Less than 100 miles away from us, in the early hours of Sunday morning, a cyclonic storm combined with a spring tide and 100 mile an hour winds, brought waves 25 foot high crashing through the homes that line the Atlantic coast.
50 people died, the majority drowned in their own beds as they slept.
The politicians are circling already, Sarkozy was at L’Aiguillon-sur-Mer, the hardest hit commune, where 25 people died in a single surge as a the protective dyke collapsed, within hours.
To the people of the coastal communes, it is a very real human tragedy, to politicians – perhaps an opportunity to disturb the political balance.
In France it is the Mairie who holds the power in planning decisions. The Communes own much of the land surrounding each village. It is they who grant the urban building permits. As the fishing industry dies away, the coastal communes have become poorer. Simultaneously, the people of the big cities have become richer, and hungrier for a place to relax, a status symbol week-end home, an investment.
The Communes are not supposed to grant permission to build within 100 metres of the coastline, but the closer to a sea view you can build, the more valuable the land becomes to the week-enders. It is not necessarily corruption or personal avarice that has allowed so many properties to be built closer than the prescribed 100 metres along the coast – it can be the understandable desire of the Mairie to obtain the best value for his fellow citizens from the sale of land.
Whatever the economic pressure that led to the wholesale re-developement of oyster farms as luxury homes, and the associated ‘week-end cottages’ that sprang up alongside them, each with a treasured sea view, it is the residents of those homes who have paid the deadly price for their acquisition.
There has been a superb response from the emergency teams to help the people who did manage to escape – but in the back ground, the politicians are ready to attack.
The regional elections which were due within a few weeks have been cancelled out of respect, that is the public face of their concern. In private, they are working out how to take central control of building permits ‘to protect French citizens’. It is part of the gradual encroachment on one of the best facets of French politics, the genuinely localised decision making.
It is a tough call. Whilst I would like to argue for the retention of local planning control, undoubtedly the mass movement of populations to areas they do not know has left many purchasing properties ‘for their amazing sea views’ without any knowledge of the risks involved in buying a house that the local fishermen would not dream of living in. Expecting communes which have been decimated financially by the loss of their prime industrial base – fishing – to forgo selling their land to the highest purchaser who dreams of a luxury beachside home is equally unrealistic.
The 100 metre rule was a good law; the answer, surely, is to police it more effectively, and ensure that the communes have to stand up to the rich Parisians who flout it mercilessly.
The dyke at L’Aiguillon-sur-Mer would be the responsibility of the commune. That it has collapsed will be the subject of an inquiry, for sure. The resulting insurance claim will result in higher premiums for many coastal communes – a factor that will concentrate minds effectively when it comes to arguing with M. Le Parisian who has built his home virtually on the beach. Perhaps some of those valuable pieces of property need to be pulled down – those that have not collapsed in the floods, to get the message across. It wouldn’t be a popular move, but it would be a better solution for democracy in France than more centralised planning control.