For nearly 70 years, visitors to the D-Day beaches have stared out to sea and recalled the moment when one of the largest fleets ever assembled emerged from the Channel mist on 6 June 1944.
Within a couple of years that view could be changed forever by an immense off-shore wind-farm.
As The Independent revealed two years ago, a site in the Bay of the Seine, six miles off the invasion beaches, has been selected by the French government for an array of 75 wind generators, each of them more than half the height of the Eiffel Tower.
Protests launched by commemorative and environmental groups have since spread around the world. Thousands of people, including many from Britain and Canada, have signed a petition organised by a group called European Platform Against Windfarms. “We’ve had calls from Canada, England, the US, saying ‘France cannot do this to us’,” said Jean-Louis Butré, chairman of the organisation. “People are very upset. One former RAF Group Captain said that, if necessary, he would come back and bomb the beaches again.”
The €1.8bn (£1.5bn) project is popular in Normandy, where it will create 7,000 jobs and pump millions of euros in taxes into a stumbling local economy. It forms part of an ambitious strategy to provide almost a quarter of France’s needs from renewable energy by the end of the decade.
Over the next four months, an official “debate” – including 11 public meetings – is taking place across lower Normandy to consider arguments for and against the project. The president of the special commission running the debate – which is neutral and independent – wants the voices of Britons, including veterans and their families, to be heard.
“These beaches are not just French beaches. They are also British beaches and American beaches and Canadian beaches,” Claude Brévantold The Independent. “They are a place of great, symbolic importance. We in France have a duty to be aware of that.”
One public debate, in Arromanches on 12 June, will take place in English and French.
“Some of the British veterans’ organisations tell us that they don’t want to get involved in anything political,” Ms Brevan said. “This is not political. It is an independent public debate on an issue of great importance. If there are British questions, worries or complaints about this project, we want to hear about them now.”
The wind-farm – 75 large generators, 175m high, covering an area of 50 sq km – would be built six miles off the small seaside town and fishing port of Courseulles-sur-Mer. On June 6 1944, the sands either side of the town formed “Juno Beach” where 21,000 Canadian and British troops fought their way ashore, with the loss of 359 lives.
To reduce the visual pollution of the beaches, the initial scheme has been re-aligned and the number of wind-generators reduced. EDF-Energies Nouvelles, the main contractor, says that from a distance of six miles the generators would be like matchsticks seen from eleven feet away.
Official photo-montages were displayed at the first public meeting in Bayeux. Published here by The Independent for the first time, they suggest that the wind-farm would blemish at least part of the seascape from Juno and another beach, “Gold”, stormed by 25,000 British troops in 1944.
They would also be visible from the cliffs above Omaha Beach, the bloodiest of the five landing areas, finally captured by the Americans on the evening of 6 June.
Does it matter? The man in charge of the official French commemorative association for D-Day insists that it does. Admiral Christian Brac de la Pèrriere, president of the Comité du Debarquément, says that France has striven for nearly 70 years to keep the invasion beaches unspoiled.
“The first thing that visitors do is to look out to sea and think of the invasion,” Admiral Brac de la Perriere told The Independent. “This project is incoherent and inappropriate. There are plans to have the whole coastline from Utah Beach to Sword Beach declared a Unesco world heritage site… How can we ask Unesco to make it a protected site if we build a wind-farm just off-shore?”
Last year Unesco threatened to suspend the heritage status of another world-celebrated site in Normandy, the Mont Saint Michel. France planned to build terrestrial wind farms within distant sight of the spectacular abbey-island. Unesco protested. The French government backed down.
To build a giant wind-farm just off the D-Day beaches would, in effect, wreck all chances of the 1944 invasion beaches winning Unesco status – and protection.
This point was also made vociferously two years ago by the organisation that campaigns to protect the remains of the Allied-built mulberry harbour at Arromanches, the Port Winston Churchill Association. Its president, Gérard Lecornu, has since gone quiet on the subject.
“Our members decided not to get involved in a big argument about the wind-farm,” Mr Lecornu told The Independent. “But we had already made our opinion sufficiently clear. Arromanches and other parts of the invasion beaches are supposed to be protected sites. How can that be compatible with a wind-farm just off the coast?”
His caution reflects the fact that the D-Day wind farm has overwhelming political and popular support in lower Normandy. Barely a single critical comment was made at the first public meeting – and no question was asked at all on the issue of visual pollution of the D-Day beaches.
The companies leading the project, EDF, Dong and WPD, have promised to create 7,000 jobs – including 5,000 jobs building the wind-generators locally. WPD Offshore, one of the world leaders in marine wind-farms, is, with some irony, a German company.
There is considerable French government pressure to push through the project – one of four to be built off the coasts of Normandy and Brittany before 2020. France has been slow to adopt wind-farm technology. It has ambitious plans to supply 23 per cent of its energy needs from “renewable” sources in the next two decades. Paris also sees the four giant off-shore wind-farms as a way of giving France the kind of technical and industrial prowess in wind energy that it already has in nuclear power.
But France has a problem. Few places around the French coast are suitable for wind farms, which need reliable wind patterns and shallow water six to ten miles off-shore. The D-Day beaches are perfect, just as they were for the allies in 1944.
Is the public debate exercise which has just started therefore just a sham? Ms Brevan, the president of the debate commission, insists not. “We are a neutral and independent organisation set up to run public debates in France,” she said.
Of the last dozen “public debates” held in France, only one led to a project being withdrawn but all others led to plans being modified in some way.
Mr Butré, of the European Platform against Windfarms, said: “Only one thing can stop this sacrilegious project – massive protests from Britain and the United States and Canada. The French government would be very embarrassed by that…’
To participate in the debate, write, in English or French, to the Commission Pariculièredu Débat Public at 60 Rue de Saint-Malo, 14440 Bayeux, France or e-mail email@example.com. Comments can also be left on the debate commission’s website, which has information on the project in English, at www.debatpublic-eolien-en-mer-courseulles.org