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Thursday, 15 November, 2001, 19:47 GMT
Paris plans third airport
Paris-Orly airport
There has been talk of a third airport for a decade now
By Hugh Schofield in Paris

After Paris-Charles-De-Gaulle and Paris-Orly, prepare for Paris-Chaulnes.

The French Government has announced the site of a third airport for the capital, and it has chosen a small town of 1,900 inhabitants in the Somme department, 130 kilometres (80 miles) to the north.

Charles-De-Gaulles airport
Traffic at Paris airports will double in 20 years

The name of Chaulnes is not unknown to historians.

It once boasted a chateau - home to the Dukes of Chaulnes. In World War I it featured in the battle of the Somme.

But other than that, it is an unexceptional farming community languishing among melancholy sugar-beet fields.

It appears little prepared for the fame about to be thrust upon it.

'Sugar-beet stop'

There has been talk of a third airport for a decade now.

Eurostar racing through arable countryside
Chaulnes has good rail and road connections

According to figures from France's civil aviation authority (DGAC), the number of passengers using Charles-De-Gaulle and Orly is set to double in the next 20 years to 140m.

While in theory the airports could be expanded, the government has already made commitments to angry residents that their capacity will be restricted - making the building of a third pole inevitable.

Chaulnes won out over the seven other sites - four to the east of Paris, one to the south-west, and two others also in the Somme - because its advantages are clear.

It lies at the conjunction of two motorways - one heading north from Paris to Belgium and the English Channel, the other providing an east-west link.

It is also on the TGV fast train line to Brussels and London. Indeed, regular users of the Eurostar service will recognise the spot, because it is also the site of an almost totally unused railway station on the TGV line, known humorously as "the sugar-beet stop."

Opposition

This was built as a sop to politicians of the nearby city of Amiens, who were disappointed that they were bypassed by the TGV line. Suddenly the station has found a purpose.

Chaulnes may lie at some considerable distance from the capital, but for its promoters this is more than offset by the fact that with its fast connections it could also draw passengers travelling to Belgium, Holland and even Britain.

Map of France showing the airports
On the down side, opponents point out that the A1 motorway and the TGV line are already saturated, so new parallel services will have to be built - adding to the nine billion euros that the airport will cost.

The Green Party - which is a member of the left-wing government - is opposed in principle to a third airport, arguing that it should be sited in the provinces to encourage decentralisation.

They also say that the 11 September attacks have pointed up the fragility of demand for air travel, though for the DGAC this is no more than a temporary blip that will have little effect on its long-term forecasts.

Then, of course, there are the residents themselves of Chaulnes and the surrounding area.

If some welcome the prospect of economic development, others fear the destruction of their rural lives.

Around 17,000 people will be living within the so-called "noise-sensitive" zone once the airport is built, and 1,000 will have to be re-housed as the hamlets of Vermandovillers and Lihons are razed to make way for the runway.

'Silent' residents

And, finally, there are the silent residents - the thousands of soldiers from World War I who were killed near here in the battle of the Somme.

Chaulnes lay at the southern end of the Allied offensive of July 1916, and before then end of the war it had changed hands three times.

Small British and French war cemeteries that lie nearby may have to be moved if the airport is built.

On an altogether different scale is the German graveyard at Vermandovillers, which is directly in the path of the planned runway. It contains 23,000 bodies.

No one has decided what to do with them.

See also:

03 Nov 98 | World War I
The Somme: Hell on earth
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