Trees were planted at the sides of roads to shield Napoleon's soldiers from the sun / Getty

More than 7,000 French people have signed an online petition

There was a tremor of shock among Francophiles when news broke recently that huge numbers of roadside trees might be cut down in the interests of road safety. The French state, having once planted them, now plans to decimate them. How could this be?

I fell in love with France as a boy, after family holidays spent cruising along those long, straight, beautifully adorned roads. They have history too; tree-lined roads are credited to Napoleon, who ordered them to allow his soldiers to march comfortably in the shade. These roads are a key part of the English love-affair with France, and I am flabbergasted that a single tree should be felled to make driving safer. The government has instructed local authorities to list trees that pose a threat to traffic by being located too close to the road – and then remove them. Thousands of trees have already been felled following an official policy to remove trees within 1.5 metres of the roadside; this new plan threatens a further 10,000, or more.

In the interest of road safety, then, should not every country eliminate all roadside trees – the millions of oaks, ashes, poplars, limes, sycamores and others that lift our spirits when we drive? Are road signs perhaps dangerously close to the roads? And buildings whose history has placed them close to the road – shall we tear them down as well?

French traffic deaths almost halved after a crackdown on drink-driving. Perhaps they could be halved again by even tougher measures directed at humans, rather than trees.

I live in Bristol, where, 40 years ago, the planning system was run by a highway engineer. He conceived a vast road system through the Georgian terraces of Clifton, that would destroy hundreds of glorious houses, and along the to-be-filled-in harbour. Happily, we're still able to stroll around our handsome harbour and direct tourists to our Georgian terraces.

Back to France, and this plan to trim the roadside tree population. Are the trees not handsome additions to the countryside, proud historians, tributes to our genius for beautifying ugly places? Each driver is personally responsible for navigating those highways, to slow down if there is danger, and to offer thanks for those beautiful avenues. If I drive perilously fast down a narrow medieval street, I am responsible for the result. We need to adjust our behaviour to the risk, rather than tear down everything that stands in our way.

At Sawday's, we have close contact with almost 2,000 French house-owners, and all the signs are that they are as nervous as we are of the long-term impact of this savaging of the tree population. They know that these long, lovely roads might be gradually abandoned for the autoroutes, creating more miserable driving for all. Meanwhile, more than 7,000 French people have signed an online petition (

France – you self-harm at great risk. We may stop coming to admire you.

Alastair Sawday is the founder of Sawday's Special Places to Stay (