Why Nantes is the best city in France

The Grand Elephant of Nantes. Image: Getty.

There are a few things you might know about Nantes. You might know that Nantes is a city in France, somewhere over there in the middle but towards the western coast; or that it is the title of a song by Beirut; or that it is occasionally good at football, but mostly just quite bad at football.

What you probably don’t know about Nantes is that it is the sixth biggest city in France, that it was in Brittany until it wasn’t, and that, depending on who you ask, it sort of is where May ‘68 really started.

These things are not very important. There is only one thing you need to know about Nantes, and it is that Nantes is the best city in France – no, the best place in France. Nantes is better than Paris, it is better than those sunny bits down towards the south of France, it is better than anywhere in the country. Nantes is the best bit of France.

Why is that? It is hard to even know where to start. Nantes is the perfect size for a city – it is big enough that you do not feel suffocated by its three streets and seven shops, but it is also small enough that you can walk from any place in the centre of town to another in under half an hour.

If you do not want to walk, you can always take the bus, the tramway, or the BusWay, which is in many ways just a bus that happens to have its own separate lane but Nantes is credited with bringing the tramway back into fashion in Europe so we’re quite keen on keeping that going as a brand.

Still, taking a stroll through the centre of town probably remains your best option. From the sinking buildings of the Ile Feydeau to the grandeur of Place Mellinet, our old-timey – to use a technical term – architecture is something to behold.

(If for whatever reason contemporary architecture is more your thing, go check out the vile monstrosity that is the Palais de Justice, a large and menacing black rectangle along the river built in 2000. Each to their own.)

The obligatory tramway map. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

“Wow. Great,” I hear you say. “Streets and buildings. Two things I can definitely only find in Nantes.” That is a fair point! Nantes doesn’t only have streets and buildings. It is also pretty good at parks.

In fact, there are 100 public parks, gardens and squares in Nantes, covering 540 acres of land. It won the European Green Capital Award in 2013, and according to Wikipedia the “European Commission noted the city's efforts to reduce air pollution and CO2 emissions, its high-quality and well-managed public transport system and its biodiversity”, which is nice of them.

(Has another city in France ever won the European Green Capital Award? No. It has never happened. Only Nantes has won a European Green Capital Award. This feels worth pointing out.)

Anyway – parks and streets and buildings are nice but the best place in France they do not make. No, what makes Nantes great is its culture, which is odd and quirky and diverse and punches comically above its weight.

Take festivals. If there is a thing you enjoy in life, chances are that at some point during the year, Nantes will have a festival about it. Spanish cinema? Every April. Classical music? Every February. Jazz? Every summer. African, Asian and Latin American cinema? November. Flowers? May. Science fiction? October. “Digital ecosystem”, whatever the hell that is? September, apparently. I could go on.

Beyond the festivals, Nantes is also home to (approximate figure) one million bars, cafes, and slightly random places. The best one might well be the Lieu Unique, a former biscuit factory that is now home to Turkish baths, a book shop, a cafe, a restaurant, a bar, a club, an exhibition space and a gig venue.

Does London have a place, former biscuit factory or not, that it home to Turkish baths, a book shop, a cafe, a restaurant, a bar, a club, an exhibition space and a gig venue? It does not. Not even close. Pathetic.

Another highlight is the Machines de l’Ile. It is a bit hard to explain what goes on in there, but it is mostly large wooden things that move. In a good way.

You might have seen pictures of a 12-metre tall wooden elephant just casually walking around in a non-descript French city before. It is our elephant. It is massive and wooden and it moves. It’s great.

Royal De Luxe, the group behind the big, moving bits of wood, has been in Nantes for years and is generally up to something. A personal highlight was the time they collected broken grand pianos people didn’t want or need anymore and just chucked them off buildings to see what sound it’d make.

They made exactly the sound you’d think a grand piano would make when thrown off several storeys and onto the pavement, and it was excellent.

If all of this still has not convinced you that Nantes is the best place in France, it seems worth mentioning that we are the home of muscadet, the dry white wine that is weirdly only ever in fancy and expensive restaurants in Britain.

While it is true that there are... a number of wine regions in France where you can get merrily sozzled on the local wine for €2 a bottle, muscadet is a very light wine, which means that it was essentially made to be drunk in large quantities. Can’t say that about a full-bodied Bordeaux, can you?

So, to recap: Nantes is a place that is big enough to be interesting but small enough that you can walk around it, it has both a tramway and a busway, which covers most types of -ways, both its new and its old architectures are great, it has many parks, many things to do, good cheap white wine, and the ominous feeling that you might get flattened by a falling grand piano at any given time, like a dog who is also a bank robber in a children’s cartoon.

Nantes is the best place in France and the case is closed. Suck it, Paris.

Marie Le Conte is a freelance journalist who tweets as @youngvulgarian. She is, by coincidence, from Nantes. 


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.