By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 11, 2009; A12
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.
Mayor Louis Lemouland of Argouges agreed. In a communication to his village's 600 residents, he said the planned windmills will adhere to all government regulations, adding that the turning blades would "not have a significant visual impact on the monument" because they would "melt into the horizon."
But for Gressier and a national alliance of environmental groups, the three windmills at Argouges, if permitted, would be just the beginning. Several companies have drawn up plans for an arc of 80 towers in farming communities all along the ridgeline, they said, which would produce a horizon of whirring blades beyond the monument -- tiny at that distance, perhaps, but visible nonetheless.
Farmers and their village councils, often one and the same, tend to embrace proposals to install windmills in their fields, the groups said, because farmers get stipends for use of the land and villages get tax revenue on income from electricity, which is sold to the national grid at favorable prices by the private companies that build the windmills.
"It's a flourishing business," said Jean-Louis Butré, president of the Durable Environment Federation in Paris.
Although the fight in Argouges revolves around Mont-Saint-Michel, Butré's group has organized nationwide against Sarkozy's effort to expand the use of windmills as a way to reduce carbon emissions. The mills deface the landscape everywhere, he said, and are not an economical way to reach Europe's clean-energy goals.
France already gets nearly 80 percent of its energy from nuclear reactors, Butré explained, and draws another 12 percent from hydraulic generators. That leaves about 8 percent produced by oil, coal, natural gas, solar panels or windmills. If the government wanted to fill that gap with windmills, Butré noted, it would have to install so many that they would be part of the scenery in up to a third of the country.
Butré challenged Sarkozy's policy last year in a book titled "Fraud: Why windmills are a danger for France." Former president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, a champion of nuclear power, provided a preface in which he called windmills a false solution.
"It is a question of denouncing an unacceptable waste of public funds, a deceptive public discourse, an often questionable business," Giscard said.
He added: "It is also a question of saving the landscapes of France, our countryside and soon, our seashore, which is also threatened."