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Last year, Grenoble became the first major French city to elect a Green Party mayor. Since Éric Piolle took over City Hall, the Alpine city has become something of a laboratory for pioneering reforms and projects. Global attention is turning to Paris as the French capital gears up to host the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference, or COP21, but in France it’s Grenoble that is leading the way in efforts to cut pollution and CO2 emissions.

“It’s the 21st international climate conference. By now we know what needs to be done, but we are hesitant about doing it,” Piolle says. “The time has come to radically change the rules of the game.”

Grenoble has started an environmental adventure that many see as inspiring, but which is riddled with risks and obstacles. It’s an experiment that is not sure to succeed, and one that concerned citizens and policy makers around the world should be watching closely.

History in the making

Grenoble’s tide of political change is a history more than 32 years in the making – and it began in defeat. In 1983, a group of environmental activists decided to jump into the city’s municipal elections. They formed an alliance with an incumbent mayor who was sympathetic to conservationist causes, but who was struggling in opinion polls after three terms in office. The conservative challenger would go on to sweep the vote that year.

The defeat at the ballot box was a stinging disappointment for the activists, but it helped forge a block of those who were staunchly committed to putting ecology at the centre of Grenoble’s politics. The group swapped names over the years – today it is known as the Association for Democracy, Ecology and Solidarity (ADES) – but its mission to fight pollution and promote civic engagement remained unchanged.

Environmental activist Vincent Comparat

ADES president Vincent Comparat, 72, likes to think of his group as “Grenoble’s artisans of political change”, slowly and meticulously working for green-friendly reforms over the past three decades. During that time, Comparat has seen his group savour a handful of victories (like reclaiming the city’s once privatised water works) and endure losses (like the building of a football stadium in the heart of town). Certainly among its greatest triumphs is having propelled Éric Piolle into the mayor’s office last year.

A retired molecular physicist, Comparat likes inserting the word “equation” into his stories about Grenoble. He is convinced the 2014 election win was the sum of various specific factors.

The first was the former Socialist mayor’s refusal to include ADES as part of his team in the 2008 municipal poll. “Looking back, we should thank him,” the silver-haired eco warrior chuckles. “We won our autonomy, and six years later we were ready to present ourselves as a political alternative.”

The second factor leading to victory at the ballot box was ADES’s ability to broker a deal between Europe Écologie Les Verts (France’s Green Party) and the more radical Partie de Gauche (Left Party), with the two camps agreeing on a common campaign platform.

Eric Piolle was someone different

"Finally, there was the personality of Eric Piolle", Comparat concedes. He is young, has a lot of ideas, and was very personable. Green mayoral candidates are usually professors from one of the universities, but he’s an engineer and a former executive. He was someone different".

Comparat has few reproaches for the new mayor 18 months into the job, but he does say that Piolle does a poor job of “explaining his choices and decisions” to constituents. “City Hall has to reach out to people, talk to them like grownups,” he says.

But rather than merely waiting for better PR from City Hall, Comparat is taking matters into his own hands. He politely excuses himself from the café table, explaining that he has to get back to his blog.

No time to waste
 Grenoble Mayor Eric Piolle

Cradling his smartphone and hesitant to take a seat, Piolle gives off the impression of a man with no time to waste. Indeed, he has launched an impressive number of new projects since he officially became Grenoble’s mayor on April 4, 2014, and more are in the pipeline.

Before becoming the first environmentalist mayor of a major French métropole, Piolle won a bit of name recognition by getting fired from the Palo Alto-based tech giant Hewlett-Packard. He doesn’t like wading into the details of the incident, preferring to repeat what was reported in the press at the time: In 2011, as HP’s supply chain manager overseeing Europe, the Middle East and Africa, he opposed a restructuring plan that affected 120 employees in his division. He lost his job, but the plan he criticised was eventually dropped.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was a complete game-changer

A year later Piolle helped found the so-called Roosevelt 2012 collective. The movement includes leading French intellectuals, left-wing leaders and artists, and its call to political action is modeled on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “First Hundred Days” in office. "In just a few weeks after coming to power, Roosevelt passed reforms to regulate the financial industry and jumpstart the economy,” Piolle notes. "It was a complete game-changer".

Piolle’s first measures in office are admittedly less momentous than FDR’s, but they do reflect the mayor’s deep-seated conviction that society needs fundamental change, and needs it fast. In September 2015 the city held its first participatory budgeting election, allowing residents to pick which urban renewal projects to bankroll. Starting in January, Grenoble and 41 neighbouring towns will lower roadway speed limits from 50 to 30 kms per hour – a first in France. Existing organic school lunches and car-sharing programmes have been expanded. A new local holiday – La Fete de Tuiles, a day commemorating Grenoble’s pioneering spirit – has even been added to the calendar. But no other reform has received as much attention as the new ban on advertising billboards and panels in public spaces.

Asked if banning billboards is going to save the planet, Piolle responds that there is no single miracle solution, but that the measure is consistent with an alternative vision for the future. “We need to put an end to this hyper-consumerism, where citizens are no longer viewed as people but as consumers,” he says. The mayor adds that he has received a flood of praise for the move from every corner of the planet. “The first thing people say is that they didn’t even think it was possible. All of a sudden people can allow themselves to dream big.”

Piolle’s dreams may nevertheless be shattered by brutal reality. Advertising billboards have brought in as much as €600,000 per year for City Hall in the past. That lost revenue highlights what Piolle admits is the biggest menace to his “New Deal” for Grenoble: a colossal deficit. The previous mayor left huge debts when he left office in 2014, and Piolle must now cut the city’s budget by 9% over the next three years.

For Piolle, it’s another race against time.

Q&A with Éric Piolle

FRANCE 24: What do you consider to be your most important accomplishment in Grenoble so far, and what is your biggest challenge ahead?

Piolle:There is not one major accomplishment, even if some of our changes got worldwide attention, like banning advertising billboards in public places. I think our greatest achievement has been to inspire new hope.

Everyone has figured out by now that we are seeing the emergence of a new model for society and our objective is to align our public policy with that model. So that includes lots of small examples – like limiting the height of new buildings, protecting the water table, pushing for organic school lunches, limiting the speed limit to 30 kms per hour, creating new green spaces inside the city and in our decision not to raise local taxes. We see our job as finding lasting solutions rather than managing problems, [and] as addressing the root causes of social, environmental and economic dysfunction – and the three go together.

The biggest challenge we face is to carry out these changes at a time when the national government is imposing major austerity measures. When we began our mandate Grenoble was the city in the worst financial shape among French cities with a population of over 100,000 people. And so our transformation requires time, but we have to deal with the government’s recessionist policy, under which we need to cut our budget by 9 percent in three years – it’s unheard of in public policy.

FRANCE 24:What do you tell entrepreneurs and business owners who say too many environmental measures will harm the economy and who threaten to take jobs elsewhere?

Piolle:I don’t think entrepreneurs view the situation in those terms. They are foremost citizens who are also affected by climate change, who worry about what the future will look like for their kids and their families, and who are also shocked by the inequality and violence of the capitalist system. So those two lives are not disconnected: they are both citizens and business people who see huge opportunities in the new economic model.

The new model is one of actors working in a network, it is less top-down and less centralised, and it has huge potential in terms of job creation because renovating existing buildings requires more labour than building new ones ... Recycling and eating locally produced foods [also] create more local jobs. So I think there are huge opportunities for entrepreneurs, even if they have been hit hard by the economy – and the levels of unemployment in Western countries are shocking.

FRANCE 24:Nevertheless, representatives of Grenoble’s shopkeepers recently walked out of talks with your office, saying their concerns were not taken seriously. Among other things, they oppose converting a major street into a “bikers only” thoroughfare. Why did talks break down?

Piolle:We are trying to work with local shopkeepers to transform Grenoble’s city centre and we want to a common approach in assessing the problems we face. And it’s true that local businesses are being hit extremely hard by the political decisions of the past 40 years, namely allowing huge supermarkets to be built on the outskirts of the city and organising urban spaces with a vision in which the “car is king”.

So we are trying to re-imagine the city centre as a place of shared experiences, and I know that customers will come back to the shops when we revive those areas. Grenoble has witnessed two urban revolutions. The first was the return of some pedestrian-only streets in the city centre in the 1970s. Shopkeepers put up a bitter fight against this measure, but then were the first to recognise it is what allowed them to keep doing business downtown. The second revolution took place at the end of the 1980s, and that was the return of the tramway, and once again shopkeepers were up in arms about that. Now we are trying to launch the third revolution, and the objective is to build a wider and calmer downtown area. I think the shopkeepers have everything to gain from this and I hope they will see the wisdom of it. We see it happening everywhere: Oslo, Brussels and Rio are giving increased space to pedestrians. We know what the city of the future needs to look like and I think we need to get there as fast as possible.

FRANCE 24:So Grenoble’s government will proceed with plans to expand pedestrian-only areas?

Piolle:We will enlarge pedestrian-only areas and create new thoroughfares reserved for public transport, bicycles and pedestrians.

FRANCE 24:You worked for a US technology giant and oversaw logistics for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Would you say the French have a harder time accepting change than others?

Piolle:The French have launched huge changes, like the French Revolution, or resistance to Nazi occupation. And they have been ahead of the curb in the world of academics and scientific research, so we have big potential for change. But it’s true we have this culture of debate and verbal exchange that is more marked than in other countries. In the United States, perhaps people are more prone to take action to improve things along the way.

It may be a cliché, but one that is often cited: The French want to make something perfect on the first try. When I think about our approach in Grenoble I think we are forging our path as we move ahead. We try to give ourselves confidence by overcoming obstacles as they come, rather than waiting for a big revolution.

Clearing the air

Has commercial advertising become a form of visual pollution?

Grenoble’s new green government likes to cite recent opinion polls that show that up to three-quarters of people in France think advertising has become invasive. It is one of the arguments it uses to explain the decision to get rid of 326 advertising panels and billboards in the city this year. In many, but not every case, signs have been replaced with trees.

To say that Grenoble is now advertising-free is untrue. Billboards on tramway and bus stops still feature publicity posters, and will continue to do so. Its downtown area is densely packed with shops and businesses calling attention to their latest products to passersby. At the same time, dozens of so-called totems – 3-metre high columns that are used to announce civic, cultural and sporting events – have been erected across town.

Is Grenoble better off without billboards? You be the judge.

  • Place André Malraux
  • Rue Saint-Jacques
  • Boulevard Gambetta
  • Boulevard Jean Pain
  • Avenue Rhin et Danube
Going organic

On an overcast morning in October, in a nondescript, one-storey building at the southern end of Grenoble, a team of cooks gears up to churn out 10,000 lunches. After meticulous blending, baking, packaging and cooling, the food will be delivered to the city’s public primary schools, nurseries and assisted-living homes for seniors. At least half of every meal that will be consumed by the students is organic – a source of pride for the city’s new environmentalist government.

Grenoble’s new Green Party mayor cannot take credit for introducing organic school lunches, but he has made expanding the initiative one of his priorities. The city’s central kitchen, as it is called, went from producing dishes that were 25% to 50% organic five months after Eric Piolle came to power. Lunches for seniors include some organic foods, but remain mostly non-organic. If the mayor delivers on his campaign promises, the kitchen will be cooking 100% organic meals for kids and seniors alike by 2020.

Acting head of facilities Marie Giacometti and head of production Christophe Ferracioli

With the responsibility of providing around 1 million meals every year, the transition to 100% organic is a colossal one and raises a number of questions. For example, are healthier meals more expensive to produce and, if so, who foots the bill? Marie Giacometti, the kitchen’s acting head of facilities, says school lunches are slightly more expensive this year, but denies the increase is due to going organic.

“Our buyer is very good at negotiating the best prices,” Giacometti says half-jokingly, explaining that the huge quantities of food that pass in and out of the kitchen afford them significant bargaining power. Families pay the cost difference, but Grenoble’s sliding scale for school lunches means the poorest children pay only 74 cents for each meal. The wealthiest families in the system pay €7.56 per meal, with 80% of families paying less than €5.90.

It’s all about finding the right balance

Giacometti nevertheless expresses doubt about the possibility of reaching the 100%-organic mark, citing real-world and food market limitations. She wonders about the ability to procure organic fish. She also questions the wisdom of buying organic apples grown 2,000 kilometres away if apples that are grown responsibly – but are not fully organic – can come from a nearby farm. “We need to take both organic and local into account. We’ve also been asked to start introducing vegetarian lunches once a week… In my opinion it’s all about finding the right balance.”

Grenoble’s drive to provide students with meals that are better for their health – and better for Mother Nature – is an admirable, but tricky, endeavour. It is one relatively small project that encompasses the myriad challenges faced by lawmakers, businessmen, fishermen, farmers and ordinary families around the world.

War against cars

The new mayor’s measures to rein in advertisers and slow down drivers have earned him kudos across France and abroad, but not everyone in Grenoble is impressed.

Valérie Delas owns a small deli and catering shop that she runs with her husband and son. She is also the president of the local association that represents shopkeepers on her street, and of a bigger trade group for the Isère region that includes Grenoble.

According to Delas, Eric Piolle is taking change too far and too quickly for a mayor that won last year’s election “practically by default”. “Voters were tired of the Socialist Party after it ran City Hall for several years. On the right there wasn’t a viable candidate, and the far right is not Grenoble’s cup of tea because we are a fairly cosmopolitan city. Many people didn’t even bother to vote,” Delas notes. “No one was more surprised than Mr. Piolle himself. He thought he would have a good showing, but he didn’t count on winning.”

Deli owner and shopkeepeers'representative Valerie Delas

When city workers began pulling up hundreds of advertising panels and billboards in January, Delas told a local newspaper that she doubted it would bring any good. Today she is convinced Piolle and city councillors are rushing through a package of reforms that are bound to hurt already struggling local businesses.

Delas and other shopkeepers are angry about what they say are worsening sanitary conditions and rising delinquency in the neighbourhoods where they work, but which many also call home. They would like to know why garbage men and municipal police are not doing more to help, and they get the impression that City Hall only wants to talk about new bike lanes.

I think Mr. Piolle and his team are stuck in their doctrines

Cars are also a major bone of contention. Piolle has promised to transform an urban landscape that was designed specifically to cater to motorists. Delas and fellow shopkeepers say limiting their access to the city centre is a sure-fire way to kill businesses.

“I think Mr. Piolle and his team are stuck in their doctrines. Sometimes I have the feeling that I don’t live in the same world as they do,” Delas says, struggling to contain her distress. “I really feel like we are on different planets.”

The shopkeeper says she is not insensitive to Grenoble’s problems with pollution, or even against limiting the areas where cars can go. “We’re not saying, ‘Leave things exactly the way they are’. If you want to ban cars, fine, but you need to come up with other solutions,” she protests.

After six months of ongoing discussions with City Hall about how to improve the downtown, Grenoble’s Chamber of Commerce walked out of talks earlier this month. “We’ve rebelled,” Delas declares, picking her phrase carefully. Shopkeepers say they will not return to discussions until the mayor is truly ready to listen to them.

Generating power from the bottom up
 Sustainable energy expert Sandrine Mathy

Grenoble’s environmental initiatives – and the good they can potentially bring about – are only a drop in the bucket when it comes to tackling global climate change. However, local and groundbreaking ideas like the ones being adopted and tested in the “capital of the Alps” could be the only way to make meaningful progress.

What is really important is flipping around the Copenhagen vision

“This is where the debate has been moving ever since the Copenhagen conference in 2009. At the end of Copenhagen we realised we would not be able to impose a single strategy on every country in a binding way,” says environment and energy researcher Sandrine Mathy.

“What is really important is flipping around the Copenhagen vision, which was a top-down vision in which climate policies would be imposed from on high, to a bottom-up approach,” she says.

Mathy works at France’s Grenoble-based Economics of Sustainable Development and Energy (EDDEN) centre as an expert in green-energy initiatives and international climate negotiations. She is part of a working group helping France’s environment ministry evaluate countries’ Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, or INDCs, ahead of the COP21 summit in Paris that will bring world leaders to the French capital in December.

Mathy says Grenoble’s push to reduce the speed limit to 30 kms per hour can have an “extremely positive” impact in cutting down on CO2 emissions, and especially in reducing toxic air pollution in the city. “The importance of reducing the use of cars in the city is clear, and must come with measures to encourage alternative forms of transportation,” she notes.

Mathy points out that cities have often played a crucial role in advancing environmental agendas by making up for the shortcomings of national policies and by putting pressure on federal governments to adopt more ambitious goals. She believes cities will play an increasingly prominent role in battling climate change in the future.

We need cities on board for this to work

“Trying to set up one big international carbon market was a big failure [at the 2009 climate talks] in Copenhagen. The evolutions that we have witnessed since then are climate policies that emerge from local territories – from cities and from states,” she says.

In fact, Grenoble is not a one-off case. The C40 Cities group has been connecting city officials across all continents with the objective of sharing ideas, accomplishments and challenges in relation to climate action for 10 years. In France, the so-called Positive Energy Territories group, which includes towns as small as 6,100 people to regions claiming as many as 100,000 people, is committed to developing renewable energy sources based on local resources.

“In France our goal is to cut greenhouse gas emissions four-fold, but at the same time the government does not have the means to enforce this target in every locality. We need cities on board for this to work,” Mathy adds. “Exemplary cases at the local level are extremely important. They can help inspire other cities, but also save time and be more effective.”