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.

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“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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Pope arrives in Marseille for trip shadowed by migrant crisis

Pope Francis arrived in Marseille on Friday for a two-day visit focused on the Mediterranean and migration, bringing to France a message of tolerance amid bitter debate over how Europe manages asylum seekers.

Pope arrives in Marseille for trip shadowed by migrant crisis

Marseille was decked out in the yellow and white colours of the Vatican for the first visit by a pope to France’s second-largest city in 500 years, where 100,000 people are expected to turn out to see the pontiff in his “popemobile” on Saturday.

The 86-year-old is visiting to take part in a meeting of Mediterranean-area Catholic bishops and young people — but his trip comes at a politically sensitive time.

The pontiff disembarked at Marseille airport from his plane away from the view of cameras. He was then wheeled in a wheelchair towards Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, who was waiting on the airport tarmac to greet him, an AFP correspondent said.

He then stood up from his wheelchair to acknowledge the welcome of a military band.

A surge in migrant boats arriving from North Africa on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa last week trigged outrage in Italy and a heated debate across Europe over how to share responsibility for the numbers.

Marseille is a historic gateway for immigrants and also home to some of the poorest neighbourhoods in Europe, many of which are plagued by drug trafficking.

The desperate conditions that cause many people to leave their homes for a new life, and the risks they take to do so, have been a key theme during Francis’s decade as head of the Catholic Church.

Speaking at the Vatican on Sunday, he noted that migration “represents a challenge that is not easy… but which must be faced together”.

He emphasised the need for “fraternity, putting human dignity and real people, especially those most in need, in first place”.

Ahead of what will be his 44th overseas trip, Francis acknowledged this month that papal voyages were not as easy as they used to be.

He underwent hernia surgery in June, less than two years after having colon surgery, and routinely uses a wheelchair because of a troublesome knee.

Meeting pilgrims

Despite the decline in France of Catholicism, the once dominant faith, the pope’s visit has sparked huge enthusiasm, with almost 60,000 people expected at a mass on Saturday afternoon.

“Habemus papam” headlined regional newspaper La Provence, using the famous Latin phrase meaning “We have a pope!” used  on the election of a pontiff.

For Joseph Achji, a 25-year-old Syrian Christian originally from Aleppo, the pope’s visit is a “chance of a lifetime”.

He will head to the Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde, a symbolic monument overlooking the city, for a prayer with local clergy on Friday afternoon.

That will be followed by a moment of meditation with representatives of other religions at a memorial to sailors and migrants lost at sea.

The United Nations estimates that more than 28,000 migrants who have tried to cross the Mediterranean since 2014 have gone missing.

After 8,500 migrants landed on Lampedusa in three days earlier this month, the European Union promised more help for Rome.

But France, amid wrangling over a draft law governing migrant arrivals there, said it would not accept anyone from the island.

“We are expecting very strong words” from the pope, said Francois Thomas, head of Marseille-based SOS Mediterranee, which operates a migrant rescue boat in the sea.

“It is our humanity that is sinking if Europe does not do something.”

Mass with Macron

On Saturday morning, Francis will take part in the closing session of the “Mediterranean Meetings” event.

As well as migration, it will cover issues such as economic inequality and climate change — also themes close to the pope’s heart.

On Saturday afternoon, Francis will lead a mass at the Velodrome stadium, with French President Emmanuel Macron among those due to attend.

Macron’s attendance has sparked controversy among left-wing politicians in the officially secular country.

Some right-wing politicians have criticised the pope’s stance on migrants — but Marseille mayor Benoit Payan said the pontiff “has a universal message… of peace”.

Francky Domingo, who runs a migrant association in Marseille, said he hoped the visit would “give back a little hope” and “ease tensions at the political level”.

“Marseille is a cosmopolitan city, multicultural, multi-faith,” he told AFP, but faces “enormous difficulties”.