SEPTEMBER 2, 2009
Whatever happened to the French Grand Prix?
One man who was in evidence in Spa was Eric Barbaroux, formerly the directeur general of the French Grand Prix, who is now working as a consultant to the Federation Francaise du Sport Automobile (FFSA), in an effort to revive the celebrated event.
The recent months have been relatively quiet with regard to the project at Flins-Mureaux, as surveys are being done on the site, which is next to the River Seine, near Mantes-la-Jolie, to the west of Paris. The man who was the major force behind the idea, Pierre Bedier, the head of the Conseil General of the Yvelines departement, convinced the council to vote $170m for the project in September last year. The plan was to use the race to support the automobile industry in the area. Unfortunately Bedier was forced to resign his position in May, when an appeal against earlier corruption charges was refused and he was deprived of his right to hold public office.
Bedier was replaced in July by Alain Schmitz, a member of the same centre-right UMP party. On the day he was elected Schmitz met with the mayors of the various communes involved in the F1 project, along with representatives of the federation, the sports ministry, Renault Sport and the promoter Lagardere Sport to discuss the project and later confirmed that he will continue to push ahead with Bedier's plans. He added that the project is still being supported by the Prime Minister Francois Fillon, despite remarks made by Christian Blanc, the Secretary of State for Paris, who had suggested that the circuit would not be at Flins, but rather in Sarcelles, to the north of Paris.
France's complicated system of government means that the Prime Minister cannot pass legislation without parliamentary approval and in any case is not in control of regional projects. These come under the authority of the 22 regional councils. These are elected every six years and since 2004 20 of the 22 have been controlled by socialists. That situation is the legacy of the electorate punishing the then President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin for their policies. The ruling UMP hope that the next elections, to be held early next year, will change the balance of power and that they will win control of the regional councils.
These are important because they have control significant budgets and also are responsible for developing the economy, tourism, employment, education, communications, transport and the environment in the region concerned.
The current president of the Ile de France regional council is socialist Jean-Paul Huchon, who has declared himself opposed to the Flins-Mureaux project. Huchon says that the scheme should be cancelled as the land involved was originally ear-marked for biological farming. Before the Flins-Mureaux scheme Huchon says he was approached by Disneyland Paris executive Dominique Coquet and Alain Prost and asked to provide $11.5m a year for a race on the Disneyland site, to the east of Paris. He rejected this as being far too expensive.
If the regional council comes under UMP control it will help matters considerably. This could easily happen. Huchon is 63 and has been head of the council for two six-year terms of office. Prior to his election in 1998 the region had been run by the the centre-right since its creation in the 1970s. However in 1998 the then regional president Michel Giraud resigned after it emerged that he was accepting kickbacks from construction companies. He was later condemned to a suspended four-year prison term and a substantial fine.
Some believe that it is impossible for a project like Flins-Mureaux to be successful in the Paris region because of opposition from one group or another, but the backers of the project hope that there can be a race as early as 2012. If the track is built by the departement and the regional council agrees to help fund the fee payments to Formula One, the race will become economically viable and if big crowds can be attracted could also be profitable. The plans aim to have spectators delivered to the track using rapid public transport from central Paris.