A daring mission to transform a lost French mining town into a green oasis

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In the middle of a socialist heartland of north-east France, a Green party mayor is leading an audacious and lonely project to revitalise his former coal-mining town, where unemployment runs above the national average, with the creation of ecology-focussed companies and research centres, and the ecodesign renovation of its private and public buildings. But this isolated development programme, and its promise of future job creations, is a slow and far from complete process which faces a stern test in municipal elections to be held later this month, when the far-right Front National party is forecast to make significant gains. Jade Lindgaard reports from Loos-en-Gohelle.

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Loos-en-Gohelle sits in the far north-east pocket of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais département (equivalent to a county), close to the border with Belgium. Two huge slag heaps, one of them the largest in Europe, tower above it, the heritage of centuries of mining activity that ceased in the region in 1990, and which has seen little industrial relay.

The giant heaps aside, there is at first glance little to distinguish this small town of 7,000 inhabitants from others in a once-thriving and now struggling industrial region. Like so many, the town hall stands proud on the main square, teenagers buzz around on scooters and the local bus trundles through almost every hour. A memorial to French soldiers who died in fighting during WW1 and the nearby British Cemetery are a reminder of the carnage of the Great War in northern France, and notably the 1915 Battle of Loos.

Cyclistes sur le terril de Loos-en-Gohelle, février 2014 (JL). Cyclistes sur le terril de Loos-en-Gohelle, février 2014 (JL).

But a closer look reveals signs of something new and different happening here. Firstly, there are the Quick Response (QR) code terminals that dot the streets. Connecting with one offers an 'Augmented Reality' presentation of the town, revealing its programme of ecological conversion. There are dozens of ecodesign buildings, including one of the very first bank branches that qualifies for France’s High Environmental Quality standard (Haute Qualité Environnementale). Rain water is collected for use on the town’s green spaces and for toilets. Since 2010, only solvent-free paint is used on the town’s buildings and streets, and chemical products for plant control are banned from use on roads and other surfaces.

Electric heating is prohibited in public buildings and in all new constructions of social-housing schemes. The local home for the elderly is part-heated by solar energy, while the roof of the town church is covered with solar cells. From afar, the church roof looks as if it is covered with slate, while close up one can read a screen that presents in real time the number of watts produced and the saving in kilos of CO2.

One of the town’s neighbourhood’s was constructed in 1950 by the Castors self-build cooperative, a national movement that groups several associations, where a project to improve the thermal efficiency of the buildings has succeeded in reducing the heating costs of a home in a social-housing unit to just 197 euros per year.

The former railway track used by the mining pit has been transformed into a biological corridor to help the spread of plant life on either side of the nearby A21 motorway. The public lighting of the town functions to the rhythm of an astronomical clock.  

Jean-François Caron, lors de ses voeux en 2011 (DR). Jean-François Caron, lors de ses voeux en 2011 (DR).

The problem for town councils engaged in policies of ecological conversion like that in Loos-en-Gohelle is that the end product is often little visible to the eye and flatter the pride of local inhabitants less than the building of a grand sports stadium, a museum or a modern shopping centre. That problem is all the more acute as the town gears up for municipal elections this month.

Jean-François Caron, 56, has been mayor of Loos-en-Gohelle since 2001. A member of France's principal Green party, EELV, he also sits on the Nord-Pas-de-Calais regional council. To give a more tangible social sense to technical projects of eco-renovation, alternative management of green spaces and energy savings, he goes to the polls with an upbeat slogan, borrowed from the US social and economic theorist Jeremy Rifkin: ‘The Third Industrial Revolution’.

“The old model of development is dead,” says Caron. “My job as an elected representative is [that of] transition.” Asked what his objective is, he begins by answering “to show a new model for development is possible” before he stops and smiles and admits that that sounds a tad “megalomaniacal.” He starts again: “The hyper-development model has shown its very grave limits, the exhaustion of natural resources and the creation of incredible inequalities. This model doesn’t make people happy. They are more and more isolated and individualist. The consumer society has created an addiction.  I can work on this new model of development at a regional level.”   

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