Henri Balsan: For more than a decade, you’ve been roaming the planet and then telling us about your experiences, everything you’ve seen and heard, in your “brief manuals of globalization.” Being someone who sometimes introduces himself as a “professional rambler,” what is your view of the Grand Paris project compared to what’s happening everywhere else in the world?

Érik Orsenna: Grand Paris is a fascinating subject, because it raises the issue of the increasingly apparent conflict between federal and municipal bodies. In fact, what I’ve found striking over the course of my extensive travels throughout France and the world is the rise of cities, sometimes to the detriment of states. State governments are weakened almost everywhere because public funds are drying up. Meanwhile, cities are seeing a surge in energy that seems to prove at least some sort of discord with the central state entity, which gives them ever-fewer resources and imposes an ever-increasing number of restrictions.

Many cities in France appear to be moving toward greater independence, especially as they have the means, particularly the energy means, to extract themselves from the 1945 centralization scheme. One could compare this situation to that of the Middle Ages, when the state was bled dry by the many wars and there was a conspicuous rise in municipal independence. Today, the economic war is what’s bleeding states dry.


H.B.: This vast project is, in fact, part of a democratic age, as opposed perhaps to other eras when the state was stronger and very centralized, periods during which Paris was also undergoing major development projects. Naturally, the 19th century comes to mind, with the extensive work led by Haussmann under Napoleon III, but also, closer to present day, Charles de Gaulle asking Delouvrier to “straighten this mess up.” In both cases, the objective was to renovate, modernize, rationalize Paris.
What are your feelings about this latest project, which will require a tremendous amount of both skill and consensus?

E.O.: To my mind, this brings up a contradictory question: How does one align the democratic necessity of reaching a consensus on the one hand with, on the other, the Republic’s need to carry out a common project that doesn’t take centuries to complete?

It’s as though we cannot agree on a joint project when there’s too much democracy. Further, in the case of Grand Paris, I think we’re faced with a metropolis that’s still struggling to position itself, because it’s also home to a state that believes itself to be among the strongest. So there’s a contradiction between the city’s desire for independence and dynamism and the state that still wants to have a major say in the decisions while its means are on the decline.


H.B.: What would be the relevant size of a city today?

E.O.: In today’s world, a metropolis is about 300 kilometers in diameter. There are already major urban hubs, such as Lille-Brussels-Antwerp-Rotterdam-Amsterdam, which are at once economic centers and transportation and infrastructure hubs. There are other major systems found in northern Europe, around Hamburg, for example. A Mediterranean cluster, including Marseille, could also emerge. But these still are not homogeneous spaces: There are naturally smaller hubs within these larger conglomerations.

It’s all the more necessary to pay attention to neighborhoods, to people. But in system- and energy-related terms, the world’s major cities are built on this model of extended hubs. In that way of thinking, Paris, Rouen and Le Havre should be part of the same urban cluster. And that means one thing to me: Grand Paris is too small!


H.B.: Is this really a question of semantics?

E.O.: By being confined to a modest Grand Paris, the point of the project is missed entirely. The problem is that we didn’t define the term “grand.” Using the expression “Grand Paris” paralyzes us. We’re wonderstruck at having said, and thus thought, “Grand Paris,” meaning a Paris that stretches beyond the périphérique beltway. It’s as if, by having the audacity to use this expression, we’d already done half the work. But the project is taking a long time to be implemented and I think ambition already seems to be lacking. Aren’t we already hearing excuses of helplessness and delay?

Further, as I see it, every year of inertia equals 10 years lost compared to the rest of the world, which is moving forward at top speed. I’m afraid that Paris is falling behind the others in terms of infrastructure, transportation, appeal, intellectual influence. Not to mention, less directly, the quality-of-life standpoint, especially with respect to jobs.

We must move forward very quickly, but quick action doesn’t seem to be on the agenda.


H.B.: What can a group like GDF SUEZ Group bring to this massive project? Do you see any strategies – particularly in terms of cooperation – that could address this urgent need for action? ?

E.O.: GDF SUEZ has core businesses that know how to work together and share restrictive burdens. When you have know-how in the fields of energy, water, sanitation, you have a very practical approach to the reality of the city. GDF SUEZ is also made up of people, people who are out there in trucks, who know the condition the networks are in, who are required to achieve certain results.

This Group has a very strong field methodology that means it can forge collaborations while offering differentiated solutions tailored to each city. To think in terms of a broader space while allowing the smallest hubs of the Ile-de-France cities to increase their independence within this space. And that also means cost savings. It’s the Group’s job to tell the elected officials, “More things are possible than you might think.”


H.B.: Quite often, water, energy and transport infrastructures can be pooled between two districts, two cities, two regions. Infrastructure becomes a catalyst for connection and sharing. A network of pipes is the means, and the means is the actor, the pretext for bringing living spaces together.

E.O.: Those are great examples of integration proposals. Moreover, GDF SUEZ can offer unification solutions, like decentralizing energy, because it has a broad spectrum of expertise, such as its network division, energy production division…


H.B.: How can such a Group serve as a driving force to help a project like Grand Paris move forward?

E.O.: GDF SUEZ cannot and should not take the place of elected officials. The best thing it has to offer is cross-disciplinary expertise. It can offer a number of options for the city and leave the responsibility of actually choosing to those in government.

When you think of a city, you can see that there are many interesting interactions taking place: between climate and urban development (if you opt for a given type of building without planting any trees, temperatures rise by 3°C); between transportation and safety (take the example of Rennes, where improving transportation caused a decline in safety)…

In my opinion, GDF SUEZ knows how to merge these dimensions to help the mayor grasp the implications of the various decisions he might make and help him create his own vision.

That being said, it’s just not true that a city comes down to a sum of solutions. In my opinion, for a city to function properly, there are three rules that must be followed: It must make life easier, it must be attractive, and it must be balanced, meaning it cannot be a collection of ghettos. A city must be woven: It must weave together the people, the religions, the generations…

And GDF SUEZ can provide solutions for those three points.

But there are two dangers to be avoided. The first is falling into what I call “silos.” Meaning confining oneself to a single domain skillset. If you are stuck in silos, you only think in terms of transportation, safety, meteorology, all separately. The second danger is providing a “turnkey” city. Because there are very inefficient cities, even when each domain is handled perfectly. But the Group’s increasing involvement in the city’s design also forces it to break down those “silo” walls internally. The various domains have no choice but to communicate and work with one another.