Mobile peak meets immovable village

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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser