Special Investigative Report Part III: Early last year, the London Sunday Times ran a two-page spread on how Paris law and local governments are enabling ‘promoteurs’ – property developers – to destroy France’s historic village centres. Largely ignored by the local press, but shared on social media, this article triggered an extraordinary response among thousands of concerned French and expatriate residents. As pointed out by Mark Hartford (with files by contributing journalists), this has hardly stopped the ravaging of irreplaceable 17th – 19th century buildings. It also suggests a worrisome failure of French top-down democracy.
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot.”
(Joni Mitchell: Yellow Taxi)
Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring may, or may not, have said: “Whenever I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my gun .” Whenever French developers hear the words patrimoine, or cultural heritage, it seems, they go for the bulldozers. And the authorities, whether the Paris government or local mayors, seem unable, or unwilling to do anything about it. As for residents, both French and expatriate, many feel ignored and powerless. This is happening all over France, particularly in areas with rapid urban expansion, including Lake Geneva’s own Rhone-Alp region. (See Global Geneva investigative reports Part I on corruption in France and Part II on French MEP Eva Joly)
The Pays de Gex outside Geneva ranks as one of France’s fastest growing zones, increasingly serving as a sprawling dormitory for cross-border frontaliers working in Switzerland. With low interest rates, property developers, including banks, are throwing up uninspiring apartment blocks, making use of low interest rates. Towns such as Ferney-Voltaire and St Genis are mushrooming with box-like constructions that look the same all over France. Few developers make any effort to incorporate centuries-old buildings of character, preferring the cheaper option of knocking down old walls and starting from scratch. As The New York Times recently pointed out, this is leading to a steady destruction of France’s ‘Frenchness’.
A relentless destruction of French village patrimoine
One example of this ravaging of France’s patrimoine is in Cessy, a rapidly growing Pays de Gex village. In early October last year, Franco-Suisse 2Lacs, a Paris property company, demolished a clutch of 18th and 19th century Gessien buildings on the edge of the ‘bourg,’ the village’s historic centre. Leaving what looks like a World War II bomb site, the company plans to construct a set of catalogue buildings incorporating 57 flats and a 100-vehicle, two-story underground parking. Last-minute efforts, including a protest poll with over 600 signatures, failed to halt the demolition. The company also ignored all email and phone attempts to discuss possible changes. Instead, it posted promotional signs unabashedly extolling its ‘love for cultural heritage’. “We are not destroying village patrimoine, but rather creating a new one,” insisted a company representative.
This blatant destruction of Cessy’s historic past was met with shock if not tears by numerous inhabitants. In dozens of interviews, the overwhelming majority said that they had no idea about plans to annihilate the buildings, which, while not particularly beautiful examples of Gessien architecture, could have been integrated. Many, too, could not believe that the local authorities, including the Communauté des Communes (CdC) representing 27 Pays de Gex towns and villages, would allow such a ‘sacrilege’ to happen. “We French like to boast about our culture but this is disgraceful,” noted one villager, who, like so many others, preferred not to be identified.
From Cessy town hall’s point of view, the rules had been followed. As part of the Paris government’s ‘densification’ approach to urban development, which largely fails to take into account local cultural concerns, the promoteurs had met all the legal requirements. “My hands are tied,” the mayor told one journalist. “We have to follow the dictates of Paris.” Furthermore, he added in a four-page letter, the CdC is now responsible for future development, not the mairies. Furthermore, all development will be carried out in partnership the Conseil d’Architecture, d’Urbanisme et de l’Environnement (CAUE) and the Service Territorial de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine (STAP).
The Prefect of the Ain Department, however, firmly disagrees with the mayor, who is also president of the CdC. As noted by the Prefecture’s François Lamarque, there are 384 protected ‘historic monuments’ in the Department of Ain, mainly prominent structures such as the Chateau de Voltaire in Ferney or village fountains. There is no specific legislation designed to protect the “traditional character” of towns, he explained. “But for other buildings of cultural historic value, it is up to the local authorities to protect them.” Since 1983, this has been the communes, including the CdC, most of which today have the responsibility for their own urban development.
Acting as a regional mandarin for central government, the Prefecture firmly maintains that the communal authorities have the perfect right to declare their historic village centres as ‘protected’, even if Paris has decreed that all urban areas, whether country villages or towns, have to ‘densify’ from the inside out. (In many situations, this means replacing traditional buildings with flat-roofed, high-rise constructions which have nothing to do with local character). If local mayors cannot prevent new construction because of the PLU (Local Urbanization Programme), the Prefecture added, they can still oblige promoteurs to respect architectural tradition.
As pointed out by Vincent Chritin and Jerome Riff, both founding members of the Cessy Patrimoine Association, which, together with other public interest organizations, seeks to preserve what little remains of the region’s historic value, “the Pays de Gex’s cultural heritage is worth far more than the sad initiatives imposed by an outmoded PLU which only benefits the developers.”
No responsibility, little transparency: Paris and local authorities blame each other.
The end result is that both the Prefecture and the mayors blame each other, leaving residents in a position of helpless confusion. As critics point out, both local and national authorities, regardless whether on the Left or Right, tend to have an arrogant predilection for administrative procedure rather than imagination or individual opinion. “It’s the same all over France,” noted one Rhone-Alp urban planner. “What needs to happen is for the mayors to work with local associations by speaking out and taking their cases to court. They need to be pro-active.” But many mayors fear that this might lead to costly legal wrangling, while others reportedly simply don’t care. “They have their own interests to push,” observed one town counsellor.
Some pushback has been achieved by protests and critical press coverage. For example, one group of three nearly 400-year-old buildings threatened with destruction and representing one of the Pays de Gex’s oldest and most beautiful chateaux may now be preserved. Perhaps the result of growing pressure, the CdC is also holding a series of public meetings asking inhabitants how they wish see their region develop by 2030.
Some communes make the effort to preserve
Not all communes disregard the historic features of their towns. Gex is making deliberate efforts to safeguard its cultural heart by upgrading roads, street features and pavements while regularly consulting with the public. Though many bland constructions are visible on the outskirts, there is now a feeling that renewed respect for traditions may prevent further blight. “It is really quite impressive the way the town council has made a conscious decision to protect what’s left,” observed one foreign resident, although, as another added, picturesque buildings of a past epoch are still being knocked down.
Even more striking is the nearby village of Vesancy. With its historical assets including a small castle and 17th and 18th century buildings lining both sides of the main street, the town’s efforts to preserve its past stand as a steadfast reminder of what patrimoine should mean in stark contrast to many other parts of France, which have given in to the pressures of quick and easy money.
An astonishing disregard for local culture in France (UNESCO)
Which structures authorities deem worth saving — a fountain, a 200-year farm outbuilding, or a disbanded train station — seems to hinge on the whims and desires of the powers that be. “While similar problems exist elsewhere in Europe, there is sadly now an astonishing disregard for local culture in France,” observed a UNESCO official in Paris. “The technocrats push through their political agendas ignoring what people might think. It’s all about fulfilling building quotas and supposedly producing jobs, but in the end represents extreme short-sightedness.”
Ironically, the only French political party to respond in the Rhone-Alpes region among the five contacted for this article was the right-wing Front National (FN) of Marine LePen, strange bedfellows for many of the French and largely liberal expatriates resident in the region seeking to preserve the past. Last November, the head of the FN’s Pays de Gex chapter accused the Cessy mayor of ‘complicity’ with the developers. “Instead of renovating, they are wrecking a building of cut stone. The Pays de Gex is losing its soul by destroying the past for money,” a communique stated.
The difficulty with France’s urban planning process is that given constant changes in Paris law, residents find the process hard to understand. Another is the failure of the authorities to be more transparent. Residents can appeal planned constructions, but only if directly affected. And then, it is usually too late. In the case of Cessy’s Franco-Suisse 2Lacs project, the developers not only posted the legally-required public notice at the height of the summer holidays but also apparently 10 days late . It was then conveniently obscured from view for a few more days by a parked tractor. The town hall did nothing, but under European Union rules, this would be considered illegal.
And yet, as residents in other parts of France point out, such tactics are not unusual. In the Provence, for example, new projects are posted in winter when most secondary residents are not present. Elsewhere, property developers allegedly use “legal subterfuge’ with “full knowledge of the mayor” to bypass appeals opposing new constructions. This includes creating scarcely disguised new companies and then ignoring requests for meetings until the official delay has passed. Yet another example of the “unchecked power of the Mairie in France,” according to one resident.
A failure of democracy: Nothing has really changed since the French revolution
Ever since a 2013 law that virtually allows developers to do what they like, it has become almost impossible for residents to halt projects. Plaintiffs can even be fined for wasting the court’s time. Furthermore, some mayors pointedly warn critics that they will file defamation charges if falsely accused. All this leaves residents feeling ignored and with the sense that they can do nothing. It also helps explain why the FN is picking up support. People feel betrayed by the establishment and the failure of direct democracy. A more recent 2016 revision of this law allows residents somewhat more leeway, but still gives the promoteurs the benefit of the doubt. As French historian Jean-Pierre Richardot points out: “The trouble with France is that nothing has really changed since the revolution. We are still caught up in a Napoleonic or Gaullist mindset.”
If someone feels that a town council is acting with impropriety, the only option is to write to the Procureur de la Republique, a form of public prosecutor. “It is then up to the Procureur to decide whether a matter is worth investigating,” explained a Prefecture official. Another option is to go public. An open missive to the President François Hollande by Pays de Gex high school pupils asking that their patrimoine be respected for future generations received a bland couldn’t care less response from the Elysée Palace before passing on the young people’s concerns to the Ministry of Culture. This clearly got the matter on the radar but little has happened since.
With planned massive property developments in the Pays de Gex ranging from shopping malls to myriad apartment blocks, many stress the complete lack of urban vision other than what the developers impose. Local infrastructure, such as police services, sewage and roads, can’t keep up. Many are also worried by the lack of oversight, which the Prefecture – not without embarrassment – admits is a problem, particularly in rapidly burgeoning towns such as St Genis, Ferney-Voltaire or Thoiry. “As elsewhere in France where there is a lot of development, it’s always been about money – and power,” explained one renovation specialist, who has asked to remain anonymous. “In one way or another, most town councils are in bed with the property developers who are dictating urban vision.”
Organizations such as Transparency International point out that there is a real problem with both local and high-level corruption and conflicts of interest in France. Wheeling and dealing, however, is not necessarily a matter of money under the table. It is more a question of subtle favours, a discount on the sale of an apartment in the South of France perhaps, or the allocation of a subsidized council residence to a friend or family member. Or, quite simply, promises to improve urban infrastructure in return for allowing projects through. “We all know it’s going on, the elephant in the room, but there is no one putting a stop to it. It’s sort of accepted,” added another long-term Gex resident.
A lack of urban vision on the French side
Most residents have nothing against new construction. “It is clear that the Pays de Gex has to expand,” said one. “But this does not mean that everything has to be destroyed.” Residents also fear that rampant development, such as Cessy’s Franco-Suisse 2Lacs project, could mean a dangerous surge in traffic for children walking to school . Given, too, that much of the Pays de Gex is originally a swamp area, proposed underground parking could also undermine the structures of neighbouring houses, some dating back to the 17th century. As old timers point out, there is regular flooding in basements, including parking garages, whenever there is too much rain or runoff from the mountains. All this costs the communes and insurance companies money.
Both Switzerland and France are ostensibly pushing for a more integrated Greater Geneva. Yet while Genevan urban planners attend cross-border meetings well-prepared, they complain that the French often turn up with no agreement amongst themselves. The real issue, however, seems to stem from the shaky roots upon which French democracy is built. As some argue, if there is to be any effective protection of patrimoine, both local authorities and promoteurs need to be held to account. There also have to be more effective ways for countering inappropriate development. For the moment, none of this is happening.
Mark Hartford edited and wrote this article with contributed files.
And on the Swiss side…at least an effort to preserve
While some Swiss communes, notably in the Valais, may not always be as pristine white as Alpine snow, most authorities tend to respect local concerns. As pointed out by several communes both in the Cantons of Geneva and Vaud, parts of which used to belong to France prior to the 1815 Congress of Vienna and where villages are architecturally similar to those on the French side, every effort is made to preserve cultural integrity. No decisions that might threaten historic buildings, even if not formally protected, are made without involving both residents and the Cantons. Furthermore, some banks such as Raiffeisen, which is in fact a cooperative, make an effort to renovate old town buildings rather than destroy and build something completely new.
In Founex in the Canton of Vaud, Claudine Luquiens – the communal greffe who is a form of administrator — explained that though few buildings are classified as protected in the town, whose demographics are similar to Cessy’s, any plans to destroy or transform such buildings would have to approved by the cantonal authorities. There can be no local conflicts of interest. Luquiens added that constructions or any major work carried out on the buildings’ facades are also subject to a public inquiry over a 30-day period, and that they must respect communal regulations on new constructions. Unlike France, where only residents directly affected by a construction project can appeal, neighbouring owners also have the right to oppose such new structures, and can take matters to the cantonal court if necessary.
By Mark Hartford
This article was first published on Global Geneva