Betreff: Study:
Controversy and Protest Around Mobile Phone Antennas in France
Von: sylvie
Datum: Wed, 18 May 2005 09:26:29 +0200 (CEST)

here is the English summary of a French study
(sociological) ++++ Controversy Around Cell Phone Antennas by Olivier Borraz, Michel Devigne & Danielle Salamon 10-07-2004 Controversy and Protest Around Mobile Phone Antennas in France Olivier Borraz, Michel Devigne, Danielle Salomon Centre de Sociologie des Organisations – CNRS/FNSP English Summary In France, since 2000, mobile phone antennas have become a subject of controversy at the national level and of protest at the local level. Controversy and protest reached a high point in 2002-03, and seem to have partially quieted down since. This phenomenon is all the more surprising given that the first local reactions began in 1998, although a great number of antennas in France had already been installed without provoking any reaction. Furthermore, controversies and protest quickly focused on base stations rather than mobile phones, even though the latter had been subject to widely publicized concern in the US and subsequently in Europe. This came as a second source of surprise, all the more so, since the vast majority of experts agreed on the fact that, if a health risk could not be assessed regarding mobile phones, it could not be totally discarded given the mobile’s proximity with the human brain. This was not the case with antennas which, given their level of emission, their distance from human beings and the absence of data suggesting any possible risk, were considered harmless. Finally, a third surprise was related to the high level of conflict around the issue of antennas – precisely in the absence of any adverse health effects. Few issues have reached such momentum in terms of passionate and sometimes heated debate. In order to analyse these controversies and protest movements, and the manner in which antennas became a risk issue in France, we conducted a study at the local and national levels: we interviewed central state services, scientific experts, mobile phone operators, NGOs opposing base stations, counter-experts, elected officials, local state services and people living nearby antennas; we participated in public meetings; we analysed the different reports and documents published on the subject; and we carried out a survey of the press coverage. It became apparent that antennas had turned into a risk issue, not on the basis of some intrinsic qualities, scientific uncertainties or erroneous public perceptions, but within a chain of events, starting with local opposition movements against base stations and moving up to a controversy over exposure levels to non-ionising radiation. More precisely, the errors made by central government and the operators in managing this issue fuelled antagonisms with NGOs that crystallised around the issue of health risk. Hence, the answer to the question: how have base stations come to be conceived as a risk issue ? lies in the conflicting relations established between the different stakeholders. It is within the dynamics of these relations that the issue of risk emerged and slowly structured the various antagonistic forces. The following events played a decisive role. Following the licences given out to the three operators (Orange, SFR, Bouygues Telecom) in the early 1990s, the rollout of antennas went ahead rapidly. By 1997, more than 10 000 antennas were already installed, covering most of the country. Faced with the growing and rapid success of mobile phones starting in 1997-98 and the need to offer better coverage in urban areas, operators undertook to subcontract the installation of antennas to small firms (charged with finding the locations, negotiating the rent, filling out the applications and installing the antenna), in order to concentrate on their core activity. This subcontracting process led to a series of difficulties: the firms had to work under strong pressure in terms of costs and delays, they were sometimes careless, they were not able to answer the questions addressed to them by citizens regarding the antenna, they often discarded the initial protests as irrelevant, they alerted the operators only when the situation was seriously degraded thus impeding the installation.
The majority of local protest movements started out in
reaction to a disruption in a familiar environment
(often following the installation of the antenna or
the discovery of its existence). The questions
addressed either to local elected officials, operators
and their subcontractors, or state field services,
were often left unanswered or received standard
answers which did not satisfy the local queries. Over
time, the attitude of the various official parties in
charge fuelled growing anxiety or anger on the part of
citizens of local communities, whose doubts and
worries were not taken into consideration.
Furthermore, information found on the internet
confirmed the populations’ doubts and worries, and
showed that other protest movements were emerging
elsewhere. Finally, the fact that there was no legal
basis for opposing an antenna or obtaining its
removal, as long as it was in accordance with national
regulation, sparked more protest.
The operators’ response to growing opposition,
paradoxically, helped to focalise the debate on
health. One after the other, the three firms
identified health as a source of public concern and
created a special service, charged with informing the
public and answering the questions posed. Following
these initiatives, when faced with strong local
opposition, the operators’ field services or
subcontractors labelled the problem as being related
to health and transferred its management to the
concerned services. Yet, in most circumstances, health
was only one source of concern among many others. But
by labelling the problem as being health-related and
transferring it to a service which put forward
scientific and legal information destined to reassure
the public on this matter, the operators actually
contributed to the recognition of a health problem;
all the more so since the information provided did not
reassure the public (given the contradictory data
accessible on the internet) and did not answer the
other concerns.
Similar behaviour can be observed within central
government. By the late 1990s, local protest movements
throughout the country, letters addressed to the
ministry of Industry, concerns expressed by the
telecommunications agency and the publication of the
Stewart report in England alerted French authorities,
highly sensitive on issues of risk since the
contaminated blood scandal of the 1980s and the more
recent asbestos scandal. The interministerial body in
charge of mobile phones and telecommunications decided
to delegate the matter to the ministry of Health,
asking that it provide a report on the state of the
science on health risks related to mobile phones and
base stations, in order to inform the public. This
delegation echoed the behaviour of the operators: it
considered health as an isolated problem, capable of
impeding the development of mobile phone technology,
but one that did not call for an integrated answer
taking into consideration the other dimensions, and
notably the benefits, of this technology.
Paradoxically, this gave credit to the idea that
health was a concern, in particular when the answers
given did not prove satisfactory.
The ministry of Health immediately put together an
independent group of experts, chaired by Pr. Denis
Zmirou (an eminent epidemiologist with no experience
on electromagnetic fields). The group was asked to
provide both a scientific risk assessment and
recommendations on policy measures, on the basis of
other country reports, recent articles in scientific
journals and auditions. This led the ministry of
Health to delegate the issue to scientific experts.
The Zmirou report came out in 2001. It stated that no
risk had yet been found concerning mobile phones but
that it remained theoretically plausible; this
justified precautionary measures. In the case of
antennas, not only did the existing results show no
risk but the report stated that it was theoretically
implausible given the levels of emission and the
distances with human beings. Hence, the precautionary
principle could not be applied. But the report then
went on to recognise public concern on the issue of
base stations and suggested that none be located less
than 100 meters from a “sensitive building” (nursery,
school, hospital) caught within its beam. This measure
proved to be counterproductive: it appeared
contradictory with the statement that antennas
presented no harm for health; it proved impossible to
defend by government representatives, at the national
or local level; it led protest movements and elected
officials to focus only on distance, interpreting the
recommendation to mean that no antenna should be
located less than 100 meters from a sensitive building
while forgetting to take into account the direction of
the beam (thus making it almost impossible to build an
antenna in an urban area such as Paris, given the high
density of nurseries, schools and hospitals).
The ministry of Health did not follow up on this
recommendation, letting the experts defend their
report in public meetings, while the field services of
the ministry backed off from the issue (both on
account of more pressing problems and by lack of
knowledge on the technical specificities of mobile
phone communications and non ionising radiations). To
many protest groups and NGOs, this amounted to the
State being silent on an issue on which government
officials felt uneasy (and it could even be
interpreted as a willingness to hide existing risks
from the population). The resulting retreat of the
State left the scientific experts and the operators to
counter the arguments of the protest groups, opposing
NGOs and their counter-experts. In public meetings,
operators had to present not only their activity, but
also the scientific and legal dimensions, without any
legitimacy to do so. The experts also came to adopt
postures which created some confusion with the
operators and public officials. Progressively,
experts, operators and public officials came to be
seen as interchangeable, holding similar discourses,
defending common positions, and being clearly unable
to answer the many doubts and anxieties expressed by
citizens of local communities.
Meanwhile, the opposing NGOs also evolved. The main
NGO, Priartem, initially created around problems
related to antenna siting for aesthetic or patrimonial
reasons, and more generally the seemingly chaotic and
sometimes brutal installation of antennas near homes
without public consultation, gained wider publicity by
forming a partnership with an environmental protest
group to oppose the unleashed development of mobile
phones and base stations. They shifted to scientific
arguments after meeting with counter-experts
previously working on high voltage power lines and the
general theme of electromagnetic fields. These
counter-experts, active in Belgium and within the
European Parliament, seized the opportunity given by
the rapid development of mobile phones during the late
1990s to gain further audience for their arguments. In
the first years of the new millennium, they
established contacts with the protest groups, offering
them arguments with which to oppose antennas. This
proved to be quite effective, since French national
and local political officials could hardly ignore
issues related to health. The NGOs and counter-experts
demanded the use of the precautionary principle to
lower exposure levels.
Priartem provided local protest movements with
resources (standard letters, petitions, basic
scientific arguments, comments on official reports,
advice on the strategy to adopt) in opposing the
construction of base stations. And it also helped
these movements to connect with each other. But it had
little influence in triggering these movements, let
alone in coordinating or piloting them. These
movements remained primarily local, and their basic
aim was to block the construction of an antenna or to
have an existing antenna removed. They had little
concern for lower exposure levels. The national NGOs,
on the other hand, used the growing number of
movements to put pressure on central government for
lower exposure levels. This is but one of the many
ambiguities which characterizes this issue. Another is the fact that behind the appearance of a single, well structured and powerful movement of opposition, lies in fact a loosely coordinated network of local movements, whose major resource is the use of the internet. In a sense, the strength of the movement lies precisely in its fragmented nature. There is no single integrative organisation or actor; what we find instead is a wide array of individuals and local organizations, finding most of their information on the internet, communicating by e-mails, each adding his or her own experience or observation to what has already been accumulated by the others, thus building a common platform constantly evolving in accordance with the information introduced into the network. The result is a set of arguments hard to refute by operators, experts and public officials. Not that these arguments are right or wrong. Their efficiency lies in the accumulation of scientific studies, newspaper articles, petitions signed by medical practitioners, cases of mismanagement by the operators or their subcontractors, local protest movements, declarations of cancer or other illnesses allegedly due to a nearby antenna. This wide range of data is appropriated by the different individuals or organizations and at the same time completed with their own story, to form a complex set of arguments almost impossible to discuss but which makes a convincing case for risk. To this must be added the fact that these data are often put in a certain context. This is particularly the case in public meetings, where the data used to defend the existence of a risk is presented through personal cases of suffering or death, which is hard to disregard. The set of arguments, along with the way they are presented, stand in sharp contrast with the nature and presentation of the arguments put forward by the scientific experts, operators and public officials. In any public meeting, the latter amounts to a cold, rigorous and a-human presentation, showing no emotion but simply presenting hard facts. Furthermore, these arguments change little over time, while during the same period the arguments of the protest movements have grown with the adjunction of new cases and a more organized set of scientific arguments. All this resulted in a frontal opposition in 2002-03 between two groups, whose existence can only be understood within the dynamics of conflict around base stations. If initially the different protagonists had little relations with each other, the retreat of the state and the multiplication of protest movements, aided by Priartem and counter-experts, resulted in a clear antagonism between, on one side, government officials, scientific experts and operators, on the other, opposing NGOs, counter-experts and local protest movements. Each group constructed an image of the other through an “enemy figure”, to the point where communication was very difficult between the opposing groups and a compromise seemed highly unrealistic. Strangely enough, these groups often adopted similar strategies, mirroring the other’s efforts. First, both groups attempted to find allies, through forceful persuasion if necessary: this was the case with local elected officials. If, on the one hand, the latter accepted the installation of antennas on their commune, because they felt it was necessary or because they had no legal means to oppose such an installation if the project conformed to regulation, they were accused of being on the side of the operators and came under great political pressure from protest movements. If, on the other hand, they sided with these movements, they came under greater pressure even from the operators who threatened to take them to court – and when they did, usually won. Second, both groups attempted to put the conflict on a worldwide scale: the experts aimed to show that the international scientific community was unanimous in considering that base stations presented no risks, and that international standards, set in agreement with the WHO, had been adopted by a majority of countries in their regulation and by the EU in its 1999
Recommendation; the counter-experts organized an
international network intent on demonstrating the
risks of electromagnetic fields and used foreign
examples of stricter regulation (Switzerland, Italy)
or crisis around the suspicion of cancer related to
base stations (Valladolid) to ground their claims and
denounce the French government’s lax attitude. Third,
both groups denounced their enemies’ hidden agendas
and methods, which according to them gave an insight
on their real motives – or at least helped to explain
what seemed to be irrational behaviours on the part of
their opponents.
But the two groups also tended to imitate each other,
by calling upon experts and asking them to produce an
official report (after the government asked Pr. Zmirou
and later the new environmental and health safety
agency to produce reports, the opposing NGOs asked a
group of counter-experts to produce their own
findings, published in 2003), by creating associations
(in answer to the mobile phone operators association
set up in 2002, AFOM, the NGOs created an association
of victims of mobile phones, AVOM) and by organizing
competing measures of exposure levels. Hence, it
became more and more difficult for the media, to say
nothing of the general public, to distinguish between
the different parties, given the complexity of the
subject and the coherence and strength of both
positions. In a sense, they appeared to be, on the
public scene, on a similar level.
In this confrontation, the media played an active role
in presenting the conflict, but their influence in
fuelling or triggering protest movements seemed
remote. Basically, they presented the different
parties and their arguments, but rarely took sides.
Starting in 2003, the situation began to evolve. This
was largely due to local charters initiated by local
officials in large cities, notably Paris, while the
operators published a guide with the French mayors’
association, setting the basis for further charters.
These charters are important in many ways. First, they
clearly indicate that the solution to the conflicts
around base stations must come from the local level,
the national government having largely failed. Second,
they show that the issue is political, rather than
simply scientific or medical. Third, the political
handling of the issue requires a reframing: the
charters do not take sides in the debate opposing the
groups mentioned previously, and do not centre on the
arguments related to health, but rather begin by
underlining the social and economic benefits of mobile
phones, then recognize public concern and on this
basis define a series of rules operators must abide
with regarding the siting of their antennas and the
measure of exposure levels. Fourth, in so doing, local
officials clearly indicate that they aim to maintain
close scrutiny of the operators’ activities – while
previously citizens often held the impression that no
one controlled the operators’ actions (hence, that no
one regulated the potential harm incurred).
The impact of these charters remains to be evaluated.
But these initiatives, added to better attention paid
by the operators to local protest groups and improved
control on their subcontractors, partially explain the
fact that the issue has lost its saliency.
To conclude, this case exemplifies the fact that
debates over risks do not result from insufficient
information, irrational behaviour, erroneous
perceptions or anti-progress attitudes by the general
public. They are the result of a dynamic which
originates at the local level and through errors grows
into a national issue. The dynamic is fuelled by the
relations between the different actors and
organisations. The idea of risk progressively becomes
a focus point, even though no harm to the health of
the populations concerned has been observed. But by
putting forward the risks for the health of citizens,
the protest movements exert pressure on public
officials and gain the medias’ attention. This case
also demonstrates that by putting the emphasis on
risk, and separating base stations from the rest of
the activity concerning mobile phones, the opposing
NGOs and counter-experts make it difficult, if not
impossible, for the government to find a solution –
since its response focuses only on health and thus
cannot answer the wider social demand. While by
reframing the issue into one of urban planning and
controlling levels of exposure, local officials leave
the realm of risk and are thus able to offer an
apparently viable solution.

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