Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Nantes question

There has been a lot of noise around here, in Nantes, about the Loire-Atlantique department returning into the Brittany Administrative Region. I have participated to it, at my level. I have written a few papers, ghost-written a few others and coordinated a number of actions which have gotten into the local newspaper.

Needless to say I have strong opinions about the whole thing. I am a leading member of the main home rule party and Breton reunification is quite big in our (and my) agenda. It is both historically and culturally justified and on the whole, people which oppose it are outnumbered by those who favour it.

Where things get complex, however, is that those who oppose it are the people in office locally, most notably, the Mayor of Nantes and major opposition leader, Jean-Marc Ayrault and the President of the Pays-de-la-Loire Region, Jacques Auxiette. Both basically want to preserve their political position, but there is a catch. Both are socialist, that is opposed to President Sarkozy, who has every reason to try and undermine said positions. I suspect that one of the reasons he raised the issue last year and made sure it stayed alive theresince.

The other reason is of course that he really wants to reorganize the French administrative map and that he needs some popular support to overcome his own side’s resistance. There are not many places where he can find it.

The irony is, of course, that we, as a party, happen to be a, very junior, member of the Mayor’s coalition and that he is the one who, figuratively speaking, sign my paycheck. I also happened to have had a lunch at his table during the last town council – as an assistant I am required to attend – less than a week after having published a press release where I compared him to some Offenbach – style German princeling. The conversation was very civilized, by the way.

This may seem peripheral to the general predicament of industrial civilization. It is not. Most American peak-oilers think that Europe will be Byzantium to America’s Roma; I beg to differ. If resource-poor, undefended and politically divided Europe looks like anything in the fifth century it is Britain. And it is toward Britain I will now look to explain why the Brittany – Pays-de-la-Loire border dispute matters.

When Romans conquered Britain they mostly kept tribal boundaries as they were. There was an exception, however : the city of the Belgae. Covering what is Hampshire and Wiltshire today it what created from local mini-states to which were added lands taken from neighbouring Atrebates and Durotriges then handed down to a client king. It was eventually turned into a province buts its borders did not move until the Romans left in 410.

After the departure of the Romans, the various British cities became independent states which began to imported hired – and German speaking – swords to settle their disputes; They apparently evolved into the Dark Age Celtic and Anglo-Saxons kingdoms. Belgae, however, disappeared from the record and somebody felt the need to build a defensive wall across its territory and to settle a large number of Germanic mercenaries on its southern coast.

Whatever happened was probably quite messy.

I have no doubt France will eventually collapse. A resource poor over centralized state such as this cannot survive intact the post-peak oil transition. It will be a long, protracted and probably messy affair, but collapse it will. Its constituent parts will survive, however, even if the political map at the end of the process is unlikely to look even remotely to what it was like during the Middle Age. There will be a lot of culture change and culture shift and by 2300 the languages spoken in today’s France may very well have nothing to do with French – not that it bothers me very much. This kind of things happen in history.

Local territorial disputes will, however, have a large impact in the overall outcome – they certainly had in sub-roman Britain. And if Nantes is not reintegrated in Brittany, the Loire-Atlantique question will be among them.

I don’t pretend to know how thing will play out. I do hope that Brittany will absorb back the Nantes region, but Nantes may also become the core of some local successor to the French state, or it may be abandoned after the rising sea has flooded the coast and turned the nearby marsh into a gulf. Something totally different can also happen, but whatever it is, the Breton reunification will be a major part of it.

There are similar friction points everywhere in Europe, kept relatively quiet by prosperity, European integration and the power of the centralized state. As those give way to more local forms of government due to the global energy crisis we are about to face, they are likely to reawaken and hodgepodge administrative entities such as the Pays-de-Loire RĂ©gion, lacking any internal cohesion, are likely to turn into zone of instability, worsening the consequences of the decline.

I just hope nobody comes up with the brilliant idea of hiring Germanic mercenaries.


  1. A most interesting and thought-provoking piece, Damien. I am just finishing a book on Brittany and would be most grateful if you could keep me in touch with any developments to bring Nantes back into Brittany. I am of Scots and Irish descent, and my wife of Welsh and Breton lineage (from Guingamp and area, with the strongest family names of LeMoal and Cornic)

    Good luck with all you do, and again thanks for an intersting and absorbing read.


  2. I just tried to lodge my thanks for such an interesting piee Damien, but I fear my technolical dexterity is not up to it...

  3. You comments are moderated and have to be approved before they show, so don't worry.

    There is an ongoing campaign for reunification with a demonstration scheduled the 27th of february.

    If you have some French, you can get some information at