The Seine-Nord Europe Canal has been in its planning stages since the 1960s, as a replacement for the existing Canal du Nord, which currently acts as a bottleneck on one of Europe’s principal transport arteries.
Construction works on the project were due to begin this year and finish in 2023, allowing ships to sail from Paris to the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam. The canal is expected to become a huge economic boon for the country, providing 45,000 permanent jobs by 2050, and increasing traffic up to 15 to 18 million tonnes per year.
However, uncertainties regarding financing have stalled progress, and recent comments made by French President Emmanuel Macron have cast further doubts on its delivery.
On 1 July, Macron announced a break in major infrastructure projects due to the €10bn gap between the cost of the projects to be financed and the resources available over the next five years. Instead, the president seemed keener to invest in smaller improvements to already existing infrastructure.
A big argument for decarbonisation
The realisation of the high-capacity Seine-Nord Europe Canal would be a first in France.
The main objective is to expand trade flows in a fuel-efficient and ecologically friendly manner between the Seine Basin and Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, according to Société du Canal Seine-Nord Europe (SCSNE), the public body responsible for the project’s delivery.
The canal would ease freight transportation on the A1 motorway in France by allowing large vessels with a capacity of up to 4,400 tonnes of goods, equivalent to 200 trucks, to reach the ports of Dunkirk, Antwerp and Rotterdam, or further into Europe.
During its seven-year construction stage, the project is expected to deliver 13,000 jobs per year, as well as 45,000 permanent positions between the Seine and Scheldt rivers by 2050.
One of the main economic benefits cited by the canal’s backers is the “network effect”: its capability to link the northern regions of France to the 20,000km of European river network.
Its green credentials are also not to be ignored.
Water-based transport consumes 2.5 to 5 times less fuel than other modes. Looking at a journey between Gennevilliers, near Paris, and Le Havre, in the Normandy region, a truck would emit 17,200kg of CO2 per 1,000 tonnes transported, compared to only 6,000 kg of CO2 in the case of a ship.
Furthermore, SCSNE points out the Seine-Nord Canal would be a “live channel”, hosting 25km of lagoons and 17 hectares of hydraulic annexes, which would allow different animal and plant species to flourish.
The government is indeed committed to a green energy transition and decarbonising the transport sector, an intention reflected in the increasing budget of the Ministry of Ecology and Solidarity, which will rise by almost 4% in 2018.
The fight against climate change would benefit from removing thousands of trucks from the roads, as a single large Rhine boat navigating on the Seine-Nord Canal could carry the same weight in cargo as 150 trucks.
The last obstacle: a better financing plan
Doubts over the project’s finances started arising shortly after François Hollande’s entry into office in the summer of 2012. Still sore after the financial crisis of 2007-2008, the government was keen to explore lowering the overall cost and finding alternative funding means.
In the preliminary model, the European Union has offered to cover 50% of the financing of studies and 40% of the works throughout the Seine-Escaut network. The rest of the €4.7bn would be split between The French Government, the Hauts-de-France and Île-de-France regions and the Oise, Somme, Pas-de-Calais and Nord départements.
During the inauguration of the Paris-Rennes high-speed rail line in July this year, Macron expressed reservations about embarking on another project of a similar size, citing daily transport needs as a more urgent budget priority.
While many interpreted his comments as effectively shutting down the Seine-Nord Canal for the foreseeable future, Minister of Transport Elisabeth Borne later said that Macron’s comments were in fact aimed at the Lyon-Turin rail link project.
However, doubts still lingered.
“We can no longer close our eyes to the impasse of €10bn,” said Secretary of State to the Minister of the Ecological Transition, Brune Poirson. “We now need to find pragmatic solutions for each of our projects.”
Meanwhile, the project’s supporters seem convinced of the need to push forward.
During Macron’s visit to his hometown of Amiens on 3 October, where he met with representatives from Whirlpool and Amazon, a group of demonstrators, made up of local councillors and economic leaders from the regions that would benefit from the canal’s construction, greeted him to protest his apparent lack of commitment.
“It is a matter of showing our state of exasperation at the lack of respect of the government,” Hauts-de-France councillor Xavier Bertrand told the Courrier Picard. “The state cannot imagine that we will gently abandon this project with its 30 to 40,000 jobs, without saying anything, doing nothing. This region is fed up with being eternally forgotten and despised.”
In an unexpected announcement, the Minister of Public Accounts and the Secretary of State for Transport Gérald Darmanin told the Courrier Picard that “the state is ready with the communities”, after having reached a compromise. According to him, a solid financing plan is now the only piece of the puzzle left before the Seine-Nord Canal gets the go-ahead.