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France Climate change Sea Floods

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Climate change weakens fragile French coastline

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Waves crash on the protecting wall at the fishing harbour in Pornic as stormy weather with high winds hits the French Atlantic coast on 8 February, 2016. Reuters/Stephane Mahe

Climate change is going to affect French coastline in a big way, turning some ecosystems upside down and aggravating the natural risks of erosion and coastal flooding, concludes a report by La Fabrique ecologique think tank published Monday. What’s more, towns and villages on the coast are ill-prepared for those risks.


Coastal flooding in France already threatens 1.4 million residents, 850,000 jobs and 590,000 hectares of land. Erosion meanwhile affects a quarter of France’s mainland coast. 

By 2040 coastal regions are set to welcome an extra 4.5 million inhabitants (a 19 percent increase from 2007) and some 40 percent of the French population will be living on the coast.

These natural risks are being amplified by climate change. A report by UN climate science panel in May this year warned that sea levels could rise by as much as 2m by 2100 and at least 1m by the end of the century. 

“It’s quite a challenge for our country to deal with,” says Géraud Guibert, head of La Fabrique ecologique think tank which authored the report. "The areas most at risk are on the Atlantic coast and in the north, and they're very urbanised."

The report underlines that the main strategies for adaptation "remain deeply unsatisfactory", a sentiment echoed by Ronan Dantec, a senator for the green EELV party, in May.

"France today is not prepared for rising water levels or at least not prepared enough," Dantec told Franceinfo. "Some areas are asking questions and starting to prepare, but up to now there has not been much impetus from the State."

Dykes, groynes, revetements, seawalls

20 percent of France’s coastlines, that’s to say some 2,300 kms, have some form of protection against coastal flooding and erosion, with traditional hard engineering constructions such as dykes, groynes and seawalls.

But they are costly to install and local authorities which, since 2018, are responsible for paying for their upkeep "don't have the necessary technical and financial means,” says the report.

Some are turning to cheaper, more sustainable solutions such as planting on dunes or rock faces.

“You can’t only build dams along the coast, you have to find solutions in nature," says Guibert, "but in France there is little reflection and few decisions about that.”

That said, the Conservatoire du littoral launched the Adapto project in 2015 to experiment in removing polders from 10 sites which would then be returned to the sea. 

“The problem is that it can be difficult to convince officials and inhabitants that you have to give in to nature,” says Guibert, “it can be seen as a defeat.”

Learning from Xynthia

Having a better handle on urban planning is clearly one of the keys to reducing risk as France learnt to its peril when, in 2010, storm Xynthia hit the Atlantic coast, leading to the loss of 47 lives.

France has since introduced planning restrictions which limit construction in some high-risk zones and forbid it in others. “The problem is that so far only 60 percent of the territory has those prevention measures in place,” regrets Guibert.

And even where such plans are in place, they often face opposition from local officials and residents who, fearing a threat to economic development or loss in the value of property, file lawsuits.

In reality Guibert says their fears are not always founded.

“Our report shows that property in places along the coast where it’s vulnerable doesn’t lose any value”.

Up sticks and away

In high-risk areas the only safe climate-proof response is to relocate people away from the coast.

In 2012, France became one of the first countries to implement a national relocation strategy for high-risk areas. Five pilot areas were selected.

Lacanau, near Bordeaux, “one of the towns most concerned by erosion,” according to the report, has a tourist-based economy. Initial local opposition to the plan was softened thanks to a good deal of community involvement. 

But in Ault in northern France - a high-risk zone within 70 metres of the cliff edge - plans to force the relocation of up to 240 homeowners, if their properties were damaged by flooding or erosion, met with stiff local opposition. In the spring of 2018 residents won their court case which deemed the plan was illegal.

"Relocation is costly and of course it’s not popular because people are attached to their homes,” says Guibert, “and they are not fully aware of the seriousness of the problem.”

The issue of who foots the bill is currently the biggest stumbling block.

“We have to find a kind of financial solidarity mechanism,” allowing us to buy up these buildings so people can relocate." 

A bill slated for 2020

The government is now preparing a parliamentary mission on how to adapt coastal areas in the light of climate change. Its conclusions, due in October, will form the basis of a bill to be put before parliament in 2020.

“We won’t be rolling out relocation on a massive scale, but in some places officials are prepared [for change],” Stéphane Buchou, an MP with the ruling LRM in Vendée on the Atlantic coast, told Le Monde. “We need legal and financial tools.” 

"Relocation can only be done where there are not huge stakes, that’s to say outside of big towns," geographer Catherine Meur-Férec told Le Monde.

“But even in the less populated areas, the authorities will not be able to pay to buy back property facing the sea so long as it is so expensive. The fact the State dissociates coastal flooding from erosion hampers coherent, sustainable and fair management of the coastline.”