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PARIS — The activists gathered on a Parisian bridge on a sunny March morning have two enemies: U.S. tech giant Amazon and French President Emmanuel Macron.
“We are here to denounce Amazon’s ultra-rapid expansion in France and Emmanuel Macron’s responsibility,” Etienne Coubard, in charge of campaigning at environmental NGO Friends of the Earth, shouts into a megaphone.
“Residents are taking action in the courts, on the streets and by putting pressure on members of parliament. Today, it will also have to go through the ballot box,” he added, as dozens of youthful-looking protesters unfurled a banner reading, “Macron has given up our region to Amazon.”
NGOs and local resistance groups have spent the past five years fighting both national legislation on online sales and the construction of Amazon warehouses throughout the country. Now, two weeks ahead of France’s presidential election, the groups are building on campaign momentum with nationwide, coordinated action in cities such as Paris, Lyon, Nantes and Belfort.
Since Macron came to power in 2017, Amazon has massively increased its physical footprint in France — a complicated market with high potential, but where the company has lost ground.
Along the way, the U.S. company has been met with open arms by some local politicians worried about unemployment, but also fierce opposition from residents and activists who fear the potential negative environmental impact, are wary of working conditions in warehouses, and accuse the firm of contributing to e-commerce-related job losses.
“Amazon has become the symbol of a resistance of sorts to globalism,” according to Vincent Mayet, general director at public relations firm Havas Paris, and author of a book on Amazon. “There is a phenomenon of rejection also because people can see that [the company] is moving toward something disembodied and automated.”
A spokesperson for Amazon said the company had become “a beacon for organisations wanting to raise awareness for their causes. These groups often deliberately create misleading stories to fit their agenda, and we ask that facts, sources and stories are checked to ensure untruths and inaccuracies are not propagated.”
The U.S. e-commerce company added it had invested more than €11 billion in France between 2010 and 2020 and has become “one of France’s main job creators,” creating 15,500 permanent jobs in the country. Amazon also said it offered “a positive working environment” and was “fully committed to protecting the environment.”
A string of local wins
In recent years, more than a dozen local resistance groups such as Stop Amazon Briec and Gafamazon have popped up all over the country to try to stop the emergence of Amazon warehouses — with high-profile wins in recent months.
Grassroots opposition is often backed by NGOs such as Friends of the Earth and Attac, which provide legal and sometimes financial assistance, as well as by left-leaning political organizations such as presidential hopeful Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Unbowed and the Greens. They coordinate via Telegram and Signal to share best practices, tips and rumors about new projects, as Amazon has a track record of waiting until the last minute to communicate its plans.
Only last week, a property developer working with Amazon to start a facility in Petit-Couronne, a small town of about 8,700 residents near Rouen, informed local officials it was giving up on the project. The Stop Amazon 76 group, a reference to the area’s administrative number, had filed several appeals against the construction permits. The warehouse was supposed to replace the former Petroplus oil refinery.
The project was backed by the country’s economy ministry and even the Elysée Palace, Petit-Couronne’s mayor, Joël Bigot, told local media.
Since September of last year, various Amazon logistics buildings have been blocked or abandoned, for example in the south of France, near Nîmes, and in the west, near Nantes. There are ongoing challenges against construction permits in other places, including the northeastern city of Belfort.
“We have made progress in the cultural battle. Three years ago, Amazon was seen only from a consumer benefits perspective,” said Raphaël Pradeau, a spokesperson for Attac France.
“Amazon is meeting resistance in other countries, but mainly from employees who are taking action for better work conditions. Mobilizations within the population, coming from citizens, is something specific to France,” he added.
A little help from the top
In the five years since the last French presidential election, Macron and his government have had a love-hate relationship with Amazon.
On the one hand, the French president has made it clear he wants to rein in Big Tech. Macron has backed legislation aimed at helping bookshops stay competitive against Amazon and pushed for levies on Silicon Valley companies. At the EU level, France has been very active in lobbying for more stringent competition and product-safety rules.
On the other hand, Macron — who started his term with the inauguration of an Amazon warehouse near his home city of Amiens and welcomed then-CEO Jeff Bezos at the Elysée Palace — is the face of the Choose France Summit, designed to attract foreign investment in the country. He has also pushed, via Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire, to encourage local brick-and-mortar shops to develop online.
During Macron’s term, various initiatives, such as more favorable local fiscal rules, have facilitated the rapid construction of logistics facilities — including Amazon’s. When he was economy minister, Macron was already behind France’s “national strategy for logistics,” designed to boost a sector seen as a key factor for the country’s competitiveness.
Last year, the government refused to impose a moratorium on e-commerce warehouses within the country’s climate law, despite repeated calls from opposition groups and even from within the majority La République en Marche (LREM) party to do so. As POLITICO previously reported, ministry officials actively worked — in the name of economic attractiveness — to prevent lawmakers from making it more difficult for online shopping companies such as Amazon to build new facilities.
“Banning warehouses would have been a lose-lose solution. Amazon would have set them up at the borders, leading to more pollution and fewer jobs and [less] income for France,” said a high-ranking French official directly involved in the discussions. “A moratorium would have actually only prevented CDiscount from developing,” the official added, referring to one of France’s own national e-commerce champions.
According to NGOs, however, this track record is evidence that the French president rolled out the red carpet for Bezos’ company — and that the only way to change the country’s policies on e-commerce is to vote him out of office.
On the trail of deindustrialization
While all opposition parties are loud and clear against Amazon in the national debate, the reality on the ground is more nuanced.
“The president of the republic is easy to blame, but in Belfort, everything was built by the mayor from [conservative party] Les Républicains,” said Christophe Grudler, a French MEP from Renew Europe who’s also a local official in Belfort. “This issue is very politicized, and two weeks before the presidential election, it is not innocent.”
The left-leaning France Unbowed and the Greens generally support local resistance, but some mayors from the Socialist and Les Républicains parties have encouraged Amazon’s expansion. They see the e-commerce firm as filling the void left behind — in terms of both jobs and local tax revenue — by other multinationals that have left the country.
“There is also an issue of [economic] attractiveness,” said Christelle Morançais, the conservative president of the western Pays de Loire region, where construction on an Amazon warehouse was abandoned. Morançais is now working with mayors to find another spot for the project.
NGOs, however, contend that the e-commerce giant is targeting economically stricken areas on purpose: “Every Amazon warehouse replaces a closure [by another company] that could turn into a scandal for Emmanuel Macron,” said Coubard from Friends of the Earth.
According to Alma Dufour, Friends of the Earth’s former spokesperson in its fight against Amazon, it is no coincidence that the company is developing in Belfort, where General Electric — a company that pledged to create jobs when Macron was economy minister, before it actually cut them — used to have a large presence. Dufour is now on Mélenchon’s presidential campaign team.
“Amazon has a very clever strategy of preying on territories that are a bit neglected, deindustrialized, with economic problems — hence the [favorable] reception of local elected officials,” she said. “They struggle more in towns with higher employment rates.”
And indeed, larger cities with healthier local economies such as La Rochelle and Rennes have blocked the company’s development without needing a nudge from grassroots resistance.
But even in smaller towns, locals are not necessarily happy to see jobs created at any cost.
In Beauchamp, a town of about 8,700 residents in the greater Paris region, opposition is mounting against what is presumed to be a new Amazon warehouse, replacing a facility formerly operated by U.S. office supplies company 3M. According to Fabrice Rebert, a local who attended the March anti-Amazon protest in Paris and is leading the charge in Beauchamp, having a warehouse in his municipality would be a waste.
“It is a loss of added value for the area,” he lamented. “For elected officials, one company just replaces another; their reasoning does not go any further.”
This article has been updated.
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