A plan to build wind farms on a mountain in Provence immortalised by Paul Cézanne would have the French painter turning in his grave, say heritage groups who have launched a last-ditch legal bid to halt the project.
The Post-Impressionist artist painted Mount-Sainte Victoire some 87 times throughout his life and it came to symbolise his genius and put the picturesque area with its pines, cypresses and red-tiled roofs on the international map.
But a string of local and national heritage groups say the beautiful Provençal landscape, a Unesco world protected site, is facing desecration if the project to build 22 turbines goes ahead just a few kilometres from the Pic des Mouches – the summit.
“We’re talking about 150m-high masts twice the size of Notre-Dame and approaching the Eiffel Tower,” said Julien Lacaze, president of heritage group Sites&Monuments.
“It will spoil the view of one of the most emblematic landscapes of France immortalised by Cézanne and is also very damaging for local biodiversity and questionable as an energy source given the costly subsidies. We consider there is far more to lose than gain from this project.”
He said it was also very near Saint-Maximin Basilica, which contains the relics of Mary Magdalene, making it Christianity’s third most important tomb.
“The unique beauty of this majestic landscape is today gravely under threat.”
An online “Save Mount Sainte-Victoire” petition sent to President Emmanuel Macron has garnered almost 12,500 signatures and is backed by the French president’s heritage “tsar” Stéphane Bern, a famous TV presenter.
A long-running battle to keep the area clear of wind farms suddenly intensified in recent weeks after Provencialis, the company tasked with building the wind farms, cleared the area, built huge concrete bases and started erecting the lower masts of two turbines.
In February, the heritage groups won a key legal round against Provencialis when an administrative court in Toulon ruled that it had to re-apply for planning permission to see whether its project respected tough environmental legislation in place since 2011.
But building work has continued regardless.
Detractors argue that local protected species such as crickets, Bonelli’s eagle and bats fall fowl of the huge turbines.
However, the mayors of nearby Ollières and Artigues are for the wind farms, pointing out that 56 per cent of the region’s electricity has to be imported.
Francis Monamy, a lawyer acting for the heritage groups, said that without new permission taking into recent law, “construction work cannot start”.
“However, the (operator) is pushing ahead in a forced march to place authorities before a fait accompli,” he warned.
So he has filed a request with the local court to order work to stop while awaiting a new construction permit and is hoping for a ruling in the coming days.
This is not the first time locals have fought to save the local landscape.
A project to build an ultra-fast train track at the foot of Mount Sainte-Victoire prompted Cézanne’s great grandson, Philippe, to intervene in 2009.
“The soul of Cézanne is in these hills. It’s still quite magical, and all the foreigners who come to the region are surprised to find the landscapes as the artist saw them,” he told the Telegraph at the time.
In the end, the rail line, which Mr Cézanne called “a bloody sword stroke across a landscape cherished by my great grandfather”, was scrapped.
“This is a remarkable landscape. We didn’t manage to turn away the train line for nothing,” said Christian d’Allest, vice president of the national anti-wind farm federation Vent Debout. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Cézanne was obsessed with Mont Saint-Victoire, painting it in 44 and 43 watercolours.
Picasso bought a chateau and grounds on its northern slopes, but never painted it. “I’ve just bought the Sainte-Victoire by Cézanne,” he told his dealer. “Which one?,” came the reply.
“The original,” answered Picasso.
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