- La traversée électrique des Pyrénées: Histoire de l’interconnexion entre la France et l’Espagne (Histoire de l’énergie no. 5) by Renan Viguié
By Renan Viguié. Brussels: P.I.E.–Peter Lang, 2014. Pp. 190. $49.95.
During his 1965 presidential campaign, François Mitterrand advertised himself as a “modern” French statesman, with a poster of himself with an electricity pylon in the backdrop. As it so often did, electricity symbolized modernity. By 1981, however, tables had turned. This time around Mitterrand used a poster featuring the slogan “la force tranquille” (“the silent force”), and we see an aged Mitterrand flanked by a picturesque rural village. In this traditional landscape, no place was reserved for power lines (p. 155).
This major shift forms the main theme in Renan Viguié’s book. By zooming in on the long and troubled history of electricity connections across the Pyrenees between France and Spain, he carefully illustrates two major changes captured by Mitterrand’s volte-face. First, the technocratic belief that the growth of technological networks is something natural and inherently “good” was smashed to smithereens, a change with powerful implications for French-Spanish interconnection plans. And second, the 1980s saw the emergence of new local actors able to break the dominant position of the technical elite in the name of protecting the environment and the traditional Pyrenean landscape.
The French-Iberian interconnection case is split into two parts. In the first, Viguié revisits the long history of the Pyrenees as an intertwined region. For some it is an obstacle as well as a potential for hydroelectric power, whereas for others the mountain chain is a beautiful natural environment to be guarded and a ground for identity-formation. During the first five decades of the twentieth century, proposals for building electricity lines between the two countries failed to materialize for legal, financial, and geopolitical reasons. The only indirect transfers of electricity that do take place are either via Andorra—the tiny principality in the Pyrenees—or via the overhead traction lines of rail connections. Only after the death of Franco (1975) did bilateral cooperation improve.
The second part is devoted to the last three decades. Local protests reached a pinnacle in the 1980s and 1990s; up to 15,000 people were mobilized, leading to spinoffs in other parts of Spain and France. While the need for the interconnection seemed bigger than ever, any progress to tie the grids was stalled. It took until 2008, and the involvement of prominent politicians including a special EU mediator, to break the deadlock; the system would go underground instead of traversing the highly valued “natural” landscape.
Though presenting a regional case, Viguié is not blind to wider developments. He neatly positions this apparent bottleneck in relation to the overall historiography and the plans and practices of both countries, and [End Page 769] also to larger European dynamics. This leads to a good balance between global developments (industrialization, modernization at large, electrification), and national developments (building grids and formulating policies), while keeping regional discrepancies in focus.
Apart from the vast archival collections, Viguié used a wide array of local and regional news sources in a very reflexive way. In addition, the book is richly illustrated with statistics and maps. Its original treatment would have been stronger by better contextualization in recent history of technology (think about Sara Pritchard’s 2011 Confluence) and political history (James Scott’s 1998 Seeing Like a State and Andrew Barry’s 2001 Political Machines), in order to better explain the “sudden” rise of concerned citizens and the policy response. The overall balance, however, is very good.
This is a timely and relevant work. In recent years, policymakers and engineering elites face ever more popular protests in the process of expanding infrastructures. Academics have started to delve into this issue of “technological democracy” as well, most notably with the 2001 essay by Michel Callon et al., Agir dans un monde incertain, in 2009 translated as Acting in an Uncertain World. Viguié’s...