The Camargue, the great triangle of wetlands in the mouth of the river Rhône, is the last great wilderness of the north-west Mediterranean coast. It is a timeless place of pink flamingos pecking in shallow lagoons; of black bulls grazing on the salt marshes; of white horses splashing through the surf.
The eastern corner of the Camargue is also a place of vast, ugly, man-made alps of salt, mined from the sea. The salt is used to make chemicals or melt icy, winter roads. A human intrusion? An eyesore? Yes, but the saltworks are also vital to preserve the beauty of the Camargue.
In the past six months, the Rhône delta has been the site of an unintentional, but fascinating, experiment in mankind's ambivalent relationship with the "natural". Everything connects. Our activities, especially our industrial activities, sometimes threaten the planet. In the Camargue, the process is reversed. Nature depends on human activities to survive.
Last winter, 128 Camargue salt "miners" went on partial strike. This spring and summer, 20,000 greater flamingos - one of the world's most bizarrely beautiful birds - came out in sympathy.
The birds are the only large breeding colony of flamingos in Europe and north Africa. Apart from a couple of small sites in Italy and Spain, they are the only breeding community of flamingos on the Mediterranean coast.
And they have failed to lay a single egg all spring and early summer. It is now too late for them to breed this year. This is the first time this has happened in 30 years. Why?
In January, the owners of the saltworks, Salins du Midi, lost their main contract. They planned to close the site. In protest, the 128 salt workers stopped pumping and sluicing water from the Mediterranean.
The beautiful salt lagoons of the Camargue are formed by the run-off of dilute sea brine from the saltworks. The lagoons rapidly dried up. Flamingos will breed only on small islands in salt lagoons. They stopped laying. Everything connects.
An ecological catastrophe? Not really. There are plenty of flamingos. They often live for 30 years. It would be a catastrophe only if the 10,000 breeding pairs of flamingos in the Camargue stopped laying eggs year after year after year.
Clearly, the flamingos have a vital interest in the continued industrial extraction of salt in the Camargue. The birds did truly "come out in sympathy" with the salt workers.
In turn, the flamingo strike helped the salt men. The Camargue is listed by Unesco and the European Union as a site of global ecological importance. The non-laying flamingos were an embarrassment to the French government. After the presidential election was over, pressure and incentives were rapidly applied to end the dispute. The row has been resolved. Salt extraction will continue, on a reduced scale, near Salin-de- Giraud, a village entirely dependent on salt, at the eastern end of the Camargue. There will be 46 salt-sluicing jobs and 10 new "environmental" jobs. Seawater will be pumped and sluiced into the lagoons again. There is every reason to believe that the flamingos will resume raising their extraordinarily ugly chicks next spring.
But the dispute is a timely reminder of the fragility of the Camargue. The central Rhône delta - hauntingly beautiful in places, crushingly dull in others - is an artificial wilderness. Its landscape, largely created by human activity, is now threatened, by human activity, and inactivity.
For 250 years, the Camargue has been torn, and shaped, by battles between local interests, and struggles to resist outside interference, as ferocious as the endless battles between the Mediterranean and the Rhône for control of the delta. Those battles are so intense that the protected status of the Camargue as a "regional natural" park may be about to disappear into legal and political quicksand.
"Everything here is a balance," said Eric Coulet, director of the nature reserve at the centre of the delta. "It is a balance between the river and the sea, between fresh water and salt, between nature and human activity. The salt dispute was a reminder of that. If the saltworks had closed, the village of Salin-de-Giraud would have been knocked sideways. But so would the flamingos." The birds did fly away and try to breed to the west near Aigues-Mortes, where there is another saltworks. Storms wrecked their nests. The Camargue breeding grounds are better protected. M. Coulet is confident the flamingos will resettle in their old nests next year. He is less certain about the other shifting sands threatening the Camargue.
Part of the settlement of the salt dispute involves building a tourist development in a wilder part of the salt marshes. There are plans for a bridge into the Camargue from the Marseilles direction, threatening a huge influx of weekend visitors.
The rise in the levels of the oceans threatens to overwhelm the dykes separating the Camargue from the Mediterannean. The periodic flooding of the Rhône threatens, one day or another, to burst the "levees" which channel the river either side of the delta.
The rice-growing industry, which is the other great staple of the Camargue economy, is menaced by changes in the EU farm subsidy and market protection system. If rice farming ended, there could be another ecological calamity. The wetlands around the Etang de Vaccares in the centre of the delta depend on the run-off of the fresh water pumped from the river into the ricefields as much as surplus sea water from the saltworks.
All these competing, and balancing, interests - residents, tourists, farmers, salt workers, birds and animals - are supposed to be managed by the 80-year-old "Camargue regional park". This covers the whole delta, not just the smaller "nature reserve" run by M. Coulet.
In the past six years, the park authority itself has been the object of an absurd and protracted legal and political struggle. If an agreement is not reached soon, in December the park will cease to exist, for the second time in three years.
For many years, the regional park was run by a private foundation, mostly controlled by the big landowners, the rice growers and the salt extraction companies. This is not as iniquitous as it sounds, because these were the groups who essentially made the Camargue what it is today.
In 2001, the then centre-left, French government decided that, under French national law, and EU law, the public funds entrusted to the park should no longer be managed by a private foundation. (There was also a small matter of €600,000 (£400,000) inexplicably missing from the foundation's accounts.)
Control of the park was transferred in 2003 to a new public body, with a governing council with representatives from all layers of society in the Camargue, from the biggest landowners to ordinary residents. The salt companies and the landowners protested that this was a Soviet-style nationalisation to impose state control on the Camargue. They brought a legal action before the French state watchdog, the Conseil d'Etat, complaining among other things that the park's charter and title had been granted to the private foundation until 2008. They could not be handed to another body.
The Conseil d'Etat upheld the landowners' complaint. Another structure was created, entrusting control to a kind of committee of all the local and regional councils. The landowners - and one in particular - brought another legal action. The Conseil d'Etat again declared the new organisation illegal in February of this year. The ad hoc body now running the park will vanish in December unless an agreement is reached.
Behind this ridiculous-seeming quarrel, there lie personal, party political and ancestral hatreds. There is also a more elemental dispute. Who should control the Camargue? The local, rice-growing landowners and the salt-extraction industries, both of which are struggling to survive? Or regional politicians?
The more extreme ecologists say the salt company has secret plans to turn the Camargue into a giant marina. Some landowners say the debate is the prelude to a "fundamentalist ecologist" takeover, which would dismantle the sea and river defences, drive out people and return the Camargue to a primeval swamp.
The best writer on the Camargue is not a naturalist, nor a historian, nor even a poet, although he is a little of all of those. Bernard Picon, 63, is a sociologist. His book L'Espace et le Temps en Camargue (Actes Sud) is the best account of its confusing history and disputed present.
M. Picon says: "People come to the Camargue and they see a landscape of biblical simplicity. Fields, lagoons, marshes and sea. Full stop, that's all. They don't understand how complex the history and the economy and the ecology are. They may say good riddance to the rice farming but, if the rice goes, who would pay for the pumping of the water from the Rhône that goes on to fill the Etang de Vaccares?"
The Camargue has survived as a great area of "natural" beauty only because of a deadlock between the rice interests and the salt interests, M. Picon says. But the Camargue has become, with an influx of hotels, restaurants, pony-trekking, local commuters and second homes, more complex. The threats, from sea, river and mass tourism, are acute.
Now the scene is set for an intervention by one of those tourists. But not just any tourist.
On the last day before the first round of the French presidential election - which Nicolas Sarkozy won - he was filmed in the Camargue, riding a white horse and wearing a Stetson, like a good sheriff in a western.
There are indications that Sheriff Sarkozy is preparing to step into the Camargue dispute with his six-guns blazing. Local politicians from his centre-right party say the regional park should be abolished and replaced by a national park, which would put the squabbling Camargue under the control of Paris.
The local landowners will be furious. How will the world's most politically savvy flamingos react?Reuse content