It is not altogether surprising that the French don't trust their government

There was a fire at the Lubrizol factory in Rouen in September 2019. The company had already been on my radar before, as in 2013, it leaked Mercaptan, an odorous but benign gas all the way to the coast of England, where I lived. In 2019, I was in Paris, some 120kms away from Rouen, and for multiple reasons, followed the incident quite closely. 

2019, within the French context, was a troubled year. The presidency of current president Emmanuel Macron had been anything but smooth, fostering the emergence of mass movements such as the Gilets Jaunes (a fascinating movement, to be clear, which introduced a whole new population to protests, and in some parts of France created a union with groups that had not talked to each other before - A fundamental movement), as well as more classical movements against pension and highschool reforms, and the climate movement, among many others. The political and social climate in France was therefore very tense when the fire occurred.

Within Rouen, the progressive urbanisation of the zone, due in part to a change in executive power when it comes to urban planning, had increased the population exposed to the risks due to the four high risk Seveso facilities in the neighbourhood. An eco-neighbourhood is under construction a few hundred meters away from the factory. And evidently, because France hates itinerant people, there is a halting site for itinerant people within the industrial zone itself. There are also 16 schools within a 1 mile radius of the Lubrizol facility.

Within the buildings that burned in 2019 were the Lubrizol factory itself, but also a warehouse close to it which apparently contained products used in the Lubrizol plant that were not supposed to be there, and therefore the warehouse was not regulated appropriately. Irregularities in security management practices were also found at the plant both before the accident and during the cleanup.

Instead of communicating clearly about the risks, the government, both regional and national tried to manage public order by being reassuring, and the people of Rouen, and in France more generally felt like something was being hidden from them (Arguably it was). Without a historical tradition of data collection, the citizens had nowhere to turn to in the immediate aftermath. The government mandated measurements were badly done, insufficient, contained errors, both in terms of numbers and in terms of pracitces, and at least once, the number used for the media communication was not the number in the original document (regarding asbestos).

In terms of political action, some of the assets of the community were in terms of peoples' organisations such as labour unions and environmental organisations which had access both to knowledge and means to support critical thinking on the government data, and the ideological bent to share these with the public.


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