On October 5, 2021, in response to the increasingly systematic protests against new wind-farm projects, France’s environment minister at the time, Barbara Pompili, announced a series of measures for the "controlled and responsible development of wind power." These measures aimed to improve the administrative appraisal of new projects and reduce the environmental nuisance caused by wind turbines, in particular relating to noise and light, as well as through the recycling of machines and the excavation of their foundations during dismantling. What was notably absent from this ministerial announcement, however, was the democratic question, which is at the heart of local grievances against the current deployment of the energy transition. No "great debate", no "citizen consultation": is the ineffectiveness of the tools of participative democracy now too obvious to allow them to remain among the cosmetic measures that allow an industrial policy to be pursued while appeasing the conflicts it generates?
At present, the public inquiry is the only time when local residents of future wind farms have the opportunity to express their views. This minimal form of "participatory engineering" (Mazeaud et al. 2016) - an investigating commissioner collects everyone’s comments before issuing an opinion to the prefect - has certain limits, which have been unanimously noted. In particular, the effects of the depositions on the public decision are difficult to assess: the commissioner’s opinion is advisory, and the prefect is free to make his or her own decision. Nonetheless, this long-standing procedure (Graber 2012), both unloved and imperfect, represents an important moment of debate at local level.  The study of participation in these public inquiries, and of what happens on the sidelines, shows the place accorded to local residents of renewable energy installations in public energy transition policies. It then highlights the democratic deficit with which this transition is being implemented.
This article is based on ethnographic observation of seven public inquiries in the Nord and Pas-de-Calais départements of northern France, as well as a series of seventeen interviews conducted between 2019 and 2021 with a variety of stakeholders (wind-farm project developers, legal experts, mayors, local residents, ornithologists, agents from government investigating departments). By looking back at the process of setting up wind farm projects, he first analyzes the use of land and the invisibilization of local residents in public energy transition policies. Secondly, it shows how the public inquiry remains an important moment of expression for these local residents, despite the unanimous criticism levelled at this procedure.
Public and private rationales
Generating as it does some 21% of national production, the Hauts-de-France region is now France’s leading producer of wind energy.  However, wind turbines are not evenly distributed across the region, and are concentrated in certain areas (see map below). In the early 2010s, following the Grenelle 2 environmental summit, regional wind energy plans (Schémas régionaux éoliens - SRE) were introduced, in which a number of Zones de développement éolien (ZDE) were selected. Although these SREs were quickly abandoned, the criteria used to determine the ZDEs are still used today to justify or reject a wind power project. Weather and aeronautical radars, for example, create large areas around them where wind turbines are not permitted. In the same way, remarkable landscapes, valued by tourism, and sensitive natural areas are areas where wind turbines are not permitted. On a smaller scale, distance from dwellings, as well as from hedgerows and woodlands where birds and bats nest, are criteria for wind farm development. For example, they restrict the possibility of installing wind turbines in areas with a high proportion of livestock farming: hedgerows are more common here than in areas of large-scale arable farming. What’s more, rural areas where farms are grouped together in town centers are also more favorable to wind turbines than those where farms are scattered in multiple hamlets. All the rules governing the siting of wind turbines mean that some areas are more suitable for wind power development: areas of broad agricultural plains, sparsely wooded and sparsely populated, where the protection of biodiversity is in theory a low priority, and where the landscape is not highly valued by tourism.
Furthermore, the energy transition is being implemented by a number of different companies: energy giants such as EDF and Engie, as well as design offices with just a few employees. All these industrial players are engaged in fierce competition. This has local repercussions. In fact, the first step in setting up a wind farm is to sign leases with landowners. In some windy areas, where the land use pattern leaves large areas open, landowners are frequently approached by several companies, who sometimes put strong pressure on them to "secure the land" before their competitors do. As the only local players to benefit from the economic spin-offs of wind turbines, landowners are at the heart of the local tensions caused by wind turbines.
Source: DREAL des Hauts-de-France, Développement de l’éolien terrestre dans la région Hauts-de-France, March 2021, p. 8.
Local deployment of wind power thus depends first and foremost on private contractualization, and until very recently there was no obligation for manufacturers to contact mayors before applying to the prefecture for authorization of a wind power project. As a result, the public inquiry, during which the project submitted for authorization is unveiled to the public, is an important time for local information: future local residents often only find out about the number of machines and the precise location of the turbines.
Democracy on the margins of public inquiry
A time for publicizing the project, the public inquiry is also a time for debate. Although no provision is made in the procedure for a discussion to take place, it is often a high point of mobilization (Dechézelles 2018), and its margins are important forums for exchange.
The first wind farms to be built in the Hauts-de-France region met with little opposition. However, with the multiplication of wind farm projects, many local collectives have sprung up to denounce the "saturation" of the landscape by these machines flashing in the night, and to warn of the ills induced by the continuous noise of the blades in the wind. These groups of local residents play an important role in the participation in these surveys. In the absence of the project owner and the prefect, who makes the decisions, the investigating commissioner (IC) is often the only person who can be contacted locally to put forward arguments. As a result, in order to multiply their opposition to projects, local residents’ groups mobilize their local networks to contribute to the public inquiry. Rallies are also frequently organized in front of the IC’s offices. Public inquiries are also a time of mobilization for project developers. On the one hand, they scrupulously ensure that the inquiry is conducted in accordance with the rules, and that nothing can be challenged before the administrative court—a billboard not affixed to a town hall, for example. On the other hand, they also mobilize their networks to ensure that opinions in favor of the project are entered in the survey register. In particular, they solicit landowners who have agreed to the presence of wind turbines, and who will receive rents for this that are far more profitable than any agricultural yield. 
The IC’s office hours are not all equally well attended. The early sessions are often rather quiet, and most participants come to contribute to the public inquiry at the last session. As a result, the early sessions provide an opportunity for lengthy discussions between the investigating commissioner and those present. As the IC receives applicants one by one, the last office hours often give rise to unexpected encounters between people waiting in the town hall corridor to submit their opinions. These may include landowners who will pocket rent for the presence of the wind turbines, and those opposed to the project. Observing these moments on the bangs of the inquiry, invisible in the IC reports, shows that these exchanges are far from the caricature of a binary opposition between a traditionalist right-wing opposed to any change and ecologists converted to the ideology of progress.
Few people are hostile to an energy transition, but the way in which it is implemented is shocking. These discussions show resentment against landowners from outside the villages who agree to lease their land for the installation of wind turbines, and against mayors who recommend the installation of wind turbines at the limits of the communal territory in order to benefit from the tax spin-offs without suffering the nuisance. However, the harshest criticism is levelled at the energy companies’ land canvassers, whose insistence and cunning in extorting leases arouses indignation. These discussions highlight the institutional contempt for the residents of areas where wind turbines are concentrated, who suffer the nuisance on a daily basis without ever having a say in the matter. Discourses against the saturation of certain areas by wind turbines also raise questions of territorial justice in the deployment of the energy transition. Finally, the concentration of wind turbines in certain outlying areas, where hedgerows and woodland have been cleared for agricultural modernization, condemns these territories to silent springs. 
Governing without debate
Today, renewable energy plants are rarely built at the request of mayors or local residents. The only local players involved in the siting of wind turbines are often landowners. In a similar way to mining, the automated exploitation of wind by industrialists disconnected from the territories they impact relies on the construction of certain spaces as a resource (Dunlap and Jakobsen 2020). Recent ministerial statements do not augur better consideration of the inhabitants impacted by wind turbines. However, the margins of public inquiries show that, far more than the need for an energy transition, it is the current methods of implementing it that are causing problems locally, and in particular the imposition of wind turbines on local residents without dialogue.
In 2001, in their book heralding the imminent advent of "technical democracy", Michel Callon, Pierre Lascoumes and Yannick Barthe showed that the involvement of as many people as possible in technoscientific projects would make it possible to respond to the growing criticism of the "double delegation" of knowledge to experts and decisions to elected representatives (Callon etal. 2001). Despite the hopes raised by this democratization of technoscientific issues, the participatory mechanisms implemented over the last two decades have not succeeded in calming the conflicts that major projects always generate (Angeli Aguiton 2018). On the contrary, on subjects such as nanotechnologies, synthetic biology and nuclear waste burial, participatory mechanisms have helped to give momentum to mobilizations against these projects. Hopes for the democratization of techno-scientific issues were short-lived, and no new way of governing these issues has emerged since. The energy transition is now taking hold without debate, but not without conflict.
- Angeli Aguiton, S. 2018. La Démocratie des chimères. Gouverner la biologie synthétique, Lormont: Le Bord de l’Eau.
- Callon, M., Lascoumes, P. and Barthe, Y. 2001. Agir dans un monde incertain. Essai sur la démocratie technique, Paris: Seuil.
- Dechézelles, S. 2018. “Composer avec les affects en enquête publique. Le travail émotionnel dans les conflits autour de projets éoliens terrestres en France”, in L. Blondiaux and C. Traïni (eds.), La Démocratie des émotions. Dispositifs participatifs et gouvernabilité des affects, Paris: Presses de Sciences Po.
- Dunlap, A. and Jakobsen, J. 2020. The Violent Technologies of Extraction: Political Ecology, Critical Agrarian Studies and the Capitalist Worldeater, London: Palgrave Pivot.
- Graber, F. 2012. “Entre commodité et consentement. Des enquêtes publiques au XVIIIe siècle”, Participations, no. 3, pp. 93–117.
- Mazeaud, A., Nonjon, M. and Parizet, R. 2016. “Les circulations transnationales de l’ingénierie participative”, Participations, no. 14, pp. 5–35.