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.