February 2019: two years after the presidential decision to close the country’s oldest nuclear power plant, “a territorial project” was signed with great fanfare in the presence of the Minister for Ecological Transition, François de Rugy, local authorities and even some German authorities.

All affirm a common ambition: to develop the activity to make the territory of Fessenheim the “reference on a European scale in terms of low carbon economy”, and to compensate for the loss of 2,000 jobs, direct and indirect, generated by the shutdown of the two nuclear reactors.

To achieve this, and in accordance with the decision of Sébastien Lecornu, the former Secretary of State for Ecology, a mixed economy company (SEM) will be created: a private company whose capital is mainly held by organizations public. Baptized Novarhena, its mission will be to “lead planning and economic development projects” and “concretely implement” the 40 actions presented in the territory project.

The first of these actions, and the main objective of SEM Novarhena, is the development of a new business park, called EcoRhena, which must “attract job-creating companies”, “on a potential area of 220 hectares”, along the Grand Canal of Alsace, parallel to the Rhine.

But from 2020, the surface of the future area will be divided by four. Due to “biodiversity reservoirs” and “ecological corridors”, the perimeter dedicated to welcoming companies has increased from 220 to 56 hectares.

At the time, local elected officials were indignant to see that the State did not grant any derogation from environmental rules to promote local economic recovery.

“With the closure of the plant, we were hoping for a benevolent look from the state to develop this area, but we were not given any gifts”, regrets the mayor of Fessenheim, Claude Brender.

– “Nothing concrete” –

April 2021: the company Novarhena is finally created, endowed with a million euros in capital, 80% of which is public money, contributed by the Grand-Est Region, the Caisse des dépôts, the Department, EDF, the Chamber of commerce and the Agglomeration of Mulhouse. The remaining 20% ​​comes from French banks and German communities.

A year and a half later, Novarhena has no achievements to its credit. “Nothing concrete”, concedes Lara Million, departmental and regional councilor, propelled in spite of herself president of this company at the end of 2021.

Novarhena has however spent nearly half of its capital, ie 480,000 euros, on operating costs. “It’s about 70% of the general manager’s salary”, Xavier Marques, admits Lara Million.

The recruitment, for 5,500 euros net monthly, of this former marketing director at Adidas, and ex-director of Pataugas (shoes), had however made some managers wince. “He probably has skills, but in terms of development … Does he know what a development concession is? It does not build confidence,” said a source familiar with the matter. Xavier Marques did not wish to answer questions from AFP.

Aware of the waste, Lara Million also discovers that, for 56 hectares and not 220, local elected officials have no intention of calling on a company to develop the area. “As soon as I understood the outcome, I informed the partners, we decided to dissolve the SEM” Novarhena, she explains. And the company was dissolved on Friday morning, at an extraordinary general meeting.

– “Government blackmail” –

Locally, this fiasco irritates. “When the SEM was created, we already knew that there would only be around sixty hectares to develop”, points out the local deputy, Raphaël Schellenberger (LR).

“There is this government blackmail to say: it is the tool for the requalification of Fessenheim, we are committed, we must do it. Everything in the history of Fessenheim is of the same order: we have committed? We have to do it. We have committed to closing (the plant)? We have to close. We have committed to creating an SEM? We have to create it. Does that make sense? is not the question”, he analyzes.

Only source of satisfaction for the territory: even reduced, the EcoRhena activity zone will soon see the light of day. Sign of the quality of the preparatory work carried out by local elected officials in connection with the decentralized services of the State, the environmental authorization granted by the prefect, essential to start the work, has not been attacked by environmental associations.

On site, preventive excavations and the first clearing operations have begun. “I am optimistic, we have contacts with companies” interested, specifies Gérard Hug, president of the community of communes Pays Rhin-Brisach, which includes Fessenheim. “We have never been closer to the good news.”