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French government cracks down on magnet fishing over fears of WWII bombs

Equipped with powerful magnets, history enthusiasts and environmentalists scour France's rivers, pulling out bits of scrap metal, bikes, scooters and the odd kitchen appliance.

French government cracks down on magnet fishing over fears of WWII bombs
All photos: AFP

But French authorities have clamped on the popular pastime down over fears that historical battle sites could still harbour active weapons.

As in other countries, participants in France tie a super magnet to a rope and drop it into waterways, partly for treasure hunting, partly for environmental reasons.

On the banks of the Oise river, in a town about 75 km north of Paris, Owen Gressier, 20, and his three fellow magnet fishermen cast their neodymium magnets.

After several attempts at their spot near a bridge in La Croix-Saint-Ouen, they latch onto something. 

It takes a few minutes to haul out the item with the help of a grappling hook. 

A rusty, cast-iron pipe emerges: “Nice catch,” they say. It's the best find that afternoon.

“We've been fishing here for a number of years, the bottom (of the river) is pretty clean,” Gressier, a forklift truck operator, says. 

Driven by what he calls his passion for World War II and a quest to find medals, military gear and other historical objects, Gressier says that he also “quickly realised that it was possible to clean up the waterways”. 

'It's crazy what you can find'

In 2017, he set up a Facebook page, which now has more than 500 subscribers, where members share photos, advice and organise outings. 

“It's crazy everything you can find in the water,” Gressier says, listing anything from electric scooters to traffic signs and microwaves. 

“With a dozen people, you can sometimes pull out 50kg of scrap metal in a few hours,” he adds.

In the neighbouring Somme department, site of one of the largest battles of World War I, Christophe Devarenne started magnet fishing three months ago. 

He says the thrill comes from “not knowing what will be at the end of the magnet”. 

But the 52-year-old driver warns that “if you expect to find treasures, there are not many”.

Although he did pull out a rifle dating from 1914 to 1918, he says that it was “downright rusty after 100 years in the water”.

“Even the Museum of the Great War did not want it,” he jokes, adding that nothing goes to waste as it is resold or given to scrap merchants. 

'My teenage son found a grenade'

In other French regions too, where bloody battles were fought during both world wars, magnet fishing enthusiasts have discovered shells, ammunition and grenades.

And they can still be active, warns the national public safety authority.

Faced with the hobby's rising popularity in the last nearly two years, including under the Pont des Arts pedestrian bridge in central Paris, the authority has recently made police across France aware of the dangers.

In May, a man was seriously injured after pulling out a shell that emitted mustard gas, in the Nord region, home to the town of Dunkirk.  

Two young magnet fishers in the Somme at the end of July also hauled out a phosphorus grenade, which irritated their eyes, police said.

The pastime is now illegal in France without a permit issued by the state or landowners. 

“We were not aware of the risks… until my son found a grenade,” says Helene Ledien, who lives in the Somme. 

She said that her 14-year-old son Arthur bought a magnet for about €30 on Amazon and regularly fishes with his friend for environmental reasons.  

'Good for the planet'

Gressier said that his group had hauled out one active shell and hundreds of rusty weapons but knows what to do in that case.

“We establish a security perimeter and we warn the disposal experts,” he adds. 

Despite the warnings, his group says it won't stop the activity that has got them hooked. 

“It's a passion, good for the planet, we will not stop overnight,” says his 26-year-old friend Nicolas, who declined to give his full name.

“People will play cat and mouse,” Devarenne chimes in. 

“Nobody is really afraid, because the police have better things to do than chase after magnets,” he adds.

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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

Snobs, beaches and drunks – 5 things this joke map teaches us about France

A popular joke 'map' of France has once again been widely shared on social media, sparking endless jokes at the expense of certain regions of France.

Snobs, beaches and drunks - 5 things this joke map teaches us about France
Image AFP/cartesfrance.fr
But while the map – created by cartesfrance.fr – is clearly intended to be comic, it teaches us some important points about France’s regional divides, local stereotypes and in-jokes.
 

 
 
 
Here are some of the key points.
 
1. Everyone hates Parisians
 
The map is purportedly France as seen through the eyes of Parisians, and contains a series of snobbish and rude generalisations about every part of France that is not maison (home) in the capital and its surroundings. The great majority of the country is labelled simply as paysans (peasants).
 
The general stereotype about Parisians is that they are snobs, rudely judging the rest of the country which they regard as backwards and full of ploucs (yokels) apart from small areas which make nice holiday destinations.
 
Like all sweeping generalisations, this is true of some people and very much not of others, but one of the few things that can unite people from all areas of France is how much they hate les parigots têtes de veaux (a colloquialism that very roughly translates as ‘asshole Parisians’)
 
 
2. Staycations rule
 
Even before Covid-related travel restrictions, holidaying within France was the norm for many French people.
 
As the map shows, Parisians regard the southern and western coastlines as simply plages (beaches) which they decamp to for at least a month in July or August. In the height of summer French cities tend to empty out (apart from tourists) as locals head to the seaside or the countryside.
 
 
In winter the Pyrenees and Alps are popular ski destinations.
 
3. Northerners like a drink
 
There is a very widespread stereotype, although not really backed up by evidence, that the people of Normandy, Brittany and the Nord area like a drink or two. Many suggest this is to cope with the weather, which does tend to be rainier than the rest of France (although has plenty of sunshine too).
 
 
Official health data doesn’t really back this up, as none of these areas show a significantly greater than average rate of daily drinkers, although Nord does hold the sad record for the highest rate of people dying from alcohol-related liver disease.
 
What’s certainly true is that Brittany and Normandy are cider country, with delicious locally-produced ciders on sale everywhere, well worth a try if you are visiting.
 
 
4. Poverty
 
The map labels the north eastern corner of France as simply pauvres – the poor.
 
The north east of the country was once France’s industrial and coal-mining heartland, and as traditional industries have declined there are indeed pockets of extreme poverty and high unemployment. The novel The End of Eddy, telling the story of novelist Edouard Louis’ childhood in a struggling small town near Amiens, lays out the social problems of such areas in stark detail.
 
However poverty is not just confined to one corner of France and the département that records the highest levels of deprivation is actually Seine-Saint-Denis in the Paris suburbs.
 
5. Southern prejudice
 
According to the map, those from the south are either branleurs (slackers) or menteurs (liars). 
 
This isn’t true, obviously, there are many lovely, hard-working and truthful people in southern France, but the persistent stereotype is that they are lazy – maybe because it’s too hot to do much work – and slightly shifty.
 
Even people who aren’t actually rude about southerners can be pretty patronising, as shown when south west native Jean Castex became the prime minister in summer 2020. 
 
Castex has a noticeable south west accent which sparked much comment from the Paris-based media and political classes, with comments ranging from the patronising – “I love his accent, I feel like I’m on holiday” – to the very patronising – “that accent is a bit rugby” (a reference to the fact that TV rugby commentators often come from France’s rugby heartlands in the south west).
 
 
In his first year as PM, Castex has undertaken a dizzying schedule of appointments around the four corners of France, so hopefully the lazy myth can now be put to bed.
 
And anyone tempted to take the piss out of his accent – glottophobie (accent prejudice) is now a crime in France.
 
For more maps that reflect France, head to cartesfrance.fr
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