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2012/3 (No 146-147)

  • Pages : 336
  • ISBN : 9782707174512
  • DOI : 10.3917/her.146.0045
  • Publisher : La Découverte

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The Hérodote team broke new ground by considering, early on, that local issues were to be analyzed as geopolitical in nature. In 1986, ten years after the journal was founded, and a few years after it took the subtitle “Revue de Géographie et de Géopolitique,” Yves Lacoste directed publication of the monumental Géopolitique des Régions Françaises (three volumes and 3645 pages in total), which drew a unique picture of the political geography of the twenty-two French regions, with the participation of thirty geographers. A few years later, Béatrice Giblin published her PhD thesis dedicated to the Nord-Pas-de-Calais Region, entitled La Région, territoire politique, le Nord-Pas-de-Calais (1990). It dealt with its political changes – analyzed from a local perspective, competition between political parties and leaders, and the geopolitical analysis of a series of major development issues. For a long time, this pioneering book remained the bedside reading for local elected representatives and prefects appointed in Lille or Arras.


Since then, Hérodote has regularly devoted entire issues (see figure on Page 47), or articles within broader thematic issues, to questions of local geopolitics. In recent years, and with the collaboration of other university scholars, the team of researchers at the French Institute of Geopolitics (IFG), University of Paris VIII, some of whom are members of the editorial board and teach at the university, have written a number books on these issues, such as the New Geopolitics of French Regions [Nouvelle géopolitique des régions françaises] (2005), which deals with developments since the 1986 edition, and a Dictionary of Suburbs, [Dictionnaire des banlieues] (2007), both under the supervision of Béatrice Giblin.


Over a decade ago, the IFG also instituted a professional master’s in “Local geopolitics,” which has remained unique in France. Many research works (including research masters and dissertations) have also been produced, some of which have been published or are forthcoming. These studies mainly deal with topics such as local geopolitical situations (at different levels: the regions, departments, cities and even neighborhoods), land development conflicts and policies and issues related to immigration, segregation, the suburbs and insecurity (see Box 1). More than twenty high-quality dissertations (which is not insignificant), have been published to date, although much remains to be done.

Box 1. – Local Geopolitics Research in Hérodote at the French Institute of Geopolitics

Thematic issues of Hérodote devoted local geopolitics questions, including:

Après les banlieues rouges 1986, 43.

La France, une nation, des citoyens 1988, 50-51.

Les territoires de la Nation 1991, 62.

Périls géopolitiques en France 1996, 80.

Écologie et géopolitique en France 2001, 100.

Géopolitique des grandes villes 2001, 101.

Géopolitique en montagnes 2002, 107.

Les pouvoirs locaux, l’eau, les territoires 2003, 113.

Menaces sur les deltas 2006, 121.

Ghettos américains, banlieues françaises 2006, 122.

France, enjeux territoriaux 2009, 135.

Santé publique et Territoires 2011, 143.

Books and theses on:

The geopolitical analysis of French regions

Giblin, Béatrice, ed. 2005. Nouvelle géopolitique des régions françaises. Fayard: Paris.

Lefèvre, Marianne and Joseph Martinetti. 2007. Géopolitique de la Corse. Armand Colin: Paris.

Subra, Philippe. 2012. Le Grand Paris, Géopolitique d’une ville mondiale. Armand Colin: Paris.

Dissertations on Eastern Lyon, Lorraine and Corsica and ongoing dissertations devoted to Paris, Seine-Saint-Denis, and Hauts-de-Seine.

Issues of segregation, immigration, the suburbs and urban geopolitics

Alidières, Bernard. 2006. Géopolitique de l’insécurité et du Front national. Armand Colin: Paris.

Douzet, Frédérick. 2007. La Couleur du pouvoir: géopolitique de l’immigration et de la ségrégation à Oakland. Belin: Paris.

Giblin, Béatrice, ed. 2009. Dictionnaire des banlieues. Larousse: Paris.

Robine, Jérémy. 2011. Les Ghettos de la nation, Vendémiaire: Paris.

Dissertations on the role of police forces and the gendarmerie in France, on urban policies and multiculturalism in Britain on gentrification in New York, and an ongoing dissertation on ethnic and multicultural issues in London.

Land development policies and conflicts

Subra, Philippe, Le Temps d’une conversion, le Valenciennois, 1965-1995, Presses universitaires de Vincennes, Vincennes, 1997.

Subra, Philippe, Géopolitique de l’aménagement du territoire, A. Colin, Paris, 2014 (2nd edition).

Dissertations on health in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais, land development in the Paris region, mountain policies and ongoing dissertations on land development in Israel plus its role in the genesis of Israel, and nuclear questions in Europe.

Issues of territorial governance

Subra Philippe, Le Grand Paris, Géopolitique d’une ville mondiale, Paris: Armand Colin, 2012

Dissertations on electrical power distribution, conservation of water resources


Yet, while the term “geopolitics” has become commonplace and has widely replaced that of international relations in the media and among publishers and, at varying intervals, among most university scholars and researchers, very few people today use the term to talk about local realities.


The objective of this article is to examine the relevance of a geopolitical approach to the “local” and to establish the differences and similarities that may exist between, on the one hand, geopolitics – in the general sense of the term – which is both a geopolitics of relations between States (external geopolitics) and one of internal state conflicts (we shall return to the term later) and, what we shall refer to as local geopolitics on the other hand.


The point here is not so much to classify conflicts within the various types of geopolitics (which, in fact, is of interest only to specialists) as to reflect, through this work, on the best way to analyze local realities. In fact, this work seeks to answer (or to start answering) two series of questions.


First, is it scientifically justified to talk of “geopolitics” when dealing with subnational realities and issues, especially when they do not take the form of armed conflicts? What contribution does the geopolitical approach bring to understanding the “local?” How does local geopolitics differ from traditional scientific approaches, such as political geography, or those that have developed tremendously in recent years, such as works on governance?


Second, what adaptations should the geopolitical approach go through in order to help analyze these local realities and issues? Should we use new concepts, rethink old ones, and reshape our reasoning to reflect the peculiarities of these issues? In particular, does the scope of territories being studied imply in itself that these conflicts can be thought of differently?

External, Internal, and Local Geopolitics: What Connections, What Differences?

Wars and Civil wars, Obviously Geopolitical Conflicts. . .


For most people who use the word, be they journalists, diplomats, or politicians, the term geopolitics obviously refers to two types of conflicts. Firstly, diplomatic or armed conflicts between two or more states, usually concerning maritime or land borders, which can be classified within what we call external geopolitics, with “external” being synonymous to “international.” Secondly, a number of conflicts, civil wars, guerrillas, and political, ethnic and religious battles occurring within a state, which can thus be considered as the state’s internal geopolitics.


The international dimension of a conflict of course has serious consequences. International law is supposed to be applied, and it controls and effectively moderates these conflicts in some cases. Political or military alliances between States (NATO) and their rivalries, but also rules and power relationships within international institutions, especially the UN, play a major role in the progression of these international conflicts [2]  The current Syrian crisis is a counterexample. The...[2].


However, international conflicts and internal conflicts have some common aspects, which are usually closely related: both are characterized by a high level of violence, and of media coverage. For the public, the term “geopolitics” is immediately associated with deadly conflicts covered continuously by audiovisual media relaying harsh and striking images. Some of these internal conflicts leave many more victims, especially civilians, than international conflicts (tens of thousands dead in the Israel-Palestine conflict in more than sixty years and hundreds of thousands in the Rwandan genocide within a few weeks).


Actually, the link between geopolitics and violence, and global media coverage is not as systematic as often thought. International conflicts or internal crises may lead to very few or no deaths at all when the states involved seek the arbitration of the International Court of Justice in The Hague or a third party [3]  As was the case with Chile and Argentina in 1984, who...[3] in delimiting their borders, or when the protagonists chose to resolve their differences through negotiation. This is how the endless Belgian crisis is managed with nothing more than verbal clashes, with no civilian or military casualties, and almost no demonstrations – unless they take the form of peaceful bike rides around Brussels while the institutional tug of war (seventeen months without a government in 2010-2011), and marathon negotiations continue. The break-up of Czechoslovakia into two states in 1992 was done peacefully. Catalan or Quebecer independence movements are non-violent, as opposed to the Basque ETA, although such cases are not common.


There are also very high intensity, and at times deadly conflicts, which do not get a lot of media coverage, like those that have bloodied the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Uganda, plus long-term conflicts in South Sudan and Darfur. We know that in such cases, what matters is not the number of victims but their geographical proximity to the states where the major news corporations are found, the symbolic significance of the conflict, and its likely consequences for the world at large. In such a context, North Kivu is less important than the Israel-Palestine conflict or the rivalries between Iran and the Gulf States over the control of the Straits of Ormuz, through which 20 percent of the oil produced in the world passes. These exceptions imply that the relation between violence, high media coverage, and geopolitics is not absolute. This relation however remains the rule, or is perceived as such, and therefore influences the perception of what geopolitics is and what it is not.


The conflicts in local geopolitics on the contrary do not lead to deaths, let alone massacres or casualties, and are not severe. The protagonists do not use weapons but rather make use of their networks of influence, and generally non-violent demonstrations, or they resort to justice. They clash during public debates, electoral campaigns or press campaigns, and discrete negotiations. Their media coverage does not involve CNN special envoys and major TV networks, but involves articles in Le Télégramme de Brest or Ouest-France, a report in a news magazine and, most often, a report of a few minutes aired during the regional news of France 3, Pays de la Loire.

. . . And often Closely Related


What is striking, and perhaps most important, are the interactions that exist between various internal conflicts and international conflicts or rivalries. It is impossible, for example, to analyze the wars in Vietnam, Lebanon, or recently the situation in Iraq or Syria or the endless Afghan conflict without relating their internal dimension (political, ethnic or religious rivalries) to their regional or global external dimension (interference or open interventions by foreign countries). Should these be considered internal or international conflicts? Obviously both, at least if the situation is to make any sense!


The increase in these internal conflicts and the influence they have on international conflicts – and the influence of international conflicts on them – implies that the distinction between external and internal geopolitics is no longer valid or rather no longer absolute: many conflicts today are both internal and external, to the extent that it would be proper to say internal and external or “internal/external” conflict. Some are more internal than external, others more external than internal, and some are first internal and become internationalized with time. Most often, there is no “barrier” or “separation” between international geopolitical realities and the internal realities of states. What we observe is “permeability,” interweaving, and multiple and often decisive interactions.

Important Scholarly Implications: Multidisciplinarity, Centrality of Territory, and Importance as they relate to Levels of Conflict


These interactions between international conflicts and national conflicts have many serious scholarly implications. Firstly, they legitimate the involvement of researchers from various fields far beyond what used to be the fairly closed circle of specialists in international relations and historians of international relations: jurists specializing in international relations plus international organizations, and specialists in military balances, weapons systems, arms limitation agreements and geostrategic power ratios. Once the understanding of internal conflicts became a requirement for understanding international conflicts, it became necessary to involve other researchers specializing in these societies, their history, their tensions, and their dynamics, who are therefore better equipped to decipher these usually complicated and very specific internal conflicts. These new researchers include historians – who specialize in the internal history of states, in the history of major religious movements, or in the cultural history of these states – political scientists or anthropologists researching on these same issues, even linguists and civilizationists, and of course . . . geographers. Geopolitical conflict has as such become a fundamentally multidisciplinary research object. The study of international relations, which gave birth to this discipline, was designed to train diplomats, and which paid very little interest to internal state conflicts – or only gave it minor importance as one among other elements forming the context in which the state acts, or as opportunities for the latter – has therefore lost its monopoly. It has slowly split (although many research centers like IFRI continue to use the term) into a larger field – geopolitics, which integrates internal conflicts and focuses on their relationship with international conflicts.


Secondly, the interactions between internal and external conflicts place the territory at the center of reasoning as an essential element in conflicts, not only in terms of its diplomatic or military dimension (borders, the geostrategic importance of certain positions), but also all its dimensions (population, resources, relief or climate, etc.), and hence its complexity. The existence of coveted resources (oil or scarce land), ethnic or religious minorities – and the history of relations between these minorities and majority groups – but also the high density of certain areas, migrations, conflicts over land or water, the haphazard development of some cities, the seriousness of social tensions and social and cultural dynamics experienced by various societies have become essential variables that must be taken into account in order to understand these very complex and always original conflicts. It is therefore not surprising that geographers, with Yves Lacoste at the forefront, developed a common desire to do geography differently [4]  By refusing to adopt the indifferent attitude of almost...[4] as specialists of a science of synthesis, whose key to understanding reality is precisely territory.


This change in perspective can be noticed in the efforts made by non-geographers to map the phenomena they were studying, and to link them to certain characteristics of the territories in which they were taking place. The diversity of contributors to the journal Hérodote, including many non-geographers, bears testimony to this openness and these bridges between disciplines. The geopolitical approach finally contributed a lot more to the bringing together of social science researchers from diverse scholarly horizons and cultures than the fancy discourse of “the necessary multidisciplinarity of research.”

Making Sense of the Multilevel Dimension of Conflicts


Finally, these interactions pose a complex methodology question: how can one analyze conflicts which develop across various geographical levels ranging from the very small territory (which may measure a few square kilometers or less) to the international or even global scale, with actors, modes of action, and especially contexts and logics that vary from one level to another? How can one link what is happening at these geographical scales? Do the effects need to be demonstrated? How can the internal and external dynamics of these sometimes bilateral and sometimes multilateral conflicts be made intelligible?


The Israel-Palestine and Israel-Arab conflict is a good example of this scientific difficulty because it occurs from the level of square kilometers (the dimension of a settlement colony in the West Bank) to the global scale (American strategy). Many other conflicts also pose the same problem. The Basque conflict can be classified among what we earlier on referred to as “internal state conflict” because its main issue is the creation – or not – of a Basque state on a territory which has until now been part of another country, Spain (and therefore of the, “Northern Basque Country” to use the language of ETA, currently in France) (Loyer 1997). Nevertheless it is clear that this conflict also has a local and secondary dimension because it is also expressed in a series of local conflicts between ETA partisans and those of other parties in the Basque Provinces, councils, and neighborhoods that have local issues (such as control of a council, executive control of a province, street control). Moreover, it has a secondary external or international dimension since it concerns the French State and Franco-Spanish relations. Analyzing this type of conflict therefore implies treating it at all levels where it occurs, taking account of the specific context, the issues, and actors at each of these levels.


An answer to this question would require innovation, especially in the area of cartography. This is what Yves Lacoste did by proposing the diatopes method, which is also being used by IFG researchers (see Barbara Loyer’s article in this issue).

A Similarity and a Difference: The Role of States and the Question of the State


Another characteristic of general geopolitical conflicts is the role that states play in them, although they are not the only actors. Leaving out international conflicts, which by definition oppose states or coalitions of states, the state still maintains a role in many internal conflicts because they revolve around the question of the state, or at least its control by this or that political, ethnic, or religious group (Syrian crisis), its functioning or democratization (also Syria), its organization (passage from a centralized to a federal state or to a confederation, the autonomy of territories) and often its geographical limits and hence its territory. This is especially the case where there is an independence or separatist movement in the territory of a state and the conflict risks leading to the creation of another state in part of this territory (South Sudan, Casamance [Senegal], the Basque country in Spain, the conflict between the Flemish and Francophones in Belgium, Kosovo, Iraqi and Turkish Kurdistan, Tuareg rebellions in Mali, Eritrea, Chechnya) or the attachment of the rebel region to the neighboring State (Kashmir). The actual or existing state faces, and thus opposes, a potential state, a state project, or a state project in process, which is a competitor, and therefore a threat. In some cases (international conflicts), the conflict involves two or more states. In others (internal state conflicts), the conflict opposes an existing state to a proto-state actor seeking to establish its own state. However the question of the state remains at the center of conflict in both cases, and the action of the existing state and its relationship with territory is always expressed in the classical regalian mode, that is, force, military control and the exercise of sovereignty, often accompanied by much violence.


These conflicts, whose interactions with international or external geopolitical rivalries are often most striking, are what I propose to call internal state conflicts.


The role that states play in local conflicts, though smaller, and often very different, is far from negligible. The state is one actor among many – generally, but not always, the main actor – in a complex system of actors that includes other “public authorities” who can also claim to represent general interest (territorial collectivities, regions, departments, communes, and intercommunal structures bringing them together), as well as businesses, unions, employers’ associations, political parties and many other associations and various institutions (chambers of commerce, expansion committees, public institutions, para-public companies, and social actors, etc.). In such a context, the state expresses itself in a softer and more egalitarian manner strictly governed by the law. As such, and for this reason, democratic voting, negotiation, consultation and arbitration (from administrative courts) play an important part. A conflict over a planning project is not resolved by setting up border posts or military bases, or by dispatching armored divisions. What is at stake is not the existence of the state or its sovereignty over this or that portion of its territory, but simply the content of some of its non-vital decisions or policies in the domains of planning, economic development, and environmental protection. If local conflicts adopt these softer forms, it is of course because they usually occur in states respecting the rule of law or at least states where the law plays or has started to play a certain role, as is the case with China, where local conflicts have increased over the last few years, and where public opinion exists, especially thanks to the Internet, which ought to be taken into consideration by the authorities. In Gaddafi’s Libya for example, locals could not protest against the noise pollution at the Tripoli airport; in Ben Ali’s Tunisia, no lawsuits were filed against the abusive expropriation carried out to the benefit of the President’s clan, and there were no real electoral battles in either of these two countries.

What Makes Local Conflicts Geopolitical?

What is a local conflict?


Can we consider local conflicts to be geopolitical conflicts? And if that is the case, are they simply a less violent, less spectacular, and hence less interesting form of these internal conflicts? Or are they much more than that: specific conflicts, which must be treated as such by adapting the intellectual tools of geopolitics?


The term local (at times with a capital letter) is frequently used currently by the media, political figures, and researchers, often with a very political or geopolitical connotation. [5]  There is an excellent journal titled Pouvoirs Loca...[5] In France, this is certainly the paradoxical effect of a long history of centralization (like the pendulum swinging the other way), devolution, and the debate on governance begun a little over thirty years ago. In France and everywhere else in the world, it is also more generally an effect of the ecological discourse, which constantly connects the local and the global (Think global, Act local), plus globalization, and a reaction to globalization which promotes the development of references to local (or regional) identities. [6]  In a parallel manner, the meaning of the word “territory”...[6]


However, this term is certainly unclear and it is important to clarify it in order to understand what the meaning of a local conflict and by extension a local geopolitics might be.

Conflicts on Very Small Territories Which Are, However, Not Local Conflicts


The dimension of the territory concerned, or its scale, of course plays a role. However, a geopolitical conflict occurring in a very small territory could effectively be classified as external or international geopolitics in the most striking sense of the term, as in the case of the old city of Jerusalem, which has the same surface area as the Second Arrondissement (0.86 Km2 or 86 hectares), the smallest in Paris, or a very small French commune. The area within the old city that the Muslims call the “Haram As-Sharif” (the Noble Sanctuary) and the Jews the “Temple Mount,” one of the key battle grounds in the Israel-Palestine conflict, is a tiny territory of about 300 meters by 500, barely twice as large as the Place de la Concorde! The symbolic, even sacred nature of the disputed territory in the eyes of these two religions, Judaism and Islam, is so important that it confers an absolute value to the territory, totally unrelated to its size, to the extent of making it a non-negotiable element for each side and one of the obstacles to a peace agreement. [7]  The conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians...[7]


In other cases, the economic or military value of a very small territory could make it an international issue. For example, the small islands in the Sea of China (Paracels, Spratleys, Senkaku), which are disputed by Beijing and other states in the region often measure just a few hectares, and some are even submerged at high tide. However, their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) determine control over oil resources in the neighboring seas and maritime circulation in an area where a large portion of world trade transits. The Siachen glacier in North Kashmir, the theater of a cruel war of positions (due to the cold at 6,000 meters altitude) between India and Pakistan from 1984 to 2003, only measures 700 square kilometers. The intensity of geopolitical rivalries over a territory therefore has little to do with its surface area, except in cases where the small size of the territory is used as an argument to justify a geopolitical strategy (the case of Israel: 22,000 square kilometers in the 1967 borders, which is smaller than Bretagne in France: 27,000 square kilometers).

Local Conflicts Sometimes Occur over Vast Territories


Conversely, local geopolitical conflicts may involve vast territories. Rivalries between Russian oligarchs, politicians and parties with the aim of gaining political control over a vast region of Siberia, called the Siberian Federal District, plus its related wealth and positions of political power, can be considered local geopolitics (although the Kremlin also plays a role in it). This holds even though this territory with a population of twenty million inhabitants spans over more than five million square kilometers! In other conflicts, the local, national and international dimensions either overlap or combine over issues not usually common in international conflicts. As such, the 2011 conflicts concerning the Keystone XL pipeline project to transport oil over 3,000 kilometers from the oil sands of Alberta (Canada) towards the Gulf of Mexico, have both an international dimension (within the context of bilateral relations and trade between Canada and the United States) and a national dimension (the conflict was temporarily ended by President Obama’s decision to suspend the project). However, it was above all, and in essence, a local conflict, because the project was challenged on account of its environmental impact, and because it was contested by locally organized environmental activists who drew attention to the risks it posed to a series of local biotopes and territories, through which the pipeline would pass.


While most local conflicts are internal (except when they have to do with border infrastructure or a project like a nuclear facility close to the territory of a neighboring state perceived by the latter as a major hazard), their issues are often different from those of what I call state conflicts: the control of a local political mandate contested by many parties or political figures, relations between local authorities and the central state, the undertaking or not of an infrastructural project (airport, highway or high-speed line), the exploitation of a resource (conflict on shale gas), the evolution of a suburban territory or neighborhood, etc. What makes the nature of a conflict local is therefore not its internal or sub-state nature, nor is it its geographical scale (the “wide scale” habitually used by geographers to refer to small territories). Rather, it is the combination of a relatively small territory (generally speaking) and the presence of local issues and actors, which give a local character to a conflict. A conflict is local when a significant portion of its issues, the actors involved, and hence what we may consider to be its logic, are local. This is not the case when these are first and foremost national or international.


We can define local geopolitics as a scientific approach that uses the tools and reasoning of geopolitics to study power rivalries over territory, generally within states and often in relatively small territories. These rivalries concern local issues (planning, local political power, environmental protection, immigration issues, the suburban segregation and relations between ethnic communities) and mainly mobilize local actors.

Figure 1 - Three Groups of Conflicts

The Territory, a Coveted Area Targeted by Appropriation Schemes


If local conflicts are fully-fledged geopolitical conflicts, it is because they too result from power struggles between actors fighting for control over territories. They are an expression of these rivalries and their outcomes reflect the power relations between actors involved.


Finally, local geopolitics is based on a simple idea: space is not only the setting in which human societies live and develop, and whose characteristics (climate, relief, hydrography, vegetation, underground resources) influence their way of life; it is also (for these same reasons) a resource or wealth, and as such the object of desire, greed, and schemes for appropriation by human societies and actors whose interests clash. This story is as old as human societies and can be traced back to the period when they started coming into contact with each other. This is the case with the recurrent conflicts between nomadic herders and sedentary farmers fighting over the same land. There is absolutely no justification for thinking that these rivalries, reinvented and reinterpreted under the effect of social, cultural, economic and technical transformation, no longer exist today.


How can there not be competition for control if one considers that human activities need territory and its resources (arable land, forests, water, minerals, oil, land), a situation further exacerbated by the fact that these are becoming scarce and are henceforth considered to be limited. Who can deny the existence of a contradiction between the defense of agriculture and peri-urban development or the development of some major infrastructure (as in the case of the airport project at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, near Nantes)? Or between maize farmers, ecologists, and oyster farmers of the Charente on control over water resources (Grujard 2006)? Or better still between Breton pig breeders, environmentalists and tourism professionals, on the issue of green algae in Bretagne? Who can deny that relations between states and local authorities are not only characterized by cooperation but do involve power competition? The case of competition between political parties and political figures for the conquest or defense of political offices does not need to be emphasized.


Territory is not just a common good, it is a good disputed by actors in more and more numerous local conflicts because it harbors certain advantages, facilities, and resources essential to it, and because their interests are often contradictory.

Local Geopolitics, Political Geography and Governance

Beyond a Solely Geographical Reading of Politics


Long before the quite recent talk about local geopolitics, geographers (like Jacques Levy), historians, demographers (like Hervé Le Bras), and of course political scientists, had studied the geographical dimension of political phenomena. Some of these scholars either ventured to formulate explanations using geological realities (André Siegfried and his famous “limestone votes left, granite votes right,” coined from the example of Vendée, which he made more nuanced subsequently [Siegfried 1913]) or drawing from local political traditions inherited from the French revolution (Bois 1960), thus giving prime importance to constants. Inversely, other approaches focused on mutations and evolutions in voting, especially phenomena with serious political consequences like the emergence of the Front National in the 1980s and its development in subsequent decades, the progressive decline of another important local political phenomenon: the red banlieues, or the swing to the right of traditionally left-wing regions (Mediterranean Midi) and, to the left of traditionally right-wing regions (like the west of France). A team led by Michel Bussi, a geographer at the University of Rouen, for example, received substantial financing from the Agence National de la Recherche to research the question of election results all over France at the level of cantons.


The print media nowadays publishes better-designed and more precise maps showing the evolutions and balance of power established by electoral results on the day after elections. Geographers are invited to comment on these results in newspaper columns or in special radio shows, especially France Inter and France Culture.


These analyses generally content themselves with “geographizing” electoral results, or at best, interpreting them using a simple key. This explains an article in Le Monde on February 29, 2012 titled: “Le droit culmine à 50 km de Paris” (the right-wing peaks at 50 km from Paris). Using data from the Institut français d’opinion publique [IFOP], the article showed that votes cast for the Front National increase as one moves away from Paris (where it is very low), and cross a first threshold at 30 kilometers (25 percent) before reaching particularly high levels at 45 or 50 kilometers (over 30 percent of most councils). The phenomenon is real. This can be verified around most French large urban areas. When we relate these observations to specific territories (who lives there? From where does the population come? How does it live?), we arrive at the interesting conclusion that the suburb, a beacon of urban sprawl, its economic hardship and poor social relations swells the far-right vote. To explain the same phenomenon (a high FN vote at the main periphery of cities, where there is neither a significant presence of immigrants, nor high delinquency, nor mass unemployment), another researcher, the political scientist Pascal Perrineau, Director of CEVIPOF, the political research center of Sciences Po, postulated the idea of a “halo effect” a few years ago, which is more descriptive than explanatory (Perrineau 1997).


All this is interesting, very instructive, and likely to be the subject of debate, but is it sufficient? Can one understand a reality as complex as voting using such simple frames (although these make it possible to highlight phenomena that can be observed over many territories)? In contrast with transversal explanations, we prefer a case-by-case study of specific situations where each case is unique, at least partially, because the combination of factors varies from one local territory to another. The local history, sociological evolution, economic situation, urban evolution, but also the actors’ issues, specifically those of political actors, elected officials, candidates, militants, their personalities, their charisma, their relationships (alliances, rivalries, enmities), their local support and networks, and finally their strategic and tactical choices, need to be considered in order to understand what goes on in each territory. In other words, a deep understanding of local voting requires a monographic work, the only approach likely to put all the explanatory factors into perspective. This method reaches out to these factors where they are found using a multidisciplinary approach similar to that which I referred to earlier in relation to other geopolitical conflicts (see Béatrice Giblin’s paper).

Research on Governance: A Local Geopolitics without Consideration for Political Figures and the Territory


The concept of governance has experienced a success as spectacular as that of geopolitics due to its global reach. For example, no meeting of shareholders is without a report on the “governance” of the company. Governance also concerns public policies, and of course, “territorial” or “urban” governance especially for large cities. [8]  See especially the works of Bernard Jouve (1999) geographer,...[8] The term is attractive because it sounds less liberal than “management” and less authoritarian than “government.” We owe this concept to major US international organizations like the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, who were concerned with reforming the practices of certain states they were assisting by fighting corruption and lack of transparency and increasing citizens’ participation. Governance therefore had a voluntaristic connotation from the start (“good practices” in the area of governance needed to be promoted), which was not the case with geopolitics. Research on governance thus often sought to analyze actual practices in order to identify solutions to difficult situations or to improve the efficiency or democratic nature of public policies. Geopolitics on the contrary focuses on conflict as an element that reveals power rivalries between actors, and eventually as a process making it possible for solutions to be found through the power relations it creates. Research on urban governance often lays emphasis on the role of non-state actors, especially companies, through the term “growth coalitions” – which is not surprising for researchers working on North American realities – which unite company chief executives and bankers working for the interest of the city’s competiveness.


These differences are certainly explained by the origin of the two approaches: French geographers on one hand and urban sociologists who were initially North American on the other hand. Local geopolitics could gain a lot by drawing inspiration from governance and focusing more not only on conflict situations, but also on what allows, in some instances, for an absence of conflict or for conflict to be managed so as to reach a form of compromise or partial consensus, or at majority political or community coalitions. “Non-conflict” or the maintenance of conflict at a low level is also a subject for geopolitics. This is especially the case of France for all practices of consultation and of public debate on major infrastructure projects, which are often very divisive at the start; such practices make it possible to moderate conflicts or control their effects (Subra 2003, [2007] 2014). However, power struggles and compromise are not two opposing realities (no compromise without prior rivalry), as evidenced by the examples of Oakland and Los Angeles, researched by Frédérick Douzet, where rivalries between communities for the control of the city led to the constitution of political coalitions associating two communities against another one (Douzet and Sonenshein 2008).


However, the major criticism that we as geographers specialized in geopolitics make of research on territorial or urban governance is that it underestimates the extremely close links and very strong interactions existing between the issues of governance (how are public decisions made? How are priorities defined? Who decides? Through which process? And how are decisions implemented?), political and electoral battles (that is, conquest and defense of positions of power), and urban development policies. However, looking at local situations in France (and there is no reason to consider these specific to France), it would seem that urban planning policies have serious consequences for the sociology of towns (social or ethnic belonging), which, in its turn, has electoral repercussions that ultimately determine who governs (see sketch).

Local Geopolitical Strategies that Exploit the Tools of Governance and Urban Planning Policies


In any case, local elected officials are conscious of these interactions and take them into consideration when making actual planning decisions. In other words, the planning policies they adopt are at times clearly in the service of electoral strategies. Many examples in Ile-de-France provide a very convincing illustration. In Levallois-Perret and Antony, in the Hauts-de Seine, two communist municipalities won by the right in 1983, the new Gaullist mayors, Patrick Balkany and Patrick Devedjian, soon after their election, demolished working-class neighborhoods to replace them with office buildings and high-class buildings destined for the middle class in a bid to profoundly transform the sociology, and thus the electorate of their town and guard against any future return of the left to power. During the eight years following the election of Patrick Balkany, Levallois-Perret lost about 11 percent of its population (6,000 inhabitants) as a result of these demolitions before regaining a third (15,000) between 1990 and 2008. The communist municipality of Nanterre, on the other hand, opposed a plan to extend the Defense Quarters in its territory, which would have led to the construction of 13,000 new houses, with a small proportion of pro-poor housing. Other communist councils, like Bobigny, preferred to sink into a slow crisis and lose population in order to maintain their social and political homogeneity rather than implement an active urban policy, which would have led to greater social heterogeneity (Subra 2012). As for the City of Paris, its very costly efforts in favor of pro-poor housing are not without political calculations, since these ensure that the city maintains a working- and middle-class electorate who support the left-wing municipality.

Figure 2 - Governance and Planning Policies

Understanding Local Conflicts Using Geopolitical Concepts and Reasoning?


Actors, strategies, power, conflict, rivalries, power balances, territory, and representation: the concepts used in local geopolitics to analyze concrete situations are the same as in classical geopolitics. Do they have the same meaning? I will limit myself to three of them for want of space: power, power balances, and representations.

Having Power or Control over a Territory Is Being Able to Use It


One of the main differences between local geopolitics and international conflicts or internal State conflicts concerns the meaning of the word “power” in the expression “power rivalries,” which is the subject of geopolitics (“The analysis of rivalries for power or influence over territory or populations” [Lacoste 1993]).


The diversity of issues, and consequently of actors, in local geopolitical conflicts is reflected by modes of appropriation of space that are themselves more diverse than in other geopolitical conflicts. The conflict arising from the project for a new airport at Notre-Dame-des-Landes in the north west of Nantes offers an example among many that could be analyzed. This project was born, or rather reborn, after a long period of hibernation due to the desire of the Mayor of Nantes and President of the Urban Community, Socialist Jean-Marc Ayrault, the current Prime Minister, to create an international airport in his city to match its ambitious status of “West Atlantic metropolis.” Although supported by the business community and the majority of local and regional elected officials (both left-wing and right-wing), this project was massively opposed by four types of actors: elected officials from the three rural communes on whose territory the future airport, if constructed, will be located, farmers from these communes, some future settlers, and more generally ecologists at the local scale, from the neighboring Pays de la Loire and Bretagne regions, and from all over the country. Demonstrations, lawsuits, and hunger strikes have taken place successively over the last few years, confirming the intensity of the conflict and the strength of the opposition to this project.


It is obvious that the various actors’ relationship to the territory, and as such the project, differ considerably. Some are owners of the land needed to construct the airport and its construction will cause them to lose both their living (in exchange for a compensation they can challenge in a court of law) and the tools of their trade. Others fear the effects the nuisance of the future airport could have on their surroundings, and hence their quality of life, and on their real estate wealth: airplane noise, atmospheric pollution, intensification of road traffic, destruction of landscape and segmentation of space caused by the airport itself and by all the equipment required, particularly trucks. These communes’ elected officials position themselves as being not only representatives of a population that is very hostile to the project, but also inhabitants themselves.


Ecologists, for their part, rarely have such a direct relationship with the territory affected by the project. They intervene in the conflict on account of a conception of local and global general interest: any new airport leads to a greater artificialization of land at the expense of natural and agricultural space, which they consider not only as inacceptable but also as an aggravating factor in the climate crisis. The opposition is thus driven by diverse territorial logics: economic, residential, political and environmental, which correspond to different uses of the territory, and these logics explain the importance of the mobilization and its relative efficiency.


The logics are broadly similar for advocates of the project, but concern other actors belonging to other territories. The Nantes Chamber of Commerce and Industry and employers see in this future airport a means of spurring local growth (economic logic). The project will make it possible to close the present Nantes-Atlantique airport situated in the city itself, and end the nuisances suffered by those who live there (residential logic). Airplanes will no longer fly over Ile de Nantes, where the urban council has one of its major urban projects (political logic).

Figure 3 - The Local Subjected to the Logics of Diverse and Potentially Compteting Actors

For both sides, power over the territory eventually takes the form of a property right (farmers, Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Project Promoter) – hence the conflict surrounding the declaration of public utility and expropriation procedures – and especially use: the possibility of having and maintaining a satisfactory quality of life (for residents), the use of land for production (for farmers), or the possibility of enjoying the mobility and attractiveness offered by the airport (businesses). Finally, the fate of the project will of course have electoral and political consequences for great and “small” elected officials and for the militants of Europe Ecologie-Les Verts. What is at question here is what we could refer to as the political use of territory (as a source of mandates and political power).


The positioning of all the actors in the conflict is determined first and foremost by their use of the territory. Similarly, at the end of the conflict, it is also land use that will determine who controls the territory.

How Do Actors Produce Balances of Power in Local Geopolitical Conflicts?


As in all conflicts, the outcome of local geopolitical conflicts depends on the constituted balance of power, which mainly originates from the strategic and tactical choices of the different actors involved. However, these actors’ modes of action differ from those used in classical geopolitics, and are more diverse. It seems we can distinguish five categories of modes of action:

  • the vote, and more generally political or electoral competition, which determines control of political mandates and local institutions, local councils, general councils, regional councils, urban councils, council agglomerations, and inter-communal syndicates;

  • the law, which plays a more influential role than in international conflicts or in internal state conflicts, where it is often violated and exploited in the most cynical of manners: in local conflicts, administrative tribunals can make rulings (for example against an election result or a declaration of public utility) for a decision to be annulled or just to buy time;

  • networks, which offer the support needed to introduce a project and have it subsequently adopted;

  • action on the field, which borrows a lot from the practice of trade unions: demonstrations, occupation of the infrastructure project site, tracts, petitions, hunger strikes;

  • Finally, communication, which largely determines the outcome of the conflict because it allows actors to win the war of opinions, an important aspect of democracy; it is imperative for each side to represent aspects of the project to public opinion in ways that suit their purposes (its great importance or, on the contrary, its profoundly negative character); successful communication depends of course on a good mastery of media networks through actions on the field or legal actions that create a buzz about the ongoing battle. It also depends on the actors’ capacity to situate their discourse within a broader theme so as to transform their specific conflict into an emblematic battle whose consequences go far beyond the territory directly concerned (the aim is to gather wider support).

The Role of Representations: Crisis and Critique of the Idea of General Interest


As in other geopolitical conflicts, actors’ representations play a key role in local geopolitical conflicts. These are often inherited and more or less unconscious representations that actors use as aids for understanding territory, its issues, and the role and impact of a planning policy. These representations play a key role because they structure everyone’s perceptions of planning and governance problems. As such, in France, we could use the example of a reading of the national territory using the Paris/Province contrast (“Paris and the French desert”) or the idea of a risk of desertification to which some territories are supposedly exposed (“medical desert”, “rural desertification”), etc. There are also some (Atlantic Arc or Mediterranean Arc, Montpellier the “gifted city”) that are conscious representations, constructed by some actors within the framework of a communication strategy, at times with the assistance of communication agencies (or with local geographers), in order to influence opinion and obtain the support of other actors (the government for example). These two types of representations are based partly on realities (without which they would not be efficient since they would not be credible), and partly on fiction. Nonetheless, these representations, and even their fictional parts, have a real existence as ideas influencing reality. Contrary to what most citizens and young students in planning and urbanism may think, the fate of planning and infrastructure projects is decided more by representations than by technical or financial files and arguments.


Among these representations, there is one – general interest, which plays a particular and eminently geopolitical and transversal role, and which by its central position could be considered equivalent to the representation of the nation in other geopolitical, international, and internal state conflicts (Lacoste 1998).


The idea that what is at stake in planning policies or elections or organization of authorities is actually the control of territory is difficult to swallow because it clashes with very strong representations of what planning, policies, and governance of territory are (Subra [2007] 2014). This idea of general interest forms the basis of these representations. We know the absolutely key role played by the notion of public interest (a synonym for general interest) in the planning process: no planning without control over land, no control over land without the possibility of expropriation, no expropriation (i.e. obligatory sale to the public authority) without a declaration of public utility justifying the violation of one of man’s “natural inalienable” rights (Article 2 of the 1789 Declaration): the right to property. [9]  It is important to highlight the fact that the text...[9]


Many professionals, especially engineers, and most university lecturers who teach planning find it difficult to part with the idea that their action and their discipline is at the service of general interest. It simply suffices to look through any recently published dictionary of geography or planning to notice this fact. These publications almost systematically present planning as being at the service of general interest or as having objectives whose extraordinarily vague and broad nature could be assimilated to general interest (harmony, equilibrium, development). What is striking is that these notions are used as if they were incontestable, universal, permanent, and immutable realities independent of the state of the political culture of societies. Jurists are more pragmatic because, inspired by the part played by the constantly evolving case law in lawmaking, they define general interest in a relative manner in terms of a given state of the society. Curiously, the fact that political mandates are the subject of heated rivalries between parties and individuals seeking them does not seem to shock idealist geographers as much. [10]  Political scientists, for their part, are accustomed...[10] Politics maybe (we know that political figures and elected officials have a bad image), but not planning! The fact that the idea of general interest legitimates the work of planners, be they scholars, architects or engineers, is, no doubt, not a total stranger to this general posture.


Other planners, who work with local elected officials to design and implement complex and, at times, controversial projects, recognize that the reality is less simple and less attractive than it may seem, and that it is quite difficult to answer the question: “what is general interest?” or at least, that the answer, on a case-by-case basis, is not a given, but a result of a political process. They willingly agree that they unwittingly practice geopolitics on a daily basis by defending this or that file against competing projects, or in opposition to such and such an actor. This is because defining what general interest is, and what it is not, is more difficult today than it was in the 1960s. The significant increase in local conflicts over planning or infrastructure projects has not ended the discourse on general interest. This discourse has, on the contrary, been multiplied and fragmented, with each actor adopting and interpreting it in their own way to justify their positions in conflicts. This confirms the strategic and tactical importance of claiming to be siding with general interest and as such the importance of this representation. Each proposes their own definition of general interest, viewed “through their own window,” with respect to their culture, ideology, and interests, giving priority to economic development or environmental protection as the case may be, fighting against local nuisances, national economic recovery, or the global fight against climate change (Subra [2007] 2014).


One of the main functions of local geopolitics is thus certainly to decipher the discourses of actors and the representations on which these are based, while showing how representations actually serve the interests and strategies of actors. This work is needed in order to clarify public debate about what an appropriate response might be, when addressing the issue of general interest.

Reference List

  • Bois, Paul. 1960. Paysans de l’Ouest. Le Mans: Vilaire.
  • Douzet, Frédérick. 2001. “Pour une démarche nouvelle de géopolitique urbaine à partir du cas d’Oakland (Californie).” Hérodote 101:57-75
  • Douzet, Frédérick. 2007. La Couleur du pouvoir. Géopolitique de l’immigration et de la ségrégation à Oakland, Californie. Paris: Belin.
  • Douzet, Frédérick., and Raphael Sonenshein. 2008. “Los Angeles et Oakland, du noir et blanc à la couleur! Nouvelles coalitions politiques dans des villes multiculturelles.” Hérodote 130:146-172.
  • Giblin, Béatrice. 1990. La Région territoire politique, le Nord-Pas-de-Calais. Paris: Fayard.
  • Giblin, Béatrice, ed. 2005. Nouvelle géopolitique des régions françaises. Paris: Fayard.
  • Giblin, Béatrice, ed. 2007. Dictionnaire des banlieues. Paris: Larousse.
  • Grujard, Eric. 2006. “Les enjeux géopolitiques de la préservation de la ressource en eau en France.” PhD Dissertation, Université Paris-VIII-Saint-Denis.
  • Jouve, Bernard, and Christian Lefevre. “De la gouvernance urbaine au gouvernement des villes? Permanence ou recomposition des cadres de l’action publique en Europe.” Revue française de sciences politiques 49 (6): 835-845.
  • Lacoste, Yves, ed. 1986. Géopolitique des régions françaises. Paris: Fayard.
  • Lacoste, Yves, ed. 1993. Dictionnaire de géopolitique, Paris: Flammarion.
  • Lacoste, Yves. 1998. Vive la Nation. Destin d’une idée géopolitique. Paris: Fayard.
  • Lefevre, Christian. 2004. Paris et les grandes agglomérations occidentales: comparaison des modèles de gouvernance. Paris: Institut français d’urbanisme.
  • Loyer, Barbara. 1997. Géopolitique du Pays basque. Paris: L’Harmattan.
  • Perrineau, Pascal. 1997. Le Symptôme Le Pen. Radiographie des électeurs du Front national. Paris: Fayard.
  • Robine, Jérémy. 2011. Les Ghettos de la nation. Vendémiaire: Paris.
  • Siegried, André. 1913. Tableau politique de la France de l’Ouest sous la Troisième République. Paris: Armand Colin.
  • Subra, Philippe. 2003. “À quoi et à qui sert le débat public?” Hérodote 110:149-170.
  • Subra, Philippe. 2007. Géopolitique de l’aménagement du territoire. Paris: Armand Colin (2nd Edition in 2014).
  • Subra, Philippe. 2008. “L’aménagement, une question géopolitique!” Hérodote 130:222-250.


[1] Geographer, Institut français de géopolitique, Paris-VIII-Saint-Denis.

[2] The current Syrian crisis is a counterexample. The fact that it is first of all and formally an internal conflict is obviously a major obstacle to the intervention of Western and Arab nations supporting the democratic rebellion, and as such an essential element in the balance of power between the latter and the Assad clan’s dictatorship. No collective military action can be decided in the UN if any of the permanent members of the Security Council opposes it (veto power). This is however the case until now with Russia and China who invoke the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of a State (which does not prevent Russia from supplying arms to the regime and its forces of repression).

[3] As was the case with Chile and Argentina in 1984, who requested the Vatican to delimit their maritime borders at the mouth of the Beagle Canal in the South of Tierra del Fuego.

[4] By refusing to adopt the indifferent attitude of almost all their colleagues to political matters considered by academic geography to be “non scientific.”

[5] There is an excellent journal titled Pouvoirs Locaux.

[6] In a parallel manner, the meaning of the word “territory” has changed a lot. Although it was used in past globally or in a generic manner (territorial planning), it is now used more and more in connection to a specific territory (that which we are referring to, that in which we live, or where we act). We will therefore talk of “territorial actors” or “territorial assets” to mean the actors or assets of a small region, the Pays de Mauges in Maine-et-Loire for example, or an Alpine or Pyrenean valley. In a similar manner, the French Senate, in an effort to renew its image, tries to present itself nowadays as the “Assembly of the Territories of France” (Assemblée des territoires de France).

[7] The conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians over the old city of Hebron, said to contain the tombs of many patriarchs, especially Adam and Abraham (Ibrahim for Muslims), demonstrates the same characteristics over an even smaller territory.

[8] See especially the works of Bernard Jouve (1999) geographer, deceased in 2009, and Christian Lefevre (2004), professor at the Institut français dIurbanisme.

[9] It is important to highlight the fact that the text of Article 2 places the right to property at the same level as freedom or resistance to oppression: “the goal of any political association is to conserve the natural and inalienable rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, safety, and resistance against oppression.”

[10] Political scientists, for their part, are accustomed to the notion of power rivalries. It is true that its absence would deprive their discipline of an object of study.



Electoral rivalries, power struggles between the State and local communities, protests against development or infrastructure projects, power struggles in the suburbs, are in many ways different from what is commonly referred to as “geopolitical conflict,” that is, international conflicts and internal state conflicts. Their level of violence and media exposure is of a smaller scale. While the State’s role is different, other actors (companies, environment protection organizations, neighboring communities, etc.) play a major role in these local conflicts. Each of them has its own logic and unique means of action. Nevertheless, these conflicts must be analyzed as geopolitical ones, because what is at stake is the use, and, therefore, the control of a territory being disputed by actors with conflicting interests. Local geopolitics sets itself apart from political geography and research at the level of governance, as it seeks to bring together all factors that are specific to a territory, and which can help to explain what a situation of conflict is. These not only include electoral changes and relationships between actors, but also the territory’s issues and history, as well as the strategies of actors, and their representations.


  1. External, Internal, and Local Geopolitics: What Connections, What Differences?
    1. Wars and Civil wars, Obviously Geopolitical Conflicts. . .
    2. . . . And often Closely Related
    3. Important Scholarly Implications: Multidisciplinarity, Centrality of Territory, and Importance as they relate to Levels of Conflict
    4. Making Sense of the Multilevel Dimension of Conflicts
    5. A Similarity and a Difference: The Role of States and the Question of the State
  2. What Makes Local Conflicts Geopolitical?
    1. What is a local conflict?
    2. Conflicts on Very Small Territories Which Are, However, Not Local Conflicts
    3. Local Conflicts Sometimes Occur over Vast Territories
    4. The Territory, a Coveted Area Targeted by Appropriation Schemes
  3. Local Geopolitics, Political Geography and Governance
    1. Beyond a Solely Geographical Reading of Politics
    2. Research on Governance: A Local Geopolitics without Consideration for Political Figures and the Territory
    3. Local Geopolitical Strategies that Exploit the Tools of Governance and Urban Planning Policies
  4. Understanding Local Conflicts Using Geopolitical Concepts and Reasoning?
    1. Having Power or Control over a Territory Is Being Able to Use It
    2. How Do Actors Produce Balances of Power in Local Geopolitical Conflicts?
    3. The Role of Representations: Crisis and Critique of the Idea of General Interest

Translated from the French by JPD Systems

To cite this article

Philippe Subra, “ La géopolitique, une ou plurielle ? Place, enjeux et outils d'une géopolitique locale ”, Hérodote 3/2012 (n° 146-147) , p. 45-70
URL : www.cairn.info/revue-herodote-2012-3-page-45.htm.
DOI : 10.3917/her.146.0045.

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