their own problem.

ledocs said...

Coming in late in the game, and in profound ignorance of the facts surrounding the dam, the demonstrations, the police response, in short, of everything relevant, but I want to second the sentiments expressed by Mr. Guthman, I think that the legitimacy of the democratic process is probably what was in question here. Then there is the incommensurateness of the military response.

Anonymous said...

ledocs is right. In fact it was so much in question that it'd been brought to the European Court, which deliberated and asked for a penalty...
(no relation to the military response or the protests themselves)