Thousands of the famous plane trees that line the 240 kilometre Canal du Midi in the south of France will be chopped down after being attacked by an incurable killer fungus.

"/> Thousands of the famous plane trees that line the 240 kilometre Canal du Midi in the south of France will be chopped down after being attacked by an incurable killer fungus.

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Famous tree-lined canal under threat

Thousands of the famous plane trees that line the 240 kilometre Canal du Midi in the south of France will be chopped down after being attacked by an incurable killer fungus.

The forced destruction threatens one of France’s most classic stretches of scenery. The canopy of trees arching over the canal is a favourite with tourists and locals alike. 

The canal runs from the city of Toulouse to the Mediterranean port of Sète. It was commissioned in 1666 by Louis XIV and, together with the Canal de Garonne, acts as a shortcut between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. 

The culprit is the Ceratocystis platani fungus, which is believed to have arrived in the wooden ammunition crates of American servicemen in 1945.

Since its discovery in 2006, it has grown rapidly and threatens all 42,000 of the canal’s trees.

“That doesn’t mean they will all have to be destroyed,” said Jacques Noisette, a spokesman for the French waterways (VNF), quoted in newspaper France Soir.

He claimed specialists are “doing everything to keep them alive.”

Protecting the famous trees is critical if the canal is to keep its 1996 designation as a Unesco world heritage site, although Noisette hoped this was not under threat. “Unesco can’t threaten to delist the canal when we are the victims of this fungus,” he said. “However, they would be entitled to do that if we didn’t have solutions in place to replace them.”

Two replanting programmes have already been devised, each using different trees. The first will use a special hybrid of the tree that is resistant to the fungus. The second will plant ash trees. “The idea is to avoid using just one type of tree, otherwise next time there’s another disease the whole lot will come crashing down again like a house of cards,” said Noisette.

President Sarkozy pledged his support in a visit to the region on Tuesday. He told local officials the government would stand alongside them to “save” the canal.

Locals were taking the sad news in their stride. Newspaper France Soir reported the local tourist office as saying the loss of trees wouldn’t stop people using the canal. “If there’s been a drop in tourism it’s more the fault of the weather than the plane trees,” said a spokesperson.

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Leaders Sarkozy and Juppé stumble in race for Elysée

Right-wing candidates for the French presidential election face off in the first round of a US-style primary on Sunday with former president Nicolas Sarkozy and ex-prime minister Alain Juppe fighting to avoid being knocked out by an outsider.

Leaders Sarkozy and Juppé stumble in race for Elysée
Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy. Photo: AFP

In a contest overshadowed by the election of Donald Trump in the United States, support for the early favourite Juppe has slipped and Francois Fillon, who served as prime minister under Sarkozy, has risen fast.

The right-wing nominating contest is crucial because with the French left divided, the winner is expected to go on to take the presidency in May, beating far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the runoff.

Juppe, 71, entered the two-month-long contest with polls showing him to be France's most popular politician, but his approach of playing the moderate against the fiery Sarkozy and the conservative Fillon appears to be backfiring.

Most polls now show Juppe and Sarkozy are neck-and-neck at around 30 percent, with Fillon close behind after making striking progress in recent weeks.

The two winners on Sunday will go through to the second round run-off a week later.

Two becomes three

“We were expecting a duel but in the end a three-way contest has emerged,” political scientist Jerome Jaffre said in Le Figaro newspaper on Thursday.

Many have noted that 62-year-old Fillon's rise had coincided with the publication of his latest book entitled “Beating Islamic totalitarianism”.

An often confused final TV debate of the seven candidates on Thursday offered few clues about the possible outcome, although viewers polled afterwards said Fillon had performed the strongest.

Sparks flew when Sarkozy was asked about fresh claims that he received millions in funding from the late Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi towards his 2007 campaign.

Sarkozy called the question “disgraceful” and refused to answer.

Turning to the Trump effect, the former president said a more isolationist America created “a fantastic opportunity for France and Europe to re-establish a leadership role” on issues including border security and the reform of the UN Security Council.

“The next five years will mark the return of France and Europe to the international scene. America won't be there to put us in the shade,” he said.

Juppe meanwhile said the Trump-era heralded a triple “shock” — in the areas of trade, defence and the environment.

A return to protectionism would be “a tremendous regression”, Juppe said, while warning Europe against being “naive” in its dealings with the United States.

The three leading candidates have similar programmes, underpinned by pledges to reinforce domestic security in a country still under a state of emergency following a series of jihadist attacks.

They also share a desire to reinforce European borders and reduce immigration, while tax cuts also loom large.

The choice will come down to style.

Sarkozy has emphasised his tough-guy credentials, saying it makes him a better choice to handle Trump than the mild-mannered Juppe.

Fillon, who is popular in the business world, has promised “radical” economic measures but is the most conservative of the three on social issues.

Another unknown factor in Sunday's first round is the number of left-wing voters prepared to pay two euros and sign a declaration that they subscribe to “the values of the centre and the right” to vote in the right-wing primary.

Those who do are expected to vote against 61-year-old Sarkozy, who remains a highly divisive figure in France four years after he left office.

When the right-wing candidate is chosen on November 27, it is expected to trigger an announcement from deeply unpopular Socialist President Francois Hollande on whether he intends to bid for re-election.

On Wednesday, Hollande's former economy minister Emmanuel Macron announced he would stand as an independent.

by AFP's Guy Jackson