Bikers declare war on the French plane tree

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The Independent Online

A chainsaw civil war has broken out over the future of one of the best-known, and best-loved, features of the French landscape – the tree-lined country road.

A chainsaw civil war has broken out over the future of one of the best-known, and best-loved, features of the French landscape – the tree-lined country road.

By dead of night this week, a group calling itself the Anti-Plane Tree Commando sawed down 66 trees on a minor road in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The same group, believed to consist of local motorcyclists armed with power saws, destroyed 96 plane trees on another stretch of the same road, just north of Tarbes, in June.

The anonymous protesters sent a message to the local newspaper at the time, complaining that they were "sick to the teeth" over the number of motorcyclists, and other motorists, who ended their days plastered against road-side trees. A 21-year-old had died in a motorbike accident on the road the previous week.

According to one survey, nearly one in 10 of the 8,000 road deaths in France each year involves collisions with trees. There is already an official policy – challenged by tree-lovers and ecological groups – to remove all trees that are within 1.5 metres of the roadside. Thousands of trees have already fallen victim to this policy, which has been interpreted by some local councils, in the south-west and Normandy in particular, as an invitation to remove all plantations from busy roads.

However, the felling of trees by private groups, dissatisfied with the pace of the official chainsaw massacre, is a new phenomenon. There have been several similar incidents in other parts of France this summer, but none of them on the scale of the action in the Hautes Pyrenées.

In a letter sent to a local radio station this week, the Anti-Plane Tree Commando said it had been forced to put pressure on the government, because "things have not advanced since June". The same letter called on people all over France to take chainsaws into their own hands.

Chantal Fauché, the president of the Association for the Protection of Road-side Trees, blames successive French governments for creating an anti-tree psychosis among road- users. "The politicians prefer to cut down trees rather than take any real action against speeding and drinking, which are the real causes of deaths on the roads," she said. If all the trees were cut down, the motorists and motorcyclists would collide with walls, or hedges, or road signs instead, she added.

The agriculture minister, Jean Glavany, incensed ecological groups in June – after the first clandestine attack on plane trees in the Pyrenees – by, in effect, congratulating the protesters (who happened to be his constituents). He said a tree – unlike a road sign or a wall – is an immovable object and, therefore, uniquely dangerous for a skidding vehicle.

"I consider trees along the roadside to be a public danger," he said. "If your car leaves the road for whatever reason, if you hit a tree you are much more likely to die than if you don't." But Mr Glavany's argument is somewhat undermined by the fact that the 21-year-old motorcyclist whose death provoked the attacks on the plane trees in his constituency did not actually strike a tree. Gendarmes say that he was riding too fast, came across a tractor when he turned a bend, and swerved into a hedge.

The lines of trees that grace French roads are sometimes attributed to Napoleon, but were in fact already a feature of France in the 18th century. Noblemen used to compete to create the finest plantations of trees on public roads leading to their estates.

Arguments over the compatibility of such trees with motor vehicles are not new. President Georges Pompidou – traditionally seen as a friend of the car – wrote to his Prime Minister, Jacques Chaban-Delmas, in 1970, opposing the suppression of roadside trees. "France does not exist solely for people to drive around in cars," he wrote. "The requirements of road safety should not disfigure the French countryside."

And the poet, Raymond Queneau, wrote at about the same time: "Plane trees no longer grow beside the road. They have emigrated to calmer places. They have had enough of cars hitting them in their trunks at full speed. They have had enough of hearing all the ladies and gentlemen accuse them of being responsible for all life's dramas."