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How one company has managed to abuse a hidden corner of rural France

Posted 17 February 2017 by Michele Guinness

I have been heartsick these past few days.

Last Monday they arrived - the vans, tractors, caterpillars, diggers, caravans and portaloos, the panoply of construction vehicles needed to destroy one small corner of French countryside. After an eight-year fight we never really thought they would come - but here they are.

In 2008 the Limousin was given its quota of wind-turbines, studied the map for the furthest corner of the département and put a pin in a tiny area of small hamlets, gentle-grazing, long-lashed brown cows, and inoffensive sheep, nestling in tree-lined spaces that protected them from frost and wet. That, they decided, was where the entire 250 should go. Our euro-stretched council was the first to be persuaded by a large, government-subsidied, private company that the luscious profits would solve all their financial problems for years to come.

I’m not sure what I feel about wind turbines. Their carbon footprint leaves a lot to be desired, but many think they’re the only answer to our energy problems.

But the idea of having one 500 metres away, and another 249 covering the entire area was almost too much to bear. Particularly when France is an enormous country of extensive plains, high mountains, marshy coasts and large, ungainly, uninhabited industrial zones outside every city and town, big and small. Added to which, tests have shown it is doubtful there is enough wind in our area to make it a feasible proposition. But the company cares little. The mouth-watering subsidies mean they make their money even if they make no electricity.

We fought a long, hard fight to have them placed somewhere more sensible, but at the final hurdle were defeated when the solicitor, picked reluctantly from a statutory département list, failed to present the correct papers on time and the case was thrown out. She did the same a month later for another village, and a request for an investigation of malpractice has been lodged - but it will come to nothing, say the French. A strange kind of justice, this. As one neighbour, says,

The French law is like gruyère cheese - full of holes.

Hundreds of trees have been uprooted, vast paths carved out through fences and fields, paths and walkways turned into deep, muddy bogs to allow the enormous diggers to pass through. This is long before the arrival of the massive towers and blades. No more horse-riders and ramblers for years to come. What matters is ease of access for contractor vehicles, and closeness to villages for nearness to the main grid, to maximise share-holder profits. It is scandalous - destroying the environment, to save it.

“We will replace it all, Madame”, said one of the workmen, “Rest assured”

How do you replace hundreds of ancient oaks? And besides, I learnt this morning, when I blazed my way into the town hall like a warring amazon to see the current mayor, (who claims to be anti-turbines), they won’t - because it is not their responsibility.

Famous French liberté means it belongs solely to the farmer whose fields are being rented at 6000 euros each a year for the next forty years. It’s all about what the individual wants, not what’s best for the community. And why would the farmer bother? He’s told us already - he simply wants to sell his sheep and put his feet up by the fire.

Blow it, we’ll dig up saplings wherever we find them by the wayside and plant them in his fields if we have to.

Adieu fraternité!

All over this little corner of the Limousin, tempers are high, neighbour divided against neighbour. Ah well - there was one glimmer of light at the town hall. No mayor, but two of the councillors there. Over the past weeks I have struggled to contain my ire towards one of them in particular, who also happens to be someone I like under normal circumstances, who didn’t consult with us and allowed the vote to go through.

I’ve thought long and hard about confronting him, but then, that was hardly gracious and might even risk a precious friendship. So I bit my tongue. And then, there he was this morning, at the town hall. And after I had harangued them both him about the devastation wreaked upon our hamlet and finally ran out of steam, he took me aside and said, “Look, in 2008 everyone wanted the wind turbines.”

“They wanted the money,” I retorted, “so that the previous mayor could replace the town hall shutters. She told me that’s what she would do.” He shook his head in sympathy. “At that time we were all elected on the basis of our pro-wind turbine stance. And we knew no better. Like most of the village I’m against them now that I see what they do to the environment. So all I can do is apologise for my part in all of this.”

You could have blown me away - without a wind turbine! I was so glad I had said nothing about what I knew to be his part, enabling his gracious response that for some reason has made me feel so much better.

Strange, isn’t it, how in extremis, not feeling quite so alone can make such a difference.