Mobile peak meets immovable village

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The Independent Online
THIS IS a story of a mountain, a handful of stubborn villagers and the formidable French government machine. The mountain is moving, so some geologists insist. The villagers refuse to move. And French officialdom, once its mind is made up, never moves.

The result: deadlock. Unless the mountain really does move. "That mountain is going nowhere," said Paul Pontonnier, pointing at the forbidding, mist- encircled cliffs of the Ruine de Sechilienne, a 2,500ft miniature alp just to the east of Grenoble.

"It's solid right through, save for a few pebbles which fall now and then. And that has always happened. I am not moving. Never. Never. Ten generations of my family have lived here.

"My wife is sick upstairs in bed. How can I move? If they come to get me - and I have warned the gendarmes to their faces - I will shoot them on my doorstep like dogs."

In theory, Mr Pontonnierand the other remaining inhabitants of L'Ile Falcon must be gone by the end of this year. This, at least, is the edict of the prefect of the Isere, the most senior government official in this department.

No one - not even the prefect - expects them to go easily. The battle of L'Ile Falcon has been going on for 12 years. It will probably go on for several years more. Unless, of course, the mountain falls...

Two-thirds of the villagers have already departed, their homes compulsorily purchased - some demolished in recent days - under a new law that allows the government to intervene to shift citizens in "imminent peril". About 100 people remain, insisting, like Mr Pontonnier, that the whole business is "an absurdity, a lie, a swindle, a disgrace".

Resistance comes naturally to Mr Pontonnier: he joined the local Maquis at the age of 15 in 1944. He still has a military bearing, somewhat spoilt by his favourite hat, a black and yellow baseball cap with a Batman motif.

Before you go to L'Ile Falcon, the story is clear. The French government is acting sensibly, if officiously, on scientific advice. One hundred million cubic metres of rock - enough to build 12 miles of motorway - could fall on the village at any moment. A few boneheaded diehards are refusing to see sense.

Once you arrive in the village, a pleasant community of mostly new houses in a wooded valley, nothing is quite so clear ever again. "Is that the mountain?" you confidently ask, pointing at a grim wall of snow and ice- spangled rock rising just behind the village. "Not at all," you are told, with a snort. "It's that one over there." You are shown a sheer but, by alpine standards, smallish-looking mountain more than a kilometre away. "But how could ... ?"

"You see?" said Mr Pontonnier. "You see what I mean now?" In between the mountain and the village there is a broad river, the Romanche, and the N91 main road from Grenoble to Briancon and Turin, one of the four principal road links between France and Italy. The French government is not trying to close or divert the road, which runs just below the allegedly unstable cliffs. It is not planning to shut its electricity-generating station in the village.

"None of it makes any sense," said Rosa Poipy, 68, who lives in an old stone house at the end of the village, somewhat nearer the moving mountain. "In the winter this road has traffic jams three or four hours long, with people going to the ski resorts at Les Deux Alpes and L'Alpe Huez. What if the mountain fell on them? But it's not going to fall. I have lived here 50 years. I have looked at that mountain every day. Nothing has changed. The chamois are still on the mountain. They would be the first to go if they sensed danger."

L'Ile Falcon is the first site in "imminent peril" to be saved, or plagued, by the law, passed in 1995. This is no accident. The law was framed partly because of the fuss made by some residents and local politicians who insisted the village was at risk.

The complainers were almost all newcomers who moved in from Paris or Marseilles or Lille when jobs were plentiful in the Grenoble area in the 1970s. It was they who first became alarmed by small falls of rock on the Ruine de Sechilienne. (The name reflects the unkempt appearance of the mountain and suggests that it has been falling down since the individual alps were named centuries ago). Some local politicians took up the fight on their behalf. The other local people laughed.

Government-appointed geologists made test borings into the mountain and decided that it was moving dangerously. The new law was passed; L'Ile Falcon became a test case. The government machine moved inexorably forward. Compulsory purchases were ordered last year.

The older-established residents stopped laughing. Most of the newer, avalanche-fearing residents grabbed their compensation and moved back to Paris and Marseilles and Lille (which may have been what they wanted in the first place).

Andre Pollet, head of the government roads and engineering department for the Isere department, insists the peril is real. "There is permanent, continuous, extremely slow movement in the mountain," he said. "The movement was once measurable only in geological time. It is now measurable in human time. The catastrophe will happen in this generation."

But how could a mountain destroy a village that is mostly a kilometre distant? Mr Pollet insists that, according to the expert advice, the village would be swept away.

This advice was, however, based on the original estimate of a 100 million cubic metre avalanche; even official estimates now put the likely fall at no more than 3 million cubic metres.

Independent experts who were approached by the villagers, including the respected Professor Jacques Monnet of Grenoble University, say the entire problem is fictitious, that there is no risk at all.

The mayor of the commune in which the village stands energetically supports the rebels. Together they have made an appeal to the French constitutional court, the Conseil d'Etat, the only power capable of reversing the decision to wipe L'Ile Falcon from the map.

The mayor, Gilles Strapazon, said: "It's a bizarre story, a sad story. Personally I don't think even the prefect believes any longer that there is any threat to the village. But too much prestige and money is invested for them to admit their mistake."

And so the battle goes on. Until the mountain falls; or, marginally more likely, the French government machine gives way.