A new kind of Norman conquest

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On the edge of the forest, a couple of kilometres from our little Norman house, there is a lonely crossroads. If you pause, on foot or in a car, you gaze over ridge after ridge of green hills and woodlands.

Two years ago, the Calvados council decided that this magical spot should be buried in concrete and bitumen and signs and roundabouts and viaducts. The little crossroads was to become a complex interchange on a four-lane road, constructed to motorway standards.

The plan to build a fast road through the valley of the Orne, the most beautiful valley in lower Normandy, has provoked a fierce, and fascinating, quarrel. The dispute is quintessentially local, but also universal. Battle lines have been drawn, but not always where you would expect them. Villages have been set against towns; village against village; family against family.

Our own commune, set high on the hills above the valley, was to be desecrated by embankments and slip roads and three large viaducts. My nearest neighbours, Michel and Madeleine, were appalled, but resigned. "Everything will be ruined," they said. "But what can we do? In France, when 'they' decide to build a road, 'they' build a road. It may take 10 years or 15 years, but the road will be built. Nothing here will be same again."

Other locals seem to take an almost perverse delight in the despoiling of the countryside. One talkative neighbour in the next hamlet is a passionate member of the pro-road faction. "Of course the countryside is important. But you can't eat the countryside," he says. "We are not an Indian reservation. We don't want to sell beads. Tourism is not everything. If we don't get the road, we will lose all our factories and jobs. We will become just a garden for Parisians and tourists."

The area through which the road is supposed to pass is known as La Suisse Normande (Norman Switzerland), a name invented by a British journalist at the turn of the last century. In truth, this is a misleading name. The valley is gently beautiful but hardly Alpine, more a kind of Norman Derbyshire or Herefordshire.

Despite my neighbours' fears, "they" - ie the local powers that be - have not had it their own way. Thanks to two laws on local consultation passed in the last decade, there has been a débat public, or public inquiry, with open meetings and an interactive internet site.

The inquiry, a perfect model of local democracy, rejected the idea of a dual carriageway, or route à quatre voies, through the Suisse Normande. It suggested that a fast, four-lane road should be built up to the edge of the valley from the south, and another from the north. In the 12 beautiful miles in between, the existing D-road (ie B- road) should be upgraded. This seemed like a judgment of Solomon that all sides could accept. In December, the Calvados council went along with the recommendation. All seemed settled.

A few days ago, "they" struck back. Two small towns to the south of the valley insisted that they must have a four-lane road all the way to the coast and the national motorway network. The mayor of one of the towns, who is also vice-president of the Calvados council, announced that "upgrading" the existing road must, and would, mean a dual carriageway.

Opposition groups fear that they have been tricked. Once the fast roads are built north and south of the valley, "they" will insist that they have a right to join up the dots. Hostilities, complicated by shifts in local politics, have broken out all over again.

Since the original scheme was announced, the regional council for the whole of lower Normandy has shifted from right to left. The Calvados council remains centre-right. The new leadership of the region, which would have to pay half of the €300m cost, seems unconvinced by the arguments for a fast road.

I am definitely anti-road, but I accept that the decision belongs mostly to local people. When asked my opinion, I say that I hope that France - in this and countless other planning decisions in the next decade - will not repeat Britain's, and especially England's, mistakes. Unlike suburbanised, concretised and bitumenised south and central England, much of the French countryside has preserved its beauty, its wildlife and its flora. The annual carpets of wild primroses are already appearing on the verges of La Suisse Normande. Cowslips are a few weeks away. Do local people really want to throw all that away?

All le news that's fit to print

France will gain a new newspaper next month, or rather, an old newspaper in a new language - English.

France Soir, once the most successful Paris daily, now by far the least successful, will publish, from mid-March, a weekly edition in English for anglophone residents and tourists. The working title is The France Soir.

The newspaper will carry a digest of French news, translated by English-speaking journalists, and features on places and events that may be of interest to English-speakers. There will also be, a first for the French press, the results of outlandish sports such as cricket and baseball.

When will a London newspaper produce a French-language edition for the 250,000 French people now living in Britain? Le Daily Mail, perhaps? Or that well-known Francophile title, Le Sun? Typical headline: "Freddie Starr a mangé mon hamster".

I should cocoa

Chocolate is really good for your health. A beauty clinic in Nice is offering courses of "chocothérapie", based, allegedly, on an ancient Incan recipe. The cost of the course is a mere €55 for an hour and 10 minutes of chocolate heaven.

There is a catch, however. You don't get to actually eat the chocolate. You have it smeared all over your body.