Clean-Energy Quest Splits France

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 11, 2009

MONT-SAINT-MICHEL, France -- Over the centuries, this iconic shrine on the Normandy coast has seen more than its share of battles. The latest skirmish involves not knights in shining armor, but opposing camps of environmentalists, jousting over the wisdom of installing windmill farms on nearby hillsides to turn sea breezes into clean energy.

Although played out in a medieval setting, it is a conflict of the times -- and in many ways a struggle between two good causes. On one side are those who want to reduce carbon emissions by drawing electricity out of wind. On the other stand equally dedicated ecologists who say the sight of 21st-century windmills churning above the tidal flats around Mont-Saint-Michel would detract from one of the world's most striking and best-known monuments.

"Mont-Saint-Michel represents 13 centuries of history," said Corinne Gressier, a nurse who lives in the ridge-top village of Argouges, where some of the disputed windmills would rise. "Excuse me, but if we can't prevent this site from being ruined, I don't know what to tell you."

The project has the support of local officials and President Nicolas Sarkozy's government. For these advocates of the environment, it would be a worthy contribution to France's program to expand its 2,500 windmills producing 4,500 megawatts a year to 8,500 producing 25,000 megawatts by 2020.

A push to curb climate change by slashing carbon emissions has gained ground across Europe. In December, the European Union adopted stringent goals to limit greenhouse gases. Last week, it recommended that its 27 member countries invest an additional $70 billion in clean energy over the next decade, including tripling windmill construction to produce up to 20 percent of Europe's electricity.

But the potential political impact of environmental concerns has become particularly clear in France, where Green party candidates did surprisingly well in European elections in June. Since then, Sarkozy has intensified efforts to identify his center-right government with environmental themes, seeking to lure Green voters from their natural alliance with the opposition Socialists.

The activists here have no quarrel with the quest for clean energy, but, they argue, putting windmills on the ridgeline above Mont-Saint-Michel is not the way to do it. Backed by allies around the country, they have mounted a campaign to prove that the windmills -- even at 10 miles away -- would desecrate the vista for the more than 3 million visitors who come every year to admire the rock-top monastery rising from tidewater more than 500 feet into the sky.

In some ways, the activists are tilting at windmills. Mont-Saint-Michel's mayor, Eric Vannier, has remained aloof from the struggle, more concerned about an engineering project to flush silt from the tidal flats. A letter to the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which has listed Mont-Saint-Michel as a World Heritage Site, went unanswered. Sarkozy's ecology minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, has espoused windmills as essential to the effort to reduce carbon emissions.

Still, when about 600 people, Gressier among them, gathered below the monastery late last month to protest the plan, they gained national attention for their cause. More concretely, they pooled their money with national environmental groups and hired lawyers to sue the local government. A court ruling is expected in the spring.

"If we win, we will have saved Mont-Saint-Michel. They'll have to put everything back beyond 30 kilometers," about 18 1/2 miles, said Gressier, who runs a group named Windmills: Turbulences. "But if we lose, it's over."

In general, French law bans windmills closer than 1,500 feet from historical monuments. The case before the court in Nantes concerns plans to erect three 300-foot-high windmills on farmland in Argouges, on a green plateau a little more than 10 miles southeast of Mont-Saint-Michel.

At that distance, tourists at the monument would see only tiny blades peeking over the horizon, André Antolini, president of the industry's Renewal Energies Syndicate, told reporters last month. "Our adversaries are not serious," he added.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company