A bridge too far? Trouble on paradise island

The Ile de Ré is one of France's more exclusive summer retreats – thanks in part to the toll on the bridge. But regulars are worried that the end of the charge will open the floodgates
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In the year 1627, a British army and fleet attempted, calamitously, to capture the Ile de Ré, a straggly, lobster-shaped island in the Atlantic, off France. Until the 1950s, some of the older island women still wore their hair in a quichenotte or "kiss-me-not", an elaborate style originally adopted to warn 17th-century British soldiers that the women of Ré were not to be trifled with.

The quichenotte is no longer to be seen on the island's beautiful, windswept beaches, nor on the quaysides of Saint-Martin-de- Ré, one of the most picturesque old harbours in Europe. The weathered sandstone buildings which once sold rope or nets now sell expensive shoes, swimsuits and jewellery.

The Ile de Ré has become one of the most sought-after pieces of coastal real estate in France, a thinking man's riviera; a bling-free Saint- Tropez; a place of retreat for the more reflective kind of actors, pop singers, ex-prime ministers, senior civil servants and business executives as well as many ordinary French people.

This summer, a second battle of the Ile de Ré has broken out and will be fought out over the next couple of years. The outcome could have important lessons, or warnings, for the fate of other pieces of coastline, threatened by the twin tides of tourism and what the French call the papy-boom, the hunger of wealthy baby-boomers for a place by the sea.

The object of the new battle of the Ile de Ré, like many other battles, is a bridge; not a bridge too far, but a bridge too cheap. Twenty years ago, to the delight of many and the despair of some, the Ile de Ré ceased to be an island. A graceful, hump-backed bridge was built between Ré and what the inhabitants insist on calling "the continent" two miles away.

Since then, the population of Ré has doubled, to 18,000. From attracting 670,000 visitors a year, pre-bridge, the island now has three million visitors a year. The relatively high cost of crossing the bridge – €16.50 (£13) per car – has kept the crowds under control (just about). It has also, some residents believe, helped to keep away a certain kind of mass, day-tripping tourism, which would lower the tone of the boutique-lined quays at Saint-Martin or damage what remains of the island's pristine beauty.

By the beginning of 2012, in theory, the toll for reaching the island will cease to exist. The loans for building the bridge will have been paid off. The Ile de Ré will be accessible cheaply to all.

The shockwaves running through some islanders at this prospect are similar to the horror of the people of Hong Kong at imminent Chinese rule in the 1980s. Their attitude also recalls that of the prim, kiss-me-not Rétaises of the 1600s. Some big names, such as the actress Carole Bouquet, have already sold up and gone elsewhere.

"One does not want to be a snob, but if the bridge is toll-free, or even cheap, the Ile de Ré will cease to be the Ile de Ré," said Louise, a blonde, slender Parisian woman in her 50s, who owns a seafront house at Les Portes, the most exclusive and celeb-infested village in the island. "I am trying to sell while the prices remain high. I am not the only one."

Bernard Dorin, 72, a retired engineer who was born on the island, is president of the island's oldest residents' association. He believes that the squabbling interest groups need to put their differences aside.

"We have a pearl here, an Atlantic pearl, but it can only be preserved if we think clearly and work together," he said. "If you go down to the harbour at Saint-Martin de Ré in the summer, the quays are like the platforms of the Paris Métro at rush hour. You are lucky if you are not elbowed into the water.

"If even more people are encouraged to come to the island, what's going to happen? A certain kind of quality of life will disappear. The issue is often portrayed, as the rich islanders trying to keep the less rich at bay. In France, we are fated to be stuck for ever in 1789. But not everyone who lives in Ré is rich."

The value of property on the island has increased fivefold in the past 10 or 12 years, creating anomalies. Poor, retired farmers find themselves eligible to pay the national government's hated, annual "wealth" tax, because their tumbledown farmhouses are valued at more than €750,000 (£600,000). Many who work or were born on the island cannot afford to live there. Local resentments thrive.

Is the Ile de Ré genuinely an unspoilt "pearl"? Driving through the 30km-long island in summer has become a laborious business. There is a permanent, slow-moving procession of cars.

And yet, off the main roads, the Ile de Ré remains a truly magical place. How many fragments of 80 sq km of earth and sand can boast cognac vineyards, oyster beds, one of the finest bird reserves in Europe, and endless, sandy beaches, backed by dunes and pine forests? The island is a walkers' paradise and the villages remain stunningly pretty.

In truth, the arguments over the bridge are often misleading. The principal fear of the islanders is day-tripping invasions by near-neighbours, rather than mass invasions from the poor suburbs of Paris or Lyons.

The bridge has already been toll-free for island residents since 2004. And it has become clear in recent weeks that the bridge is unlikely ever to be toll-free for visitors. Already the toll for crossing the bridge contains a €3.05 "eco-tax", a contribution by visitors to the preservation of the island's environment and beauty. And an outline deal has already been worked out which would reduce the bridge toll to zero in 2012 but increase the "eco-tax" to €15 per car, for visitors only.

France being France, it needs a decision at national level to change the existing law and prolong the bridge tolls after 2011. Since the Ile de Ré is a favoured spot of politicians (including the former prime minister, Lionel Jospin), agreement in Paris should not, in theory, be difficult to find.

The problem may be the people who live just across the bridge on the "continent". The people of La Rochelle and Rochefort, who have no beaches, do not see why they should pay to go to sunbathe on the Ile de Ré when the rich Rétais can drive across the bridge to visit La Rochelle free. The bridge was, after all, built by all the taxpayers of the département of Charente Maritime, not just the Rétais.

"Any fair solution should involve the islanders paying something to use the bridge as well," M. Dorin added. "Otherwise it will be too easy to portray us as simply rich and selfish."

Patrice Raffarin, the mayor of Rivedoux, the first village on the island after the bridge, says the crucial question is how the eco-tax is spent. He says: "The money must be used to create a proper system of public transport so visitors will be able to leave their cars on the other side of the bridge."

The new eco-tax law could be made more "natiional" and apply to all areas of fragile, natural beauty in France. A few eco-taxes on tourist visits already exist elsewhere, and are likely to multiply in the years ahead.

If the money is seen to be genuinely used to protect the environment, all could be well. But if the "entry payments" are seen as a way of protecting the tranquillity of the rich, France may undergo one of its periodic flashbacks to 1789.