Black tide brings catastrophe to the holiday beaches of Monsieur Hulot

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Along this stunning coast of pale orange sands, north of the estuary of the Loire, Jacques Tati made one of the greatest comic movies, Monsieur Hulot's Holiday.

Along this stunning coast of pale orange sands, north of the estuary of the Loire, Jacques Tati made one of the greatest comic movies, Monsieur Hulot's Holiday.

Almost half a century later, Monsieur and Madame Lavarenne are also spending a holiday on the beach, but there is nothing comical about what they are doing.

They have come 400 miles, from the Marne in northern France, to spend a week scraping rocks with trowels. They are removing oil as thick as bitumen which, a belated government report says, harbours a tiny but unquantifiable risk of transmitting cancer to those who handle it over long periods.

Since the confirmation that the heavy fuel oil No 2 spilt into the Atlantic by the wreck of the Erika on 12 December is faintly carcinogenic (like most heavy oils), hundreds of volunteers have abandoned the thankless task of cleaning the 300 miles of polluted French coastline.

Not the Lavarennes. "We love this place," said Marie-Jeanne Lavarenne, 52, clad in a protective silver-grey jumpsuit and gloves, despite scorching spring weather. "We have spent many happy holidays here, from when our daughter was a little girl.

"What has happened to these beaches, what you can see, is the real catastrophe, not a vague risk of cancer. I am more likely to catch cancer from the sunshine or from filling my car with petrol, than from cleaning a few rocks. This is a superb place. We want to make it superb again, before the holiday season begins."

Six thousand tonnes - more than half the oil spilled by the Erika - has already been removed from the beaches of the Le Croisic peninsula in the three months. Tens of thousands of soldiers and firemen and temporary workers paid by TotalFina (which owned the oil) are working with heavy machinery and hot-water jets.

Their ghostly silver, pointed, head-to-toe protective outfits add to the sense of menace which hangs over one of the most beautiful and previously unspoiled coastlines in Europe.

At the beginning of next month, the French government will launch a £4.5m publicity campaign - in Britain among other places - to persuade tourists that the French Atlantic coast will be clean and safe for the Easter and summer holidays. Tourist bookings, especially French ones, are down 50 per cent in some places.

I was the only person staying in my hotel, at the tip of the peninsula. "Normally, we would be half-full at least," said the proprietor, Yolande Louis, looking mournfully at the oil-smeared rocks, surrounded by red-and-white "danger" tape. "For our three hotels, we have no bookings for Easter, and very few for May and June."

Oil, cancer and tourism are not an easy mixture. Will the beaches truly be clean by Easter? And safe? Most of the sandy coast south of the Loire is cleared. The northern and western Breton coasts were never touched. A 100-mile stretch of the southern Breton coast remains heavily polluted in places.

The oil is still coming ashore, although the volume is less. Even the apparently clean sands can hide small, sticky pellets. The French talk of a marée noire or black tide but the truth is that the oil from the Erika, scattered all over northern Biscay by the great storms of late December, have produced two black tides a day in southern Brittany for the last three months.

The withdrawal of many volunteers has hampered the clean-up. Christophe Priou, the mayor of Le Croisic, who angered neighbouring town dignitaries last week by pulling volunteers and council workers off his beaches because of the cancer risk, said: "I believe in telling people the truth. The psychosis about the carcinogenic nature of the oil would have been much less if the government had been honest with us from the beginning.

"We don't know, even now, whether the government is telling the truth about the Erika's cargo. Before she sank, these beaches were white. Afterwards they were black. Now they are grey."

The French government refuses to produce a map of which beaches are clean. Some southern Breton beaches appear to be oil-free; others clearly are not and Easter is only a month away.

The beach at Saint-Marc-sur-Mer, where Jacques Tati made Monsieur Hulot in 1953 looked spotless (but the pretty village of the film has been ruined by a different tide of man-made ugliness). On the cancer risks, the Lavarennes are probably right and Mr Priou probably wrong. The risks are so infinitesimal as to be not worth worrying about.

An independent study by a Dutch laboratory showed it would be necessary to touch the oil with bare hands over70 years before there was any real exposure to cancer. On Wednesday, a French parliamentary committee heard evidence from 13 experts. Twelve said the oil spilt by the Erika was carcinogenic, but there was no appreciable risk from short-term contact, even for volunteers who had cleaned sea-birds (against advice) with bare hands. The 13th said the Erika had not spilled fuel oil No 2 but a waste by-product of oil, many times more dangerous.

There is no evidence for this, but Mr Priou has sent away samples for independent analysis. Paranoia rules, partly because the government chose, over two months, to hide the evidence that the oil was carcinogenic, however slightly.

As Mrs Lavarenne says, chipping away at the rocks with her trowel, the cancer scare is a distraction. The real catastrophe - 300,000 seabirds dead, and beaches and coastal ecosystems polluted over a stretch of 100 miles - stares you in the face.

Will all the southern Breton beaches be clean by Easter? No. Will they be clean by summer? Probably, yes.