Provence resists invasion of Jean de Florette's scrubland

A beauty spot immortalised by film and novel faces an influx of concrete and car fumes, says <i>John Lichfield</i>. The fight is on
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Aubagne is "a commune dedicated to peace", say the road signs erected by the Communist-led town hall. Aubagne is also a rapidly expanding town at war with itself. Just east of Marseilles, it has entered a battle unique in French political history over the fate of 250 acres of scrubland, limestone outcrops and small farms.

Aubagne is "a commune dedicated to peace", say the road signs erected by the Communist-led town hall. Aubagne is also a rapidly expanding town at war with itself. Just east of Marseilles, it has entered a battle unique in French political history over the fate of 250 acres of scrubland, limestone outcrops and small farms.

Scrubland? Yes, but not just any piece of scrubland: exceptionally beautiful scrubland and scrubland with a rich literary and cinematic history.

Aubagne was the birthplace of one of France's best-loved sons of the 20th century, the poet, playwright, novelist and film maker, Marcel Pagnol. His most popular stories include Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources, which were made into captivating films in the 1980s. The stories were set and filmed amid the grey-blue rocks, the pine trees, the wild rosemary and thyme of the unyieldingly harsh, dry and beautiful hills which come to the town's edge.

The hills are called Le Garlaban, after their principal outcrop, which looks like a gigantic ship's funnel, 2,000ft high. Even the green fringes of the lower slopes, with their sunken, walled tracks and their small fruit and vegetable farms, have been miraculously preserved from the sprawl of France's second biggest metropolis and second fastest-growing region. You can still stand on the hillside above Aubagne, amid the cicadas, the fig and almond trees, the dark-green pines of la garrigue (scrubland), and imagine Jean de Florette's cart, packed with his family and their possessions, bouncing over the rutted track to start their ill-fated farm in the hills.

It is difficult to imagine - as it was when Pagnol came here as a child on holiday 100 years ago - that the dusty streets and sharp elbows of Marseilles are only 10 miles away. But maybe not for long.

One faction of the town's citizens (possibly the majority) believes "Pagnol's hills" should be preserved as Aubagne's cultural and historic birthright, its pride, its talisman. They are a haven of nature and sparse greenery untouched by the concrete tide advancing over much of the south of France.

The Communist mayor sees the foothills of the Garlaban as prime building land for 2,000 houses and new access roads to supply the constant demand for homes in the sun.

In the past 20 years, the French Mediterranean coast has become France's California or France's Florida, with all the economic dynamism and dreary ribbon and bungalow development that implies. Between 1982 and 1999, a net 600,000 people settled in Provence and Languedoc (240,000 left the Pas de Calais and 800,000 left the greater Paris area). Last Thursday, the mayor of Aubagne, Daniel Fontaine, was handed a petition signed by 7,000 people, more than one in four of the town's voters, demanding a referendum on the fate of Le Garlaban. Under a little-used 1995 French law, a petition of one in five local voters is enough to force a referendum on a local planning issue.

Only one commune, a small village south of Avignon, has used the law before. It has never been tested in a town the size of Aubagne, just 10,000 people in 1895 when Pagnol was born here, 25,000 people 10 years ago and now a largely working- and lower-middle-class town of 43,000 (forecast to grow by 30 per cent in 20 years).

The leader of the protest, Jean Vallier, 52, a business consultant, said: "We look at what has happened all along the Côte d'Azur and in the hills behind Nice and Cannes. We look at what has happened along the Var coast between here and Toulon, and on the Languedoc coast from Montpellier to the Spanish border. Concrete, concrete as far as you can see. Villas, bungalows and blocks of flats. We don't want that here.

"Of course people need homes, and we are not against development, but we must call a halt somewhere to the mistakes made elsewhere. People also need somewhere to breathe, somewhere that preserves the beauty of Provence as Marcel Pagnol knew it and described so well." Le Garlaban is the southern rampart of a virtual wilderness, 400 miles square, encircled by motorways. This island of savage beauty, already much disfigured by forest fires, rises abruptly from the streets of Marseilles to the west, and touches Aix-en-Provence in the north.

The survival of these limestone hills is due in part to their inhospitable terrain and in part to a European preservation order. But the protection applies only to the hill-tops. As the demand for homes in the Midi grows, with the coastal plain already crowded with peach-coloured bungalows in "old" Provençal style, local councils and property developers are beginning to nibble at the long-protected hills.

There is also a fierce row over plans to build homes on the lower slopes of Mont Saint-Victoire, near Aix, the mountain cherished and painted over and over again by Paul Cézanne. The biggest single re-zoning project - with more to come, opponents suspect - is on the hills above Aubagne.

Despite repeated requests for an interview, M. Fontaine declined to defend his plan to extend his town to the piedmont (lower slopes) of Le Garlaban. The Aubagne town hall, despite repeated requests over 10 days, failed to put forward any official to explain the project.

On its website, Aubagne claims to be a citizens' town, which encourages "debate on democratic ideas" and "wishes to associate the entirety of its inhabitants with reflection on the dangers of free-market globalisation". Aubagne town hall's commitment to democratic debate does not, it seems, extend to answering questions from foreign journalists.

It would have been interesting to ask the Communist mayor how he squares his fashionable opposition to "free-market globalisation" with his plan to squash the fiercely Provençal character of part of the Garlaban foothills by encouraging property developers to buy out small farmers.

In the interests of fairness, by studying previous comments made by the town hall to the local press, one can assume that the town hall might have defended itself as follows. First, the plans concern only a small part of the foothills, which lie within the municipal boundaries of Aubagne; second, they do not quite extend to the valley (only a kilometre away) where Pagnol's stories were set and filmed; third, the opponents of the building plans are wealthy people who live in converted farmhouses in the foothills and oppose, out of snobbishness, any influx of new building in the area; and, fourth, Aubagne has to expand somewhere and there is no alternative.

Opponents say the threatened area is not small. The 100 hectares (250 acres) are spread all over the lowest slopes of Le Garlaban, nearest to the town. They come right up to the boundaries of "Pagnol's" valley, which would be left as a kind of Disneyland, with the beauty of the wider garrigues smeared with housing estates and even small tower blocks. Finally, the 7,000 signatures on the petition prove that opposition to the plans goes well beyond the handful of people who live in the threatened area.

Christian Rousseau, 49, lives on the threatened hillsides, but he is not wealthy. He is a small fruit and vegetable farmer with two and a half acres of land, only 15 minutes walk over the hills from the setting of the doomed rabbit farm (flower farm in the film) of Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources.

Standing beside his pocket of rich, red, clay soil, surrounded by pinèdes (clumps of twisted pine trees) and outbreaks of limestone, he said: "If the houses are built, most of this will be a road. Even if I can keep enough land, I will be surrounded by car fumes and houses. My produce is organic but it won't be organic any more."

But why does he not just sell and take the money? The re-zoning of the hills has made his scrap of land worth €600,000 (£400,000). "Ah, but I'm not the proprietor," he said. "I am just a tenant. I rent the land." Who is the proprietor to whom he pays rent? "My mother," he said. "She lives here also. Luckily she is 80 and she does not want to go anywhere at her time in life so she is unlikely to sell.

"But some of the older farmers, even though their families have been here for generations, yes, of course they are tempted. They get calls from developers all the time, offering them a million or two million for their land. You can't blame them for being tempted."

The dispute has echoes of Pagnol's work, which turned on arguments about the ownership of land; about poisonous local jealousies; about tensions between town and country; about intrigue and cunning. Pagnol started as a poet and became a playwright and film-maker (introducing the talkies to France), then turned novelist late in life.

Manon des Sources, which is based on the true, local story of the revenge of a daughter for her betrayed father, was a Pagnol film in 1952. He turned it into two novels in 1963, which became two films after his death in 1974.

He is now usually sneered at by the Parisian literary establishment (which prefers anguished books about anguished writers living in Paris) but he was among the few writers of the 20th century to bridge the gap between books and film. Like Thomas Hardy in Britain or John Steinbeck in America, he wrote books in which the landscape was a main character, a landscape which survives but might have been ruined, by Pagnol himself, long ago.

In the 1930s, he was so taken with cinema that he tried to promote Aubagne as a French Hollywood. As a town in dry climate, by a dusty plain and barren mountains near the sea, there are clear resemblances. If he had succeeded, paradoxically, his beloved hills might now look like Beverly Hills or Bel Air. Since he did not succeed, Pagnol's hills - described by Jean de Florette as "a little corner of paradise" - are still there for succeeding generations to enjoy. But for how long?

Suzanne Audibert, 59, a teacher of English and a leader of the campaign to preserve the hills, said: "The sun brings people to Provence but what use is the sun without greenery, without fresh air? Someone must call a halt to the development before the sun is all that we have left."