It’s a noble concern that will appeal to many. President Macron’s aim is to use the lottery – quickly – as a means of mobilizing private money to avoid raising taxes and leaving a debt for the young generation. “We need to create new resources and to mobilise private money,” he said. “That’s the only way to save these monuments in peril.”
Macron, however, was not talking about the deliberate destruction of buildings in the historic centres or bourgs of hundreds of France’s small towns and villages from the Haute Savoie to the Côte d’Azur. This was raised by one local resident – only those living in the vicinity of the Château were invited – who pointed out that property developers were “tearing down” 17 century barns and other traditional structures in ‘lovely’ villages. “This means that the local population will never enjoy these old buildings or understand their own heritage,” she said.
Local village heritage is just as crucial
Macron immediately agreed that knocking down old buildings is not acceptable. “We need to establish projects organized by local authorities together with local associations and private players,” he said. “But these still need to be financed.” While the French Ministry of Culture may declare châteaux and village fountains as ‘protected’, it does not take into account local or regional historic character. Many villages, too, are located in rapidly expanding urban areas, such as the border zones with Switzerland or Germany, where there are enormous social and political pressures to build.
Property developers stand to gain exceptional profits from fast and cheap construction. Furthermore, under French law, they can more or less do what they like, often aided and abetted by local authorities operating without proper transparency or indulging in perceived conflicts of interest. As one Rhone-Alps lawyer snidely remarked: “We all know that (some) mayors of the Pays de Gex and Haute Savoie are corrupt. But how else do you expect them to make money?”
It’s not just about protecting buildings, but safeguarding demcarcy
Such abuses would “never be acceptable” in northern Europe, such as Germany or the Netherlands, as one legal expert pointed out at the 2018 OECD conference on Corruption and Integrity in Paris. “Nor according to EU or UN norms and standards,” he added. And yet, even the French Ministry of Interior, which maintains that local mayors do have the right to protect their historic village ‘bourgs’, admits that there is no real oversight except “after the fact.” So when buildings are destroyed in a questionable manner, it is too late.
What this means is that traditional village structures ranging from centuries’ old stone farms to town houses are simply bulldozed to be replaced with bland, catalogue-style apartment blocks with little regional character. Or they are constructed in a manner that threatens nearby buildings, such as in areas prone to flooding if not landslides. In one Pays de Gex village, urban planners allowed the construction – despite warnings – of a two-story underground parking which caused a nearby just-renovated 19th century church building to literally fissure in half. While in another the local authorities allowed the developers to simply re-issue the same plans with slight changes in order to get around the law.
Many mayors argue that there is nothing much they can do, but that they’re the ones getting blamed. They must abide by rules imposed by Paris. But public opposition is growing and people want their mayors to be held accountable. The French press, too, is finally beginning to turn its attention to local heritage issues. However, for many ordinary residents, who feel helpless and ignored, there is often little they can do. The developers tend to manipulate the law in a manner that cannot be contested. Or they threaten costly law suits. Furthermore, some mayors, or their cronies, seek to intimidate, sometimes with verbal, even physical threats.
On taking office just over a year ago, President Macron made it clear that no public official with a history of illegal activity should be in government. Yet lack of transparency and proper accountability are clearly critical issues, particularly among many of France’s 35,000+ mayors. Macron’s visit to Ferney may have drawn attention to the need to protect France’s beautiful patrimoine. But it also underlines the fact that the very democracy and freedom of expression so vociferously upheld by Voltaire is also under threat.
Edward Girardet is editor of Global Geneva magazine.
See other Global Geneva stories on the destruction of cultural heritage in France.