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

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.

News
people
News
people
Voices
Left: An illustration of the original Jim Crowe, played by TD Rice Right: A Couple dressed as Ray and Janay Rice
voices

By performing as African Americans or Indians, white people get to play act a kind of 'imaginary liberation', writes Michael Mark Cohen

News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Hand out press photograph/film still from the movie Mad Max Fury Road (Downloaded from the Warner Bro's media site/Jasin Boland/© 2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
films'You have to try everything and it’s all a process of elimination, but ultimately you find your path'
Arts and Entertainment
Imelda Staunton as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films
books

New essay by JK Rowling went live on Pottermore site this morning

News
Russia Today’s new UK channel began broadcasting yesterday. Discussions so far have included why Britons see Russia as ‘the bad guy’
news

New UK station Russia Today gives a very bizarre view of Britain

News
people

Top Gear presenter is no stranger to foot-in-mouth controversy

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch at the premiere of The Imitation Game at the BFI London Film Festival
filmsKeira Knightley tried to miss The Imitation Game premiere to watch Bake Off
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes