I recently headed to France for a week during what feels like a pretty seismic time in history there, a kind of pre-revolutionary France. Since President Macron forced his pension reforms through Parliament, there have been protests and actions everywhere, with a level of ambition almost unimaginable in the UK. This article captures beautifully what’s happening.
The first day of my current week-long adventure in France began at Campus De La Transition, a fascinating place near Montereau about an hour from Paris. Set in a beautiful 19th century chateau, it is an attempt to create a kind of French Schumacher College, a place that describes itself as “a training centre for social and ecological transition, a research laboratory, and an ecoplace that experiments a sustainable lifestyle”, working towards creating a kind of French Schumacher College.
I arrived in the evening for food and some French dancing. I was there to teach on a course called ‘From Awareness to Action’, which had already heard from teachers such as Satish Kumar, Cécile Renouard, Michael Dore, and Jay Tompt, and facilitated by Solène Dailloux and Jonathan Dawson The next morning I taught a 3 hour session on imagination to about 35 students, who were really engaged and delightful. We had a lot of fun together, and they all engaged so beautifully.
Next day I was in Lille, in the north of France, invited by Réseau des collectifs citoyens en transition – Hauts-de-France, the regional network for Transition initiatives. It’s interesting that in France Transition groups tend to organise more naturally in regional networks than in a national network, and Transition Hauts-de-France networks together about 40 Transition groups across the region, many of them recently formed. They had a very full day planned for us!
We started with a visit to projects in the centre of Lille, the work of the local initiative St. Michel en Transition. About 40 people gathered in the rain by a statue of Louis Pasteur on a roundabout where the group has been busy for a while on several different, and interconnected projects, often supported with funds from the local Council’s participatory budgeting process. In one area, they have created a remarkable raised bed structure designed around a central composting chamber, which allows people to grow food on different levels.
On an adjoining part of the roundabout they have created a series of composting boxes, some beautiful plantings, and some food growing beds, and on another they have planted lots of small trees in order to increase the biodiversity. At each spot we were told all about what was happening. It’s an area where being able to do this work requires working with the local homeless population, and so quite a few of the projects involved input from the homeless, building the beds etc.
They were very proud to also show off their latest addition, their ‘Banc d’eau’, or ‘water bench’. One of the problems with gardening on a roundabout is access to water. And yet, being a roundabout in the centre of a city, it is surrounded by tall buildings. They have negotiated the rights to collect water off one of the buildings, and have built a bench for people to sit on which can store 500 litres of rainwater which can then be pumped across to the beds on the roundabout. The group designed it themselves, and this model is the prototype which they now hope to roll out to many other places. It had been beautifully decorated by a student at a local college, and was quite an amazing thing.
We then all headed to a local social café to get out of the rain and to hear more about the work of the group, and of other Transitioners in the city, while people topped up on coffee and dried off a bit. Our next stop, via a mass cycle ride in the drizzle (rather delightfully in French called ‘un cortège à vélo’, was the University of Lille, our home for the rest of the day. I ran a three hour workshop there with 100 participants. I’ve never before done a workshop with so many people, and it had the potential to be total chaos, but it turned out to work really well.
Participants came from across different sectors: students, local politicians, Transition people, people from various different groups. We did mapping, so as to better understand who was there, Potato Monsters which was hilarious, we went outside to do the ‘third eye’ experience with mirrors, only to find the park we had been planning to do it in had been locked, so we had to improvise.
I took them time travelling to 2030 and then we created What If questions about how we got there. It was a delightful experience, such great people, very well behaved in the way that actually gave us the chance that a workshop with 100 people in a room with the acoustics of a swimming pool could actually be a success!
The evening was a conference in the main lecture hall of the theatre. It opened with Elsa Carton from Transition Hauts-de-Transition talking about the Hub and their work and their plans for the future. Then Filipa Pimentel from Transition Network gave a beautiful overview of how the Transition movement organises itself, and the role of this regional network in this larger constellation.
Then I spoke, reporting back from a recent time travelling trip I took to 2030, sharing photos and recordings from the trip. The evening wrapped up food from a local social enterprise, wine and beer and lots of conversation.
Day Three was in Avignon, in the south of France. The contrast between the wind and the rain of Lille and the warmth and the sunshine of Avignon was striking. Avignon is a beautiful ancient city. I was there as a guest of the Grand Avignon local authority. Grand Avignon is the region that includes the city of Avignon. It is home to about 200,000 people, half of whom live in the city, and half of whom live outside it. Climate change is not a notional thing in this part of France, last summer’s temperatures were, as one person told me, the first time they viscerally felt like the climate is now ‘hostile’ to them. And water is, of course, an increasingly scarce, and contested resource.
After debate and input from the public and other actors, the municipality for Grand Avignon recently published their Climate Plan, which also covers biodiversity, energy, transport, food resilience and other aspects too. It is very ambitious and sets a roadmap from here to 2030. One part of this process was organising a big sustainability festival for the city, called ‘Faites Echo’, and I was a guest at it. This year was its first iteration.
In a beautiful lush park across the river from the main walled part of the city, it is trees bursting into Spring leaf and blossom, the festival featured music, stalls from all kinds of different local sustainability initiatives, talks, workshops, art events, all sorts of stuff. There’s lots happening in Grand Avignon!
In the afternoon I was part of a ‘coffee debate’ outside under the trees, to discuss about citizen democracy and its role in the Transition. Very relaxed and great questions, and a graphic note taker who did an amazing job of capturing the conversation. This was followed by the main event in the main building, in which Philippe Armengol, the VP of environment and biodiversity talked about their work and their plan, and I shared a few examples of great things I’ve seen on my travels, and then we all had a conversation together. Lots of people in the audience and again lots of great questions.
After signing some books we got to sit in the evening sun and drink a beer while a band soundchecked and a brass band wandered past, before heading into Avignon for a pizza before heading back to the hotel.
The next day began in Avignon with a morning to wander around, and to do a bit of drawing and to then travel to Agen on the train before an early night there. So Day 5 saw myself and Rachel my interpreter travel to Fleurance, a village with a population of about 6000 in the Gers department in south west France. It was an odd experience to arrive and to see one’s own face beaming down from the town’s digital notice board thing.
The first thing we were there for was to be a speaker at the Conference of Mayors of the Pays Portes de Gascogne, an annual gathering of Mayors from across the local region. There were about 40 Mayors there from across the political spectrum. I set out a selection of things that I had seen in my travels to rural areas over the years, things that I felt comprised elements of the rural Transition that we need to see, from affordable housing schemes using local materials, to community energy projects to different forms of agriculture that integrate trees with crops (agroforestry), ground cover to maintain water, and rewilding projects such as the reintroduction of beavers which boost biodiversity and retain that hugely precious resource, water, in the landscape.
Reaction ranged from people who were very enthused by some of the ideas, especially that of a Civic Imagination Office (a la Bologna) to one guy who said “but everyone knows nothing can grow underneath trees” (clearly not a man who spends too much time in forests), to someone who was dismissive of the idea of building using local materials because “we already have lots of old buildings that were built using local materials”, which I didn’t quite understand. Surely the one need not exclude the other? Another person said that the region already had all the solutions it needed, something that later, in conversation with the public of the region, became clear might not actually be the case.
A mixed response then, but perhaps the most important thing is that I was invited at all, something that wouldn’t have happened a couple of years ago. Hopefully a few useful seeds were sown. We then had a couple of hours of rest, and recorded an interview for a local podcast, ate delicious vegetarian sushi, before the evening’s event, in the same sports hall as the event with the Mayors.
The evening was sold out, and attracted people from across the region, and was a delight. There was a ‘market’ of different local organisations, from local Transition groups to community renewables groups, and from local food groups to arts organisations to the local currency.
I especially loved seeing the first local currency I’ve ever seen based on the Fibonacci sequence. The currency is called La Plume (The Feather) is in denominations of 0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13 and 21, as in 1+2=3, 2+3=5, 3+5=8 and so on. Each note figures a different bird too. My usual response to why it’s good to have a 21 note is “why not?”, but now perhaps it should be that it’s part of the Fibonacci sequence. Delightful.
The talk was a lot of fun, people really enjoyed the exercises and we had lots of great questions afterwards. A delightful and memorable evening. I then signed books and met with people for 40 minutes or so before we headed off to Toulouse, our base for the night.
The next day started with a train from Toulouse to Montpellier which was delayed due to demonstrators on the train line, meaning we had to get a taxi with a driver who was a former professional football player turned taxi driver/professional poker player who told us his whole story.
Got to Montpellier in time for the meeting with officials at the Hôtel de Métropole (the office of the city administration). In the main chamber, with many of the team from the administration we discussed key challenges, their recently published very ambitious Climate Plan, the increasing precariousness of water supply, and other things. It’s so fascinating to me how receptive some administrations are now to new ideas and to the urgency of fresh thinking about climate.
Then we dashed off to visit a large parcel of land in the city that the Metropole are in the process of buying (around 100ha of land) to create ‘Agriparc des Bouisses’, an ecological heart for the city, combining agroforestry, new forms of land use, with a place for people to meet, relax, cool down, and connect with nature, which will also be a showcase for a more sustainable future.
At the moment land around Montpellier is in huge demand by developers, and this project is buying, and in some cases compulsorily purchasing, land to protect it from development. There we met the city Mayor, Michaël Delafosse, and the team developing this project: architects, landscape designers, ecologists and others. We took a walk around part of the site, and heard their plans, and how vital it is to protect green spaces to create and showcase different models. Here Stéphane Jouault, Deputy Mayor responsible for urban nature and biodiversity, talks about his thoughts on my visit and what it meant to him:
Then we whizzed back to a great place that’s a social enterprise incubator hub in the city, in which many great innovative projects are based. I gave a talk about what a Transition economy would be like, illustrated with stories from different places, and then people from different enterprises talked about what they’re doing and each asked a question.
The final stop for the day was Institut Agro, where I did a talk to a sold out audience, which was absolutely delightful. We went together on a journey to 2030 and, like Marco Polo, I wowed them with tales from that future, things I’d see, even playing them field recordings from the future. We had a delightful questions and answers session before wrapping up with some book signings.
The final day of this tour of France took us to Bordeaux. Due to a suspicious parcel on the train ahead of us, we ended up having to get a taxi to Bordeaux and arrived for our first appointment a little late.
Our first stop was at Sciences Po, a business and politics university in Bordeaux. I was giving a talk about the economics of Transition, and what an economy based on Transition principles would look like. Then people from 3 local social enterprises talked about their work and asked questions, and then some students asked questions. Thanks to everyone who came and to the organisers for their patience in waiting for our late arrival!
We took a tram to the centre of the city, had a much-needed pizza, and then headed to our final destination, the Hotel de Ville, home of the city municipality. In a packed beautiful room with a chandelier in the middle, we headed off for a tour in my Time Machine, listened to recordings from the future, took a walk around in the low carbon Bordeaux of 2030.
It was such a delightful audience who engaged beautifully, loved the exercises, and who asked great questions. Then, after a pint to celebrate the end of the tour, that was it. It has been a pretty packed and intensive few days, but it has felt really impactful, and I’ve met so many lovely people. Here are a couple of newspaper articles from the trip too, one in Placebo, and one in the Herault Tribune.
My deepest thanks to Xavier and Rachel my interpreters, to Julien, Magali, Stephane, Quentin, Julie and everyone at Sans transition, to Elsa, Emily, Michael and everyone in the Transition Hauts-de-France team who had worked so so hard to make the day in Lille such a success, to Philippe Armengol and Veronique Arfi at Grand Avignon, to Francoise Vernet, Charlotte, to everyone we met in Fleurance who created a great evening, and everyone I’ve not named but who made it so amazing.