Battle of Mont St Michel erupts – and it's all about car parks

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The Independent Online

President Nicolas Sarkozy has been asked to adjudicate in a village quarrel that has global implications: the future of the Mont St Michel, the most visited tourist site in provincial France.

The new mayor of the island-abbey-village (population 30; annual visitors 3 million) is campaigning against plans to banish tourist car parks to a new site almost one mile inland.

Eric Vannier, elected mayor in March, claims that, from 2012, visitors may have to pay up to €25 (£19.70) a person to reach one of the most beloved places of religious, and tourist, pilgrimage in Europe. If the plans go ahead, he says, the Mont – both its medieval abbey and its single, winding street of shops and restaurants – will become accessible only to a wealthy "elite".

M. Vannier has launched an appeal to President Sarkozy to intervene and reverse some of the decisions taken two years ago as part of an ambitious project to flush away three million cubic metres of silt and sand and restore true island status to the Mont St Michel.

Other local people, and senior officials in charge of the project, reject M. Vannier's claims as "false". They point out that the mayor has extensive business interests, both on the island and just across the access causeway on what locals call "the continent" close to the point where Normandy and Brittany join. They suggest that his arguments are based partly on commercial rivalries, rather than true concern for the needs of visitors or the beauty of the site.

"You have to remember that the Mont St Michel is devoted to Mammon as well as God," one official said. "It is impossible to separate local political interests and local commercial interests."

M. Vannier has no objections to the main thrust of the ingenious €160m works now under way to sweep silt and sand away from the Mont St Michel. If nothing is done, the Mont will cease to be an island within 40 years. A new dam is being built which, from next year, will capture both the tide and the river Couesnon and flush away the sand accumulated over the past century. As part of the project, the car and coach parks on salt flats at the foot of the Mont, will be demolished.

The mayor objects to the plan to build new car parks near a commercial centre, nearly a kilometre inland. He objects to the plan to ferry visitors in a road-train, which will stop half a mile from the rock, obliging all but disabled tourists to approach the island on foot over a new bridge.

M. Vannier also objects to the decision to sub-contract the car parks and shuttle to a private company.

In a statement to Agence France Presse this week, he said that, as a result of those choices, visitors could end up paying €25 each to visit the Mont in parking and shuttle fees. In previous statements, he has spoken of "€25 per car".

M. Vannier wants President Sarkozy to intervene to increase state spending on the project and restore an initial plan to build car parks on the shore just across the one-mile salt flat from the Mont.

Francois-Xavier de Beaulaincourt, 52, is the director of the agency set up by local and regional councils to run the project to "restore the maritime status of the Mont St Michel".

In an interview with The Independent, he rejected the mayor's arguments as "false". "We are looking at a parking fee of six to ten euros, according to season, and a shuttle fee of about one or two euros per passenger. That cannot be made to add up to €25 a car, let alone €5 per person," M. de Beaulaincourt said.

He pointed out that M. Vannier owns the successful "Mère Poulard" brand, which runs shops, a hotel and restaurants on the Mont itself. He also owns two hotels "on the continent", just across from the Mont, close to the point where the mayor wants the car parks to be built.

For ecological and aesthetic reasons, it has been decided to move the car parks further inland.

"The mayor has some good arguments but this is partly about where tourists are likely to spend their money," another local politician said.

M. Vannier did not return repeated calls to ask him for his comments.

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