Tour de Nantes: back in the saddle
The smartened-up city makes an interesting departure point for a 10-day cycle that will finish up in picturesque Poitiers
Vélo city: summer fun on the Ile de Nantes, where Colm Keena’s mini-tour de France begins. Photograph: Frank Perry/AFP/Getty Images
This is no Tour de France or anything like it. I’ve hired a bike for 10 days and I’m heading from Nantes in the Pays de la Loire to the postcard-pretty town of Poitiers. I’ve mapped a route of small country roads with a few overnight stays in towns along the way. And I’ve taken the number of a local taxi company with me, just in case.
Before reaching my starting point I was on holiday in Languedoc, where the temperatures rose to 35 degrees most days. From there I travelled north by train to Nantes. I chose this departure point not just because it is a major city in an interesting part of France that I don’t know, but because a friend of mine, Fiona Casey from Greystones, Co Wicklow, has been living here a number of years with her French husband Yves and their daughter Lucie.
Fiona works in the Ecole Supérieure d’Agriculture d’Angers, where she directs a programme funded by French multinational food and crop production companies. She introduced me to her colleague Karine Daniel, the deputy mayor of Nantes Métropole or greater Nantes. Daniel is a member of the Socialist Party and was elected to the local authority four years ago. She told me central government has been cutting back the funding it gives to local authorities putting pressure on the council’s budget. Nantes raises money by way of habitation and property taxes. Pre-school and primary education is funded at a local level as are social and cultural programmes, and the promotion of research, development and innovation in business.
Closure of the shipyards
Daniel grew up on a farm 50km north of Nantes and is an economist who specialises in agriculture and the agri-food sector. If you take the Pays de la Loire and Brittany as a unit, then it is one of the largest and most important food-producing areas in Europe. Cattle, pigs and cereals are key to an economy that includes some of the largest food-producing companies in France including the Lu Biscuit business.
Twenty years ago or so Nantes suffered a serious economic blow with the closure of its shipyards. For a time it seemed as if the city’s best years were behind it and that it was destined to become a place of high unemployment and decaying infrastructure. But the authorities drew up a plan to fight back and have succeeded marvellously.
According to Daniel, the turnaround came after it was decided to rebrand Nantes as a city with a strong cultural life that would be attractive to people who had been educated to third level or higher and were looking for a pleasant environment in which to live and raise their families. Fortunately for Nantes, the transformation of the city was initiated at a time when a lot of businesses were finding Paris a bit too crowded.
“We had to create a good image for the city and make the inhabitants proud of it,” says Daniel. “Nantes also benefitted from the pressures that existed on Paris at the time and people’s frustration with that.”
Former shipyards are now home to much of the cultural life of the city and Nantes’s distinctive walking metal elephant sculpture, the symbol of its new personality, is situated there. A lot of businesses employing well-qualified, well-paid staff have located their operations in Nantes,which is just two hours from Paris by train, and is close to the sea. According to Daniel, the level of unemployment in the Nantes area tends to be two percentage points lower than it is in France generally.
The key political personality behind the transformation of Nantes was its long-time Socialist Party mayor, Jean-Marc Ayrault. Born in 1950, he was mayor of Nantes from 1989 to 2012 and was leader of the Socialist Party group in the National Assembly from 1997 to 2012. He is now prime minister of France.
Ayrault’s role in the transformation of Nantes has reaped political rewards for the party and its numbers have been holding up better in the region than they have around France.
Next leg of the trip
Daniel is up for re-election next year. She is expecting a very difficult time for the party in September/October when the Government starts to introduce changes to the pensions regime that she is sure will be strongly resisted. “The government will want the people to work for longer, and we are expecting a lot of resistance,” she said.
Now I’m heading southwest out of Nantes, towards a place called Challans, about 50km away. I hope to spend the first night of my trip there without having had to trouble the local taxi firm.
Colm Keena’s next instalment will appear on Wednesday