Mar. 23, 2023

China Environmental NGOs in Paris (I)

An impression of democratic institutions in development

Source: Green Earth Volunteers
Author: Wang Yongchen

In order to understand how France responds to environmental issues, we met with the following departments and organisations: the French Ministry of Environment, the French Development Agency, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other government agencies, as well as 21 committees, the South coordination organization, the French Economic, Social and Environmental Committee, the Natural Environment Federation, an organization [in Chinese called] Living Water Association (活水协会) and other non-governmental organizations, as well as the Urban Planning Institute and civic environmental organizations (民间环保组织).

On October 24 2011, the representatives of the following environmental organizations gathered in front of Paris' new sculpture called the Big Thumb to start the conference: Friends of Nature, Global Village, the Legal Aid Centre for Pollution Victims of the Chinese University of Political Science and Law, the Shanshui Nature Protection centre, Green Han River, Xiamen Green Cross, Green Anhui and our own Green Earth Volunteers.

There is certainly a connection between romance and imagination. The romanticism of the French is known to be world class and the imagination of Parisians can be seen everywhere in the numerous sculptures here. Now, at the same time as experiencing the French romanticism and imagination, we also experience the words often on their lips: democracy and participation.

Romanticism and imagination are related: and how is democracy related to these two concepts? What is the environmental problem the French public are most concerned about? How do French environmental NGOs accomplish things? Chinese environmental NGOs like us hope to learn about the details of such issues by attending the presentations of environmental officials, scholars and common people.


La Grande Arche and the Arc de Triomphe face each other from afar

The reputation of the French president Sarkozy has not been very good since he took office, but this time we heard he did something unexpected that changed our understanding of him. As soon as he took office in 2007, he boldly merged the energy and environment ministries. The full name of the French Ministry of Environmental Protection is “the ministry of ecology, sustainable development, transport and housing”, becoming France's largest government organ with sixty  to seventy thousand employees. With ecology, energy transport and housing managed under one roof, no single department has the final say in things, nor will one department be overpowered by another. Several departments together face complex environmental issues such as joint decision making. But according to Sarkozy and the French, this is the course of action to achieve their long term goal.

On its website it says that 311 people are employed at the Ministry of Environment Protection of the People's Republic of China (MEP).

After comparing the differences in strength and staff of the Chinese MEP with France’s counterpart, the visiting Chinese environmental NGOs were somewhat rueful (感慨).

The woman in the middle came into the conference room holding a skateboard


What is it that the French environmental protection department manages? After the Chinese environmental protectionists posed this question to the French officials, we got the following answer: the state cannot control the land, but it can formulate laws. At the present stage of human existence, democracy and law are there to put constraints on development. People in China are also beginning to acknowledge this.

At present, any public project in Paris has to be approved by the citizens via a poll. After the policy makers have heard the voice of the people they will reconsider their plans. This point is indisputable. In order to do this, the departments of the French government have to work together with other institutions, the citizens and businesses. Taking water quality as an example, everybody agrees that all parties have to sit down and discuss how to improve and protect it. Everybody's agreement, that is what the French mean when they stress democracy and participation.

So this is France, where the establishment of a ‘five party participation’ (五方参与) coordination system - those five being the central government, local governments, businesses, NGOs and labour unions - has created strong partnerships between the government, business, academia and society.

France's department of environment has a vertical leadership structure, in other words, the regional departments act together with the central government; their everyday work is mostly comprised of cooperation with one another. The headquarters alone employs a staff of 5000 people.

This reminds me of a few years ago, when Xie Zhenhua, the bureau chief of China's State Environmental Protection Administration, said that we have "sacrificed" a  number of directors of local environmental protection bureaus. Hearing about the vertical leadership within France's environmental protection system,  I think about how local governments in China are in charge of managing the local environmental protection bureaus.  Sacrificing GDP is actually also a systematic sacrifice [as directors of local environmental protection bureaus are often unable to protect the local environment but then are used as a scapegoat if there are any environmental issues]. However, it’s not clear whether or not history will remember this sacrifice.

Development cannot go too fast. Meeting five times a year with the citizens of a community to discuss together what problems and challenges they are to face, the government can buy the services of NGOs, and even if the NGO sues the government one year, the following year it can still apply to the government for funding. The state spends 30 million euros annually on civil community organisations. However, the French NGOs are still rather weak, unevenly distributed and they face an aging problem, young people rarely participate.

Compared with our visit to the department of environment, our visit to the Urban Planning and Design department of Paris on the afternoon of the October 24, 2011 was even more concrete.

There’s a place called little Paris, part of the greater Paris area. It is located in northern France in the middle of the Parisian basin and the city is built along both banks of the Seine.

Little Paris refers to the area within the ring road of Paris, a surface area of 105 square kilometres and a population of more than 2 million people; greater Paris, which  comprises the seven surrounding provinces has an area of 12,000 square kilometres and a population this is almost a fifth of the countries population. (When the French tell us this, they make sure to present a comparison with greater Shanghai, which has an area of 6340 square kilometers and a population of 19 million.) Paris is France's largest city and one of the worlds largest metropolises.

Ile-de-France refers to the periphery around Paris. Whenever they mention this, the French like to add that this area implies nature and the pleasure of life. This administrative district is brimming with energy.

So first there is Paris, which is the fountainhead of this region. Then closely around the Ile-de-France are Chevreuse, Yvette and Essonne, beautiful villages that can be found throughout the river valley; and the forests of Rambouille, Saint-Germain or Fontainebleau. All of these places are like a dream, they are the natural attraction of Ile-de-France. Paris has been the capital for more than 1,400 years and the city itself has a history of more than 2,000 years. As we, the Chinese environmentalists, traverse the city, looking around and chatting as we walk, we wonder how this city has been able to retain so many historical sites and also feature such magnificent modern buildings. How can one preserve the past and at the same time welcome the future?

A map of greater Paris in France's Urban Planning Institute

Everyone has their own place

The public transportation system to and from the satellite cities

The experts at the Paris regional Urban Planning and Design Institute told us that before undergoing any infrastructure project they must first seek the opinions of residents. In the 1960s Paris began the construction of a project with an enormous workload, it took 14 construction groups to finish. When organising discussions on special topics not only the citizens participate but so do businesses. Issues discussed include transportation, housing, sustainable development and regional planning over the next 15-20 years.

Normally speaking, 187 areas are surveyed, with a total of around 450,000 questionnaires sent out. Usually about 50,000 responses come back. Do you agree with the construction of tall buildings nearby? What would be a good airplane noise reduction method? Those are the kind of questions that are included in the survey.

Since 1995 Paris has been setting up a lot of ‘green places’ (绿地). Before the establishment of these places the residents are informed about the risks involved such as possible flood damage or car explosions. Residents also expressed concerns about the risks of pumping up groundwater.

With these surveys and assessments in place, the policy that is about to be launched has not only undergone an environmental impact assessment, but also a disaster risk assessment, and people know what impact the policy will have on the environment, animals, plants etcetera.

The areas that will be covered by the questionnaire

Us after the visit

During the presentations of the Urban Planning Institute, there was another thing that really interested us Chinese environmental NGOs. The train pictured above makes Paris and her satellite cities seem as if they are not far apart at all. One could also say the distance has been “compressed”. From these satellite cities it takes about half an hour to reach Paris. Nowadays, people in their forties with two children prefer to live in a place like this, because it is cheaper and the environment is of a better quality. This also reduces the flow of migrant workers in Paris. Parisians call this method "intelligent development” (智囊开发).

Translation group: Laurens Bistervels, May Yunna, Susan Li, and Yang Xiaoyuan

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