In France, they love their patrimoine, or cultural heritage — at least, that’s what they claim. Why, then, are developers being allowed to tear the heart out of historic villages. The following article by Edward Girardet – What’s French for Nimby? – was first published by the Sunday Times of London on May 15, 2016. It has since received numerous comments, both by expatriates and French, horrified by how these mayors are enabling developers – or promoteurs – to dictate the new urban vision. Furthermore, as some are also pointing out, there are flagrant examples of lack of transparency or conflicts of interest which would simply not be acceptable in other parts of the European Union, or neighbouring Switzerland.
CESSY, France — More than a decade and a half ago, my American wife and I moved to Cessy, then a relatively idyllic French village (population 4,000) in the beautiful Pays de Gex, at the foot of the Jura Mountains, near Switzerland. Dating back to Roman, even Celtic, times, it had a medieval church, three functioning farms and a mixed community of French, British and other nationals, ranging from Australians to Greenlanders.
Cessy is perhaps better known today for Cern’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which lies 100 metres underground on its outskirts: we would be the first to disappear in the event of a black hole being created. Like many expatriates who work in Switzerland but live in France — it’s less than half an hour’s drive to Geneva — we were attracted by lower costs and direct access to the countryside.
During the summer, we swim in Lake Geneva and go hiking or white-water canoeing in the Alps. We’re only an hour from Chamonix and two from Verbier. Furthermore, we’re just a hop, skip and jump from the Burgundy vineyards, while Provence is barely four hours’ drive south. We can do day trips to northern Italy via the Mont Blanc tunnel, or explore the old town of Basel and even the German and Austrian sides of Lake Constance, to the northeast.
From a quality-of-life point of view, it’s hard to beat. But this is now under threat. As in many other parts of France, from the Côte d’Azur to Normandy, property developers, or promoteurs, are being allowed to destroy the few old stone houses and barns that remain in their village centres. Rather than incorporating them into the architecture, they replace them with unsightly high-rises that have little to do with local character. And upset residents, regardless of nationality, are discovering there is little they can do to stop them.
For the Pays de Gex, one of the fastest-growing regions in France thanks to its proximity to Geneva, this surge of construction is not only leading to increased traffic and pollution, but transforming villages into Ceausescu-style concrete landscapes.
Local infrastructure — public transport, sewerage, even the police — is unable to cope. While some mayors make the effort to protect their patrimoine, or cultural heritage, others seek to expand their communes as a means of enhancing political profiles and tax bases. They are quite happy to see old structures bulldozed, making way for cookie-cutter designs.
While these may legally meet central government construction norms aimed at urbanising the nation’s villages and towns, they fail to take into account local character. Under French law, a building needs to be classified as patrimoine by the Ministry of Culture to be fully protected. In the Pays de Gex, only one building is officially designated: the 18th-century Château de Voltaire, in Ferney. Village fountains are also supposed to be protected, but the classification is vague.
The debate today, however, not just in the Pays de Gex, but throughout France, is whether local residents should have a say in what should be preserved. In Cessy, our mayor recently granted permission for a Paris-based company to knock down a clutch of 18th- and 19th-century buildings in the bourg, the traditional part of the village, and replace them with bland four-storey blocks of flats. The scheme includes underground parking for 100 cars in an area known for its flooding. None of the old houses has a cellar, and for good reason — most calls to the fire department are not for putting out flames, but for pumping out basements.
Residents have protested, but to deaf ears. Promoteurs have got their way and are harassing homeowners into selling with repeated phone calls or letters. While some French architects pointedly create projects that respect local heritage, such as using the original walls, they maintain that developers make more money from “knocking and building”. A Canadian friend who lives in the nearby village of Prévessin says they have “rubbleised” one of the finest examples of early-19th-century farm architecture in the area, despite pledges by its mayor to preserve the heritage.
One problem is that France’s 36,000 mayors are among the most powerful in Europe. As British, Dutch, German and other EU residents point out, there is no way that town councils in their home countries would grant planning permission to destroy centuries-old edifices without going through elaborate public consultation processes. “You try doing that in the UK,” says one resident, who is originally from Bristol.
All this raises questions about accountability, and memories of past mayoral misconduct don’t help. During the Second World War, mayors and their entourages in the Pays de Gex did highly profitable business under German occupation. The Gestapo chief Klaus Barbie was head of security just up the road in Gex, while on the outskirts of Cessy stands a former hotel that served as a Wehrmacht brothel. Some local families still refuse to speak to each other because of past collaboration.
When we first came to Cessy, it was run by the second-longest-serving mayor in France. For 37 years, he treated the village as a personal fiefdom. Conflict of interest was rife, particularly with regard to real estate and construction. Even the préfet in Bourg-en-Bresse, the Paris representative for the département of Ain, expressed dismay at the way Cessy was being run.
The old mayor was finally ousted and sentenced to six months in prison for illicit dealings, but never served his time. He was replaced by a local pharmacist, Christophe Bouvier, who made clear he would embrace environmental values and heed the voice of the community, including more culturally aware newcomers from other parts of France. There was also a feeling that, given Cessy’s growing number of EU residents, who are allowed to vote locally, there would be greater transparency.
According to David Yeates, editor of French-property.com, about 400,000 Britons live in France, with 200,000 houses and flats owned by UK citizens as primary or secondary residences. Up to 5,000 have settled with their families in the Pays de Gex, with a similar number in Haute-Savoie, in towns such as Chamonix and Annecy. “Unlike the Swiss side, where residents have to register, EU nationals can come and go, so nobody really knows,” says Sian Sibley, of World Radio Switzerland.
Many work for the United Nations or international NGOs and companies on the Swiss side. Others have set up businesses ranging from winter-sports operations to internet-based firms, or shops such as Jim’s British Market, established by Jim Anderson, a former UN employee, in the Pays de Gex town of St Genis.
In Cessy, sadly, “progress” seems to have the upper hand. As one member of the municipality explained: “The village council was elected to make these decisions, so there is no need to consult.” Its urban planners argue that replacing traditional buildings with taller modern structures is more energy-efficient, and hence responds to green trends. “I am not saying these mayors are corrupt, but a lot of people have their suspicions,” one angry French resident says. “The mayors operate with incredible arrogance. They’re like mini Napoleons.”
According to Bouvier, who is also president of the Pays de Gex Community of Communes, which represents 27 towns and villages, France has more than enough heritage. The traditional Gessien buildings that do exist are “not interesting”, he says. He also says his hands are tied by complicated French laws, and that the local urban densification plans imposed by Paris, known as plans local d’urbanisme, or PLUs, make it impossible to halt such destruction.
Not all of France’s municipalities agree. For Marion Lepresle, a councillor in Amiens, the capital of the Somme département, north of Paris, assertions of hands being tied before French law are rubbish. She maintains that mayors have the right to demand revisions of the PLU in order to preserve the historic bourgs of their villages.
“It is up to the mayor, as representative of the community, to undertake the necessary steps with the Ministry of Culture to request a protected perimeter as part of the bourg,” Lepresle says. Ain’s prefecture also perceives this as a feeble excuse. “We’re always being depicted as the villains,” said a spokesman in Bourg-en-Bresse.
Bouvier argues that he and other mayors are also under pressure from the Swiss. Given Switzerland’s reliance on skilled foreign labour — nearly 28% of the workforce, whether hotel workers or corporate CEOs — there is a need to house them somewhere. One third of its 300,000 frontaliers, or cross-border workers, live on the French side, the others in Germany, Italy and Austria. Housing is tight, but even if Geneva is undertaking large projects, it is reluctant to ruin its own pristine countryside.
François Longchamp, president of Geneva’s state council, admits that trans-border construction is crucial for the frontaliers. “But we’re not asking the French to ruin their cultural heritage,” he says.
Despite talk of the Pays de Gex doubling or even tripling its population over the next two decades, it faces a precarious property bubble as developers continue building, encouraged by low interest rates. More than 2,000 housing units remain empty. Many Swiss who were attracted by lower costs are moving back because of France’s new inheritance rules. Even French entrepreneurs are transferring their businesses across the border, hampered by burdensome tax and social-security laws.
This has led some to propose that this French territorial pocket should become a “special economic zone” along the lines of Shenzhen, in China. The Swiss already dutifully hand over part of their frontalier taxes to the French for improving local infrastructure, but a significant portion is now being grabbed by the cash-strapped government. As with other frontier zones, Paris treats the Pays de Gex like some remote overseas territory. The government recently decreed that frontaliers working in neighbouring countries can no longer use their health insurance for more conveniently located cross-border hospitals, obliging them to travel miles in the other direction to have babies or seek emergency treatment.
With so many mayors unwilling to halt the ravaging of their patrimoine, a group of schoolchildren in the Pays de Gex are taking action. They have written an open letter to President Hollande, asking why the government is allowing French village heritage to be destroyed. “If the current generation is incapable of deciding what is best for us, then the future generation should have the right to be heard,” they said.
Hollande has responded to these young future constituents, noting his concern. He has also passed on their letter to the Ministry of Culture. On verra. We shall see.
Edward Girardet is a Swiss-American foreign correspondent. His most recent book is Killing the Cranes: A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan (Chelsea Green). He is still renovating a 17th-century house in France.
See also Facebook: PatrimoineCessyGex
I read your article with great interest having worked with in the conservation and design team of a local authority planning service in the Uk. I moved to France some years ago and I was astonished to see historic houses and agricultural buildings demolished to be replaced with “any town” appartement blocks. On occasion, in my view to add insult to injury, the new façades were decorated with the original door jambs and arches. Great damage is also done to the quality of the historic environment when Mairies allow the construction of massive appartement blocks in close proximity to existing buildings of special architectural and historic interest.