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Aéroports de Paris: A Strategic Lever for the French State?

Globalization, Territory and Climate

Following growing controversy surrounding the French government’s plans to privatize the Aéroports de Paris (ADP) group, Nathalie Roseau looks back at the history of this organization and questions the wisdom of such a reform.

On April 11, 2019, [1] France’s lower house of parliament, the Assemblée Nationale (National Assembly) approved a law known as PACTE (Plan d’Action pour la Croissance et la Transformation des Entreprises – Action Plan for Growth and Transformation of Enterprises), paving the way for the complete privatization of the Aéroports de Paris (ADP) group, in which the French state is currently the majority shareholder. This project has sparked a great deal of controversy: almost 250 members of parliament opposed to the prospect of sell-off signed and submitted a request for a référendum d’initiative partagée (“shared-initiative referendum”) to the French Constitutional Council, which was validated on May 9, 2019. [2] At the same time, appeals were filed by groups of MPs and senators from various political formations. More generally, many have spoken out in the media, via petitions, or on the streets against privatization.

Objections have been made on various grounds, primarily economic or sovereignty-related: should the state get rid of an asset that seems to be performing well operationally and in terms of profitability? Should it cede control of international air transportation within its territory to the private sector? If we look beyond these questions, though, the debate also masks difficulties in thinking about—or even an inability to conceive of—ADP as a strategic tool for state action. This issue cannot be underestimated, as it concerns public policies more widely.

“L’Aéroport de Paris” (“Paris Airport”), the original name of the autonomous public body created by ministerial order on October 24, 1945 (which adopted the plural “Aéroports” in 1989), is in fact a major international, national and metropolitan facility. [3] Established in the immediate postwar period, when the welfare state was being formed in France, ADP was a planning and development body, and represents a public good, in the sense of shared common property that has become established in a sedimentary fashion, with successive layers of meanings and functions. The complex body that has resulted from this process explains the strong opposition to the prospect of its privatization and why it has been so difficult to see the sense in such a move. Three issues—relating to globalization, the geographical territory of Greater Paris, and the climate—would appear to be essential to understanding the importance of ADP for France and for the French state.

ADP: an international, national and metropolitan facility

Aéroports de Paris is responsible for operating the 14 civil airports and airfields located in the Paris region (Île-de-France), including the major hubs of Le Bourget (Paris’s main business airport, to the north of Paris), Orly (to the south of Paris), and Roissy–Charles de Gaulle (Paris and France’s largest airport, on the northeastern fringe of the Paris region). In addition to the operations and services provided to air carriers (including ground handling), ADP is in charge of managing and developing its airfields and airports, as well as ensuring access to the various modes of transportation (regional rapid transit (RER), high-speed rail (TGV), light rail, buses and other road traffic, and soon the Grand Paris Express regional metro network) that bring workers and passengers to its airports. The group owns 6,700 hectares (16,500 acres) of land—an area some two thirds the size of the city of Paris proper—of which 1,300 hectares (3,200 acres) are reserved for real-estate operations. ADP International, a wholly owned subsidiary of the group, operates a network of some 20 airports outside France, while ADP Ingénierie, also a wholly owned subsidiary, designs numerous projects around the world. These business activities have been developing since the 1960s, when the company was first engaged to work on complex architectural and engineering projects. Since then, these skills have expanded beyond the airport sector. The National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Beijing and the Shanghai Oriental Art Center (SHOAC) were designed by Paul Andreu, the architect of Charles de Gaulle airport, and ADP’s project-management teams. In 2018, the company, which employs 26,000 people, generated sales of €4.5 billion (approximately $5.4 billion). It is listed on Euronext Paris and is the world’s leading airport group.

The formation of a gateway to the world

As the second-busiest airport system in Europe after London, Aéroports de Paris handles more than 100 million passengers a year—fully two thirds of France’s international traffic—and has more than 120,000 employees working at its airports. ADP thus plays a dual role: at national level as a strategic transportation infrastructure, and internationally as a keystone of the global air-hub system. [4] These major functions have led many countries, such as the United States, to retain public control of their major airports. [5]

This pre‑eminence of the role of states is part of the history of the origin of airports, which were often created or developed in the context of major national events. For example, Le Bourget airport, a former military base, was redeveloped for the 1937 International Exposition held in Paris; it was rebuilt after World War II following the heavy destruction caused by German and later Allied bombing. Orly airfield was restructured as part of efforts to decentralize, disperse, expand and develop the Paris urban area (whose population at this time was still heavily concentrated in the most central parts of what we now consider the Paris region); the new South Terminal was inaugurated on 23 February 1961 by President Charles de Gaulle. Finally, the creation of a new airport at Roissy—the future CDG airport—was a major milestone in the implementation of the regional planning policy that also included the construction of land-based transportation infrastructures (freeways, regional rapid transit) and new towns in the outer suburbs. Charles de Gaulle airport was inaugurated on March 8, 1974, by France’s prime minister of the day, Pierre Messmer, less than a month before the death of De Gaulle’s successor, President Georges Pompidou (Roseau 2012; Andreu and Roseau 2014).

This event-based dimension will no doubt be repeated in the very near future with the preparation of the 2024 edition of the Olympic Games—an international event that has frequently spurred the realization of airports: Athens in 2004, Beijing in 2008, and Rio de Janeiro in 2016, to name but the three most recent. Airports, like the capital cities to which they are gateways, are governed by powerful political and economic processes, which are the result of decisions taken at the highest levels of government.

Financing a national facility

The question of the financial basis for these large-scale facilities and infrastructures was raised from the very outset of their conception and planning. How should their realization be funded? What economic model should be adopted to govern their operation? In this regard, ends and means should not be confused—as has sometimes been the case in the heat of controversy centered on the economic equation of a privatization with immediate transfer of the value of the assets versus maintaining the status quo with the continued distribution of annual dividends to the state. The purpose of an airport is not commercial income. As the name Aéroports de Paris indicates, and as stipulated in the 2005 decree following its change of status to a public limited company, ADP’s purpose is to promote air mobility. [6] It is precisely because the facilities to be built were so large-scale that the state sought to secure additional revenues very early on, to partially finance their development.

Initially, the aviation craze—evidenced by the success of air displays from the early 20th century onwards—spread to Paris’s first airports, Le Bourget and later Orly, whose rooftop terraces welcomed millions of visitors who came to spend their Sundays strolling, shopping and seeing the planes. Roissy–Charles de Gaulle does not have such terraces, but its extra-aeronautical activities enable it to balance its debt financing. Deregulation in the 1980s, followed by the opening-up of ADP’s capital in 2005 (with the French state remaining the majority shareholder), led to an increased commercialization of the areas dedicated to passengers; this was further accentuated by the lengthening of waiting times due to the strengthening of security procedures following the 9/11 attacks, making passengers a captive audience in places designed to encourage consumerism. [7]

This trajectory—simultaneously part of economic globalization and a major contributor to it—questions the role of the state as a shareholder of Paris’s airports. While ADP has excelled in making the businesses within its precincts profitable, in order to increase the share of dividends paid out to its shareholders and finance its strategic infrastructures, does this justify the state having to sell its assets to the private sector by accelerating the process of commodification? [8] A total transfer from the state, meaning its withdrawal from the decision-making and management bodies of ADP, would also imply a reduction in its role as a regulator.

Infrastructure with a large footprint

Transport has always been linked to trade, and the commercial “façade” of airports has a lot to do with the image they project and the way they operate. While Portuguese or London airports, now privatized, are organized as retail labyrinths that are deliberately difficult to escape, others have not followed the same principles—for example, in Northern Europe or in Japan. For an airport is not just a collection of shop windows, but comprises a host of components: runways, hangars, terminals, technical installations, and offices. Before going up in the air—before even navigating the terminal—passengers must also get to the airport, a place of land-based transportation intermodality that is often among the most efficient in the region it serves, combining roads, high-speed rail, metro and suburban rail networks, light rail, and buses, all of which are mostly under public control.

From this perspective, the territory of Paris’s airports is much bigger than the 6,700 hectares covered by ADP’s properties in the strictest sense. Airport sites, their associated enclosures, the towns and villages that surround them, land-based transportation connections, and the places flown over by air routes together form the long trail of their territorial footprint. Airports cannot therefore be reduced to just the visible signs of globalization: trade and traffic. Their presence is both extensive and diffuse; this is one of the key characteristics of major infrastructures (Gras 1997).

The geographical rooting of airports within their local area is also reflected in the associated businesses and facilities that take advantage of the high-speed and/or international accessibility afforded by proximity to airports: exhibition and conference centers, office space, and logistics and warehousing real estate. This highly specific, enclave-like form of urban planning and development is intertwined with a much larger territory than that explored three decades ago by the book Les Passagers du Roissy-Express (Maspero and Frantz 1990). [9]

The construction of Aéroports de Paris was thus rooted in the Paris metropolis, while transforming it at the same time. Owing to an interweaving of scales, functions and perimeters, the territory of the airports is a place of active representations, and a space of convergence (of strategies, of desires) and divergence (positions, interests). Over time, successive layers of new functions and challenges have added to this mix, making Paris’s airports places that cannot be dissociated from their environment. The op‑ed piece published in regional newspaper Le Parisien on March 10, 2019, signed by 250 elected officials from the center-left Parti Socialiste (including Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo and the leader of Seine-Saint-Denis departmental council, as well as many mayors from the Paris region, MPs, and senators) clearly shows the concern of local representatives about a project that will deprive them of public control of a facility whose influence on their areas is obvious. [10] The idea that departmental councils in the Île-de-France region might purchase shares in ADP in the event of a transfer by the state, while far from a completely satisfactory solution, must be understood within this context. [11]

From resource predation to climate action?

This territorial aspect is especially complex as it intersects with the global status of airports, which is reflected in the situation of ADP, the world’s leading airport design and operating group. As such, the climate is one of the major issues that airports—the primary targets of criticisms regarding the predatory development of resources—can no longer afford to ignore. [12]

ADP wants to increase the capacity of Charles de Gaulle airport by creating a terminal with a capacity of up to 40 million new passengers per year, that is to say a 50% increase in CDG’s current traffic. It should be remembered that, of all greenhouse-gas emissions produced, it is estimated that commercial air travel is responsible for 2.5% of global CO2 emissions and contributes 5% to climate change. Moreover, studies indicate that, if its growth trajectory is confirmed (5% per year), the climate impact of air transportation will continue to grow (Climate Action 2015; Pardee 2015). [13] This prospect is all the more worrying since the European continent is now well served by high-speed land-based transportation. The maintenance of short-haul air links, the inflation of long-haul flights, and the cheap fares of low-cost flights all present profound challenges to the environmental coherence of the airline industry.

With this in mind, ever more ambitious future projects are bound to spark new controversies. The future CDG terminal, nicknamed “the Space Invader,” has already been the subject of misgivings in the consultation meetings preceding the public inquiry. One might also wonder about the impact of possible disputes in the event of privatization, in a context still marked by the decision to abandon the construction of the long-protested new airport for Nantes at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, in western France. If similar protests were to arise at Roissy–Charles de Gaulle, the state would have to decide whether to continue construction—and, in the event of disagreement, the third-party operator who would have control of ADP following privatization would in all likelihood have no qualms, as in the case of Notre-Dame-des-Landes, about claiming damages from the public authorities.

Can airports form part of a post-carbon society? Today, the state is faced with a contradiction that can be found in numerous other domains: on the one hand, it supports the success of its national “champions” (airlines, aircraft manufacturers, airport platforms); on the other, it is probably the only player capable of arbitrating in favor of reducing air traffic (and therefore global heating). Defending its flagships in global competition is a strategic challenge that involves keeping ADP firmly in the national fold. In return, establishing itself as a key player to guarantee future generations the right to live in a habitable environment is vital, and is a prime argument in favor of ADP remaining a public asset.

An instrument for governing in the future

As Bruno Latour invites us to do in his book Où atterrir ? (Latour 2017), we will have to decide “where to land”, what position to take. Is walking away from the operation of airports and their associated territories consistent with reducing the world’s “air footprint”? The 70-year term of the concession—extending to 2090—is similar to a mortgage, and indeed Paris has recent experience of how risky such an undertaking can be, when the Forum des Halles shopping mall, in central Paris, was sold off cheaply to Unibail (Fromonot 2019). [14] 2090 could be the title of a science-fiction novel. By this date, will the planet be viable for humankind, given that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts a catastrophic increase in global temperatures of 3°C (5.4°F) by then if significant changes are not made soon?

Understanding the many layers and complexities of Aéroports de Paris will allow us to think about the habitability of our future. This is why ADP’s future must not be pre‑empted by economic considerations alone, as the questions raised seem to us to be fully within the purview of ecological factors on the ground. The current relevance of the question of ADP’s future should be seen an opportunity to lay down the terms of state action in such a way that it takes into consideration the contradictions of our time and gives meaning to the strategic instruments that are major national infrastructures. It is an essential and unprecedented project that could transform “sustainable development” from a rhetorical argument to a veritable political project.


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To cite this article:

Nathalie Roseau & translated by Oliver Waine, “Aéroports de Paris: A Strategic Lever for the French State?. Globalization, Territory and Climate”, Metropolitics, 26 January 2021. URL :

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Journal supported by the Institut des Sciences Humaines et Sociales (Institute of Human and Social Sciences) of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS)