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By Gérard Bon and Natalie Huet
PARIS, April 3 (Reuters) - A French appeals court has upheld the choice of construction and telecoms conglomerate Bouygues to build a new judiciary complex in northern Paris, dismissing a suit by lawyers loath to leave the city centre.
The project, designed by architect Renzo Piano - the man behind the Pompidou Centre and London’s Shard - features a 160-metre tower in the Batignolles neighbourhood and is expected to accommodate more than 8,000 people a day.
Bouygues won the order from the state over two years ago. A group of lawyers has actively fought the project in court, but its head said on Thursday their appeal had been rejected.
He did not exclude bringing the case to France’s highest administrative court.
The group of lawyers has argued that moving the main courthouse from its historic location in central Paris to the northern fringe of the city is both costly and impractical.
They wanted judges to annul the government’s decision to strike a public-private partnership (PPP) under which Bouygues builds the complex for 575 million euros ($792 million) and maintains it for 27 years while the state pays rent.
A finance ministry audit of the project has assessed the overall cost for the French state at 2.7 billion euros.
The judicial battle around the project has disrupted the financing schemes Bouygues had agreed with banks, causing construction work - which was slated to start mid-2013 and last three 1/2 years - to be suspended last July.
Beyond a French attachment to historical buildings and an oft-mocked resistance to change, the tussle illustrates the heightened scrutiny over the use of public funds that has become a real headache for the country’s builders.
Neighbours and associations can now legally challenge construction projects, keeping them hanging for months or years.
The group of lawyers fighting the new judiciary complex calls itself “La Justice dans la Cite”, a reference to the isle in central Paris where the city’s main courthouse was built in the Middle Ages on the former royal palace of Saint Louis.
The lawyers have denounced the project as over-sized and ill-fitted to the needs of staff who will have to work there. It went to the administrative appeals court after a first court ruling last May dismissed their claims.
If they take the case to France’s highest administrative court, the Conseil d‘Etat, that would leave the project in uncertainty for at least another year.
Bouygues welcomed the court ruling and said work would be resumed immediately on the site, “which will allow the future complex to be brought into service in 2017”.
It said last month it was in talks with the Justice Ministry, investors and banks to find financing solutions that would enable it to restart construction even pending a definitive ruling. ($1 = 0.7263 Euros) (Editing by Andrew Callus and Tom Heneghan)