‘A massacre’: Environmentalists fight Metro plan that threatens Parisian forest

Proposals to extend Paris Metro Line 1 are meeting fierce pushback from a local environmental collective, which says the project would destroy part of the capital’s Vincennes forest and permanently destroy biodiversity in the area.

The collective Touche pas à mon Bois de Vincennes (‘Don’t touch the Vincennes Forest’) says the project to extend Paris’s Line 1 Metro would result in a “massacre” and an “irreparable” mutilation of the wooded public park on the eastern edge of Paris.

"When we talk about the trees being cut down, it’s not just the trees. All of these trees are home to protected species," explains Marie Noelle Bernard, a member of Touch pas à mon bois. "The environmental impact is enormous. Ecocide is not yet recognised in French law, unfortunately. But this will be an ecocide."

Metro Line 1 cuts straight through the centre of Paris, running from the business district of La Défense in the west to the Château de Vincennes in the east. The project would add three new stops to the eastern end of the line, extending the Metro to two Paris suburbs: Montreuil and Fontenay-sous-Bois. Île-de-France Mobilités, the transport authority that oversees transport links and the different companies operating in the Île-de-France region, estimates that 95,000 new travelers would pass through the three new stops every day.

For people living in those areas, the extension would provide an alternative way of getting into central Paris, thereby relieving motorway congestion and overcrowding on busy public transport links. The RER A, a commuter train line that also connects central Paris with La Défense and Fontenay-sous-Bois, is the busiest rail line in Europe.

‘Irreversible damage’

But despite the advantages, locals are sounding the alarm about the catastrophic effect the plan could have on the environment. A petition launched by Touche pas à mon bois, which has gathered over 60,000 signatures, says that “thousands of trees, some of them hundreds of years old, will be cut down” to make way for the €1.3 billion project.

Plans for the development show that the use of a tunnel boring machine would necessitate the deforestation of 20,000 square metres. Touche pas à mon bois says that the damage “will be irreversible”, adding: “None of us, in our lifetimes, will ever again see the wood as it is today.”

Île-de-France Mobilités has tried to reassure residents, saying it will compensate for the deforestation by replanting a zone three times the area affected by the work site. It says the entirety of the affected zone will be replanted, leaving only 200 square metres that won’t be “re-greened”.

Bernard scoffs at these promises. "When their environment is destroyed, animals will never come back. They’re saying they will ‘compensate' for it. What does that mean? You can’t compensate for the destruction of an ecosystem hundreds of years old."

Hidalgo under fire

Many members of the collective and others opposed to the project blame Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, although initial plans for the project were given the green light in 2013, a year before she was elected. Proposals to extend the line were actually introduced as early as 1934.

Comments on Facebook groups mobilising against the project criticise Hidalgo, a member of the Socialist Party and who allies with the Green party, accusing her of hypocrisy.

“It’s pathetic. She advocates for the environment but doesn’t hesitate to destroy a section of superb, historical and classified woodland,” said one, while another accuses her of “causing so much damage” to the city in her role as mayor.

It’s a familiar refrain for Hidalgo, who has been targeted by an online campaign using the hashtag #SaccageParis (#ParisTrash), accusing her of mismanaging the city and turning the capital into a “rubbish heap”. The online scorn directed at the mayor is not going away: It is even intensifying in the run-up to French presidential elections in April and becoming a thorn in the side for her political campaign as she tries to present herself as an environmentally conscious, progressive Green candidate.

Climate change

For Bernard, the destruction of part of the Vincennes woods is a climate issue as much as one of biodiversity. She mentions rising temperatures in the capital, emphasising that Paris needs its “lungs” – the green spaces that help to reduce the urban heat island effect in large cities.

“I know that there’s an electoral battle going on. But these are the same people who are going to go to climate marches for COP26. It doesn’t make sense!”

Touche pas à mon bois is careful to clarify that it is not against the extension of transport links entirely but is instead asking authorities to consider alternatives, such as extending the tramways or even redirecting money for the project into a revamp of the RER A rail line.

The project will be subject to a public enquiry – beginning January 31 and ending March 2 – which will allow residents of the affected areas to ask questions, respond to the proposed development and voice their concerns. If there is significant public opposition to the project, the transport authorities could be forced to retract the plans or take them back to the drawing board.