Veggie meals to cable cars – changing the face of Lyon

One year after coming to power in Lyon, the green party has wasted no time in reshaping France's third largest city, often in controversial fashion. Here are some of the main ways the city is changing.

Veggie meals to cable cars - changing the face of Lyon
Lyon town hall, controlled by the greens since 2020. Photo: JEFF PACHOUD / AFP.

Sustainable developments

In Lyon, real estate developers have noticed big changes since the Europe-Ecologie-Les Verts (EELV) green party swept to power in June last year and took control of the mayor’s office for the first time.

“This project has been scrapped… and another… and another one too,” local developer Didier Caudard-Breille says as he ticks off his abandoned schemes.

He found out about one planned high-rise building being blocked in the local media, he says, while another he managed to save only by agreeing to replace a private swimming pool and sports area with social housing.

A major redevelopment of the area around the city’s main train station, a traffic-clogged district in the centre, has also been radically remodelled by Mayor Gregory Doucet’s staff to remove all of the planned high-rise office space.

Even a trendy and newly developed district at the confluence of the rivers Saone and Rhone in central Lyon is in the firing line for employing “bling-bling” architects with questionable environmental credentials.

“I don’t want to sign a construction permit for any building that will need to be knocked down in less than 40 years,” the deputy mayor in charge of urbanisation, Raphael Michaud, told AFP.

More cycle lanes

As well as overhauling building regulations, Lyon mayor Doucet has his eyes set on other classic green priorities: building up cycling lane capacity, improving public transport, and reducing space for cars.

Helped by the Covid-19 pandemic that has led to a cycling boom, the number of people logged on bikes in the city jumped 35 percent to 15.7 million in 2020 while the cycling lane network grew by 10 percent in the same period.

READ ALSO The best and worst things about life in Lyon

“We are not trying to make cars invisible, but we want fewer of them,” the deputy mayor in charge of transport, Valentin Lungenstrass, told AFP.

Not all cyclists are welcome, however: Doucet said last year that the Tour de France race was not welcome back in the city until it was “environmentally responsible” and called the national sporting event “macho and polluting”.

Cable cars

Another eye-catching proposal includes building an urban cable car system capable of transporting 20,000-25,000 people a day between the west of the city and the south.

Meat-free meals

But controversy came in February when Doucet announced that meat would be temporarily taken off the menu in school canteens in order to simplify the feeding of 27,000 children daily while respecting social distancing.

The move was seen as sacrilegious by some in a city that prides itself on its meat-heavy gastronomy, while Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin attacked it as an “unacceptable insult” to French farmers and butchers.

Lyon’s city council stated in 2020 the objective to serve 100% organic food in school canteens. Photo: JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK / AFP.

Meat has since returned to schools, but a vegetarian option will be on the menu every day from September – above and beyond the government rule that all schools must have at least one meat-free day per week.

Presidential ambitions?

Local elections in France last year saw France’s Greens make major progress nationally, mirroring a continent-wide trend that has seen environmental parties capitalise on concern about climate change and pollution among urban voters.

Although nearby Grenoble in the foothills of the Alps has been run by a green mayor since 2014 and Paris has been governed by a socialist-green alliance since 2001, capturing Lyon was a major coup for the movement. Bordeaux, another of France’s major cities, also went green in the same elections that spelled disappointment for President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist Republic on the Move and the far-right National Rally.

“The last elections were a major, major advance in France,” Evelyne Huytebroeck, vice-chair of the European Greens, a federation of European environmental groups, told AFP.

“There used to be questions about whether we could be trusted to run a budget and an administration,” Huytebroeck said. “We’ve managed to show in several cities that we’re responsable and capable, that people can have confidence in us.”

And while expectations for Greens are low in next year’s French presidential elections, there is hope further down the line as the greens extend their influence.

“Why not a chancellory, a presidency or a prime ministership?” Huytebroeck asked. “We’re not always destined to be on the lower levels of the podium.”

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Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

You might not have thought about it too much as you enjoyed an extra day off work, but it is perhaps unexpected that France - proudly secular since 1905 - has so many public holidays based around Catholic festivals.

Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

Reader question: Why does France have Catholic holidays like Ascension, Assumption and Toussaints? I thought it was supposed to be a secular republic?

The French Republic is very proud of its secular principles but yet as some readers observed, many public holidays are linked to Catholic celebrations, a reminder of its religious history.

Roughly half of the public holidays in France represent Catholic events: Easter, Ascension (May 26th), Assumption (August 15th), Pentecost (for some people), All Saints’ day (November 1st) and of course Christmas.

If you live in Alsace-Moselle (formerly Alsace-Lorraine) you get two extra holidays, both religious ones – Good Friday (the Friday before Easter) and St Stephen’s Day (December 26th) – more on why that is later.

France’s secular stance takes its roots in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 but was formally codified into law in 1905. 

France does not recognise, pay or subsidise any religion. So French local and national governments are not allowed to finance churches, mosques, synagogues or temples, and religious symbolism is not allowed in State buildings or for representatives of the State.

It is these rules that mean that, for example, French primary schools don’t perform nativity plays at Christmas and French female police officers are not permitted to wear the Muslim headscarf while on duty.

EXPLAINED What does France’s secularism really mean?

The flip side of this is that freedom of worship is also protected in the 1905 law, and everyone is allowed to practice whatever religion they choose in their private life.

The only exception to the secular rules are the three departments of Alsace-Moselle. When the 1905 law was passed the region was part of Germany and only became French again at the end of World War I. As part of the compromise agreed, today bishops, priests, rabbis and pastors have the status of civil servants and the state pays for the maintenance of religious buildings. Religious education in public schools is also preserved.

So all that seems to pretty strongly suggest that Catholic festivals should play no part in France’s holiday calendar and only the secular events – such as the Fête nationale on July 14th or VE Day on May 8th – should remain.

However, by the time secularism was formally codified into law in 1905 there was already a fairly fixed calendar of holidays and festivals – although this had already been slimmed down under the Napoleonic government in 1802 – and suddenly axing popular festivals was likely to go down pretty badly with the population at large.

Essentially then, this was a pragmatic compromise between tradition and secularism and over the years politicians have been understandably reluctant to tell the French they must lose their holidays.

But it’s noticeable that all the religious festivals in the calendar are Christian ones, and while this may reflect France’s history it’s not so representative of the current demographics, where an estimated 10 percent of the population either practice the Muslim faith or have a Muslim family background.

So could we see a scenario when we knock Ascension on the head but make Eid a public holiday?

It’s theoretically possible – in 2015 the French parliament voted through an amendment that would allow the départments of France’s Overseas Territories (Martinique, Gaudeloupe, Mayotte, Réunion and French Guiana) to switch a Catholic bank holiday for another religious celebration to suit different faiths in the local population.

However none of the overseas départements has yet made that move. 

A fresh amendment would be required to make the same move in mainland France, and there appears to be little political appetite for that at present.

What are France’s public holidays? 

  • January 1st: New Year’s Day
  • Good Friday (the Friday before Easter Monday, only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)
  • Easter Monday (movable date)
  • May 1st: May Day
  • May 8th: VE Day
  • May 26th: Ascension Day
  • Pentecost (movable date and no longer an official holiday)
  • July 14th – Bastille Day
  • August 15th – Assumption
  • November 1st – All Saints
  • November 11th – Armistice Day
  • December 25th – Christmas
  • December 26th – St Stephen’s Day (only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)