The hermit, a car crash, his widow and the dosh
It was an unusual marriage, and a short one. John Lichfield on the anger among villagers towards the wife who inherits a mountainside
The wedding of Sandrine and Marcel Amphoux in a French Alpine village was a memorable affair. She was a glamorous 42-year-old Parisian estate agent and he a toothless, 67-year-old local hermit. The villagers of Puy Saint Pierre turned up to boo and shout insults.
That was 15 months ago. Last week the village (population 520) turned out en masse once again –for Marcel's funeral. This time, there were no boos, but there were angry murmurs when the widow, elegantly dressed in black, tried to hurl herself into Marcel's grave.
The parish priest gave a sermon in which he spoke of "manipulation". He suggested that Marcel, 68, the owner of five potentially valuable shepherds' huts, had been treated like a "balance sheet" rather than a human being.
Sandrine, 43, sat in silence. She gave her own eulogy for Marcel, which – to the fury of villagers – was dotted with references to Islam, rather than Christianity.
Marcel Amphoux died in a road accident 10 days ago. A car driven by a friend of his wife plunged from a mountain road in heavy mist. Marcel was killed instantly. The friend was badly hurt. The accident has been investigated by the gendarmerie. Foul play is not suspected. Sandrine will inherit Marcel's five tumbledown properties and six acres of barren mountainside close to the rapidly expanding ski resort of Serre Chevalier, near Briançon.
The marriage between Marcel and Sandrine was short but eventful. Their wedding picture appeared all over the world in September last year. Sandrine wore a magnificent mauve silk dress and carried a bunch of roses and a jewelled handbag. Marcel wore a grey suit, mauve silk tie and waistcoat and his battered, floppy hat.
After that, Sandrine spent most of her time in Paris, looking after her four businesses, including an estate agency. Marcel continued to live in one of his mountain huts, without electricity or running water. Sandrine and Marcel never lived together but they did make a pop record and a video clip, which was available on YouTube until last week. (It has now been blocked.)
The video was Sandrine's response to those villagers who suggested that her interest in the eccentric, local bachelor might not be entirely romantic. She cavorted in the Alpine meadows like a blonde Julie Andrews. She sang her own composition, "L'appel du soleil" ("The call of the sun"). Marcel – one assumed that it was Marcel – butted in from time to time, his face covered by a hood.
When the video was made in April, Sandrine spoke about their unconventional marriage to the local press. "Marcel is a man from the Middle Ages, even prehistoric times," she said. "I am a true Parisian. I still live there. But I visit my husband as often as I can. To see him and to make him smile."
Sandrine says that she met Marcel on holiday and that they fell in love. Marcel's neighbours say that she tried to buy his land and, when he refused, she courted him with trips to restaurants and the seaside. As the neighbouring ski resort expands, they say, Marcel's property will be worth a fortune. Old shepherds' huts, converted and extended into ski chalets, can sell for up to €800,000 (£646,000).
Villagers say that Marcel was a "marginal" and eccentric bachelor, who was forced by the veterinary authorities to give up farming 20 years ago. Sandrine says that Marcel's good nature was long abused by local people, some of whom had lived for many years in his properties for free.
After their marriage, the tenants received letters from Marcel's lawyer, complaining that they were not paying the rent. They paid up. Marcel never banked the cheques. The lawyer says that Marcel was unhappy with the marriage and had recently started an action to bring it to an end. Sandrine denies this.
At Marcel's funeral last Monday, Sandrine gave a dramatic oration in which she raised her arms to heaven and said "God is great" and "when the sun rises towards Mecca". As Marcel was buried, she had to be restrained from throwing herself into his grave.
Local people had accused Sandrine of trying to hold the funeral secretly. They turned out in force. One person gave a eulogy in which he described Marcel as "always the last person out collecting wood and the last person on the hillside bringing home his donkeys".
The local priest, Father Bertrand Gournay, refused to marry the couple in September last year. He said last week: "The circumstances of the marriage did not seem healthy to me … I knew Marcel, and he trusted me. If he had really wanted to marry, he would have come to me alone and asked me."
At the funeral, Fr Gournay said that "at the end of his life" Marcel was of more interest as a "balance sheet" than a human being.
A banner was placed on Marcel's house which read: "If you had never married, you would still be riding your tractor."
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