Saintly rock caught in an unholy row

It's one of France's best-known attractions – but a spiral of neglect has put its World Heritage status at risk. Now, rival camps trying to exploit the tide of tourists are locked in a bitter and costly battle over its future. John Lichfield reports from Mont Saint-Michel

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The Independent Online

Mont Saint-Michel is an off-shore, ancient abbey and "village" with 43 inhabitants, half of them monks. How can such a small and spiritual place – a place of pilgrimage for 1,300 years – generate such a mountain of quarrels? The French have a word for it: "zizanie" or everyone shouting at everyone else.

The mayor of the island, in the bay where Normandy and Brittany join, is suing the former mayor for making false accusations. The former mayor says his successor has abused his office for personal gain. Tourists, meanwhile, are asking why they have to walk a kilometre in order to travel two kilometres on a shuttle bus. All the while, Paris is insisting on an ugly security platform and tunnel, which will permanently disfigure one of the most revered sites – and most spectacular sights – in the world.

And these are not just village quarrels. Mont St-Michel is an international celebrity, the most visited tourist site in provincial France. Its future is being closely monitored by Unesco. The Independent understands that the UN cultural organisation issued a warning last month to the new French government that it might suspend its World Heritage status.

How did it come to this? Mont St-Michel is in the midst of a 20-year project to restore its "maritime character" and its spiritual dignity by banishing the salt-flats, mud and car parks which, until this summer, besieged its rock faces and mediaeval walls. The main thrust of the project – harnessing river and tide to flush away three million cubic metres of silt and sand – is an immense success.

After three years of invisible "flushing" actions by a new dam, Mont St-Michel already looks more like an island this summer than it has for half a century. In another two years, the difference should be spectacular.

Everyone agrees that the silt-sweeping dam – the first ecologically-friendly project of its kind in the world – has solved the conundrum set by the Walrus and the Carpenter in Alice Through the Looking Glass. "They wept like anything to see/Such quantities of sand./ 'If this were only cleared away,'/They said, 'it would be grand'."

The rest of the project, including new car parks and new access to the island, has come to resemble a Mad Hatter's tea party. "It's complex, very complex," François-Xavier de Beaulaincourt, 56, the man in charge of the project said.

"There are so many different interests to satisfy and so many antagonisms to resolve. People see the quarrels but they don't look at the enormous amount that we have achieved. It's very frustrating."

Getting rid of the encircling mud to restore the majesty of Mont St-Michel was never really controversial. But controlling, and exploiting, the tourist tide which engulfs the island each summer (up to three million visitors a year) is a can of sand worms.

The commercial interests sustained by the saintly rock are divided into two warring camps. One, led by the present mayor, Eric Vannier, controls the shops, restaurants and hotels in the narrow medieval streets and ramparts on the island.

The rival camp, led by the former mayor Patrick Gaulois has millions of euros invested in what the locals call "Las Vegas", the strip of shops, supermarkets, restaurants and hotels a mile to the south on the adjoining "continent". "It is a north vs south battle which makes the American Civil war look tame," said one local official.

From this spring, cars and coaches have been banned from driving over the 19th-century causeway to park on the mud-flats beside the island. The causeway is to be demolished in 2014 and replaced by a curving embankment and 700 metre-long viaduct. Spacious new car parks have been built almost a kilometre inland. Free shuttle buses take tourists to the island after they have paid €8 to park. Or rather they don't.

The shuttles start 800 metres from the car parks and stop on the causeway 200 metres from the island. There have been thousands of complaints from visitors at the length of the walk, especially on the return journey. The income of the businesses on the island and the "continent" has fallen by 10 per cent.

The commercial camp on the continent alleges that Mr Vannier illegally influenced the car park and shuttle decisions. They point out that the shuttle buses load their passengers far from the car parks but just outside two hotel-bar-restaurants owned by Mr Vannier at the "continent" end of the causeway.

A broad, new path leads visitors away from the car park but also away from the shops and restaurants owned by the rival commercial camp.

The mayor was briefly arrested earlier this year as a result of a formal complaint. The public prosecutor will decide in the next few weeks whether to pursue a legal action. In the meantime, Mr Vannier is suing Mr Gaulois for "false accusation". The atmosphere at meetings of the nine-strong Mont St Michel municipal council must be spiritual indeed.

Mr Beaulaincourt – though he has had his own disputes with Mr Vannier – dismisses the allegations as "unfounded". The car-park and shuttle arrangements were agreed by the joint steering committee for the project, he said, which has regional, national and local representatives. New signs have already been erected to encourage visitors to walk to the shuttles via the shops and restaurants.

Still, why such an awkward arrangement? "A longer shuttle journey would have meant more shuttles and more drivers and a higher car park charge," Mr Beaulaincourt said. "It was decided it was better to keep the price down."

The present system manifestly does not work. Mr Beaulaincourt says that it is "under review". A longer, and costlier, shuttle journey with two stops, one for the shops, seems a likely solution. The in-land car parks also mean that tourists and local people no longer visit the island to eat or have a drink in the evenings. The evening trade this summer has collapsed. Once again, Mr Beaulaincourt and his team are seeking solutions.

And what of Unesco in all this? Another source of local anger is the insistence by the Interior Ministry in Paris that the new bridge should end in a complex, €2.8m, multi-level, 35,000-sq-metre concrete platform and new tunnel pierced through the rock into the mediaeval village.

This is necessary, according to Paris, to provide a place where emergency vehicles can park and evacuate the sick or injured.

"They are talking of safety but they are destroying the whole point of the original project to restore the character of Mont St-Michel," said Jean-Pierre Delalande of the Amis du Mont Saint-Michel. Petitions have been circulated and even the former Prime Minister, François Fillon, intervened unsuccessfully in favour of a less intrusive platform.

Last month, an inspection team from Unesco visited Mont St-Michel. Afterward, they sent the French government a warning letter with three points. Plans to build wind turbines within viewing distance of the Mont must be dropped (already agreed in principle.)

The commercial strip on the "continent" must be tidied up (already planned). Finally, the high concrete platform and entry tunnel must go, Unesco warned.

Otherwise, the celebrated Mont St-Michel could lose its status as one of the first sites to be granted World Heritage status in 1979.

Mont St-Michel: history

A Gothic-style Benedictine abbey erected on a rocky islet between Normandy and Brittany, Mont St-Michel was built between the 11th and 16th centuries. Used as prison during the French revolution, the fortified structure sits amid sandbanks vulnerable to powerful tides known to change course abruptly. Victor Hugo is said to have remarked that the Mont was to France what the Great Pyramids are to Egypt.

In 1874, the abbey was declared a historic monument by the French, and in 1979, it was added to Unesco's list of World Heritage Sites, making it one of the first sites in the world to be granted the coveted status. Just before, in the 1960s, a religious community moved back into the abbey's dwellings. Today, Mont St-Michel is the most popular regional tourist attraction in France, luring millions of visitors every year.