Out of France: Local nuclear waste war drives mayor to his death

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CHATAIN - This village, near the banks of the Charente river in the Vienne department around Poitiers, was typical of many French hamlets. It had 360 inhabitants, two-thirds of them pensioners. The only cafe closed on Mondays for want of business and the village council had run into debt.

Then, in November 1992, came the prospect of a new future. The state was looking at Chatain for a venture which would bring 900 people to the area, a government grant of 60m francs (pounds 7m) for 15 years for the department and create 150 jobs for local people.

The bad news was that the project was a laboratory to study the treatment of nuclear waste. After 2010, the laboratory site would be turned into a centre that would receive and stock the waste. By the year 2000, France will need to store 887,000 cubic metres (31.3m cubic feet) of nuclear waste.

The idea stirred passions as Michel Faudry, Mayor of Chatain, tried to decide whether his village, not the only site under study by officials, should push for the laboratory or resist it. Christian Bataille, a Socialist National Assembly deputy from the Nord department, was appointed as a mediator to assess public opinion.

The effort was helped by public information meetings attended by Mr Faudry and fellow villagers. At one, in the nearby village of Char roux, ecologists pelted him and local officials with eggs and tomatoes. Then came graffiti in red or black paint: 'Chatain is not for sale'; 'Elected for seven years, radioactive for 24,000'.

Inside the village, the cautious kept their real feelings secret. 'I never said 'I'm for the lab' because my husband's a shopkeeper,' one woman said. 'We need everybody for our business.'

Ecologist groups sprung up in the department to resist the project. In Chatain itself, the main opponent was Daniel Babaud, a carpenter and neighbour of the Mayor.

According to friends and family of the Mayor, Mr Faudry started receiving anonymous calls and insulting letters. 'Bastard, we'll get you,' said one woman caller, according to Anne-Marie Faudry, the Mayor's sister. 'He replied: 'I know you will'.'

The issue became one of rivalries within the Vienne department. 'Here it's like Italy,' one farmer said. 'There is the north, which is rich, and the south of the Vienne, which is poor. Those who decide, of course, come from the north.'

As passions grew throughout last year, Mr Faudry decided to hold a referendum to settle the issue. The prefect of the department told him such a vote would be illegal and could not be financed from public funds. Mr Faudry decided to pay the 800 francs (pounds 93) costs himself and the vote was set for 9 January.

Two days before the vote, letter-boxes in Chatain were filled with tracts, peppered with spelling mistakes, calling the ecologists 'idlers' or 'low-class intellectuals'. Mr Babaud lodged a complaint for libel and a police investigator in Poitiers said the author should be easy to find through the typewriter he or she had used.

On the day of the referendum, there was an unusually high turn-out in a village previously known for its political apathy. The result was firmly in favour of the laboratory and its jobs. Sixty per cent voted for, with 40 per cent against. That evening, a barn belonging to Charles Chevallier, the departmental councillor for the village, was burnt down.

Two days later, a communique signed by one of the groups opposing the project and published in the local daily Centre-Presse, said, referring to Mr Faudry's 'referendum': 'Remember: in August 1934, Hitler had 84 per cent of the vote. The Germans, too, believed in the mirage of employment.'

For the next two weeks, Mr Faudry, 63, continued to preside over council meetings and appear at local functions. On 24 January, he paid a visit to his 87-year-old mother and then headed for the little hunting lodge on the edge of the river where he used to rest with friends after a day's shooting or fishing. He was found there later that day, slumped forward on a table. He had shot himself through the heart with a pistol.

Two letters lay next to the body. One was to his sister with instructions for the disposal of his belongings. The other was to a friend asking him to take care of his canaries and his donkey.