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Protesters demand answers over French factory fire where 5,000 tones of chemicals burned

Five thousand tonnes of chemicals went up in smoke in Rouen, officials have revealed, as thousands of people in the town demonstrated over what they claim is a cover-up of the health risks.

Protesters demand answers over French factory fire where 5,000 tones of chemicals burned
Residents in Rouen demand answers. Photo: AFP

On Tuesday night around 2,000 people from Rouen and the surrounding areas took to the streets, demanding that authorities tell them exactly what burned and what the risks are. Their demands come as people have reported black tap water, a thick layer of soot in some areas and a suffocating stench that is causing nausea and vomiting.

Local farmer Marie Benoit, 60, brought a bottle of black rainwater that he said fell in the nearby commune of Bray.

“The smoke cloud passed over, the rain was black and the cows drank black water. We are devastated. There's such a lack of information that we wonder if there's anything being kept from us,” he told France Info.


Thousands took to the streets in Rouen to demand answers. Photo: AFP

In response to the growing anger, France's Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has promised ” complete transparency' and the préfecture of Seine Maritime published on Tuesday evening a list of the 5,253 tonnes of chemicals that burned in the fire.

The Lubrizol factory, owned by US billionaire investor Warren Buffett, is classified as a Seveso site, which means a high risk industrial process. It produces toxic chemicals, mainly additives for oils and lubricants.

READ ALSO MAP: Where are all the high risk chemical plants in France?

Pierre-Andre Durand, local authority leader in Seine Maritime, told a press conference on Tuesday that tests conducted a day after the fire showed that fears of asbestos fibres from the plant's destroyed roof contaminating the air had proven “unfounded.”

He added that preparations were being made to remove 160 barrels of chemicals in a “delicate state” from the state.

Philippe visited the factory on Monday night in a bid to reassure people on the contamination risks.

Local authorities closed schools and nurseries and advised residents to stay indoors on Thursday as the fire raged, but it was not until the weekend that environment minister Elizabeth Borne visited Rouen and admitted that the town was clearly polluted.


The oily soot residue has been see on crops in local communes. The sale of all food products from the area is now banned. Photo: AFP

On Monday, authorities have banned the harvesting of crops or the sale of animal products from a wide swathe of countryside surrounding the plant, telling farmers than any exposed produce would have to be destroyed.

Around 100 communes are affected by the ban and more than 1,800 farmers whose fields were tainted by the oily soot, though the government promised quick compensation for their losses.

One farmer told French media that over four days he had been forced to throw away 14,000 litres of milk from his dairy herd.

At least five schools in Rouen either closed or told parents to come and fetch their children on Tuesday over the fallout from the fire.

One school reported an “unpleasant smell” and said students had been “complaining of nausea and itchy throats and eyes.”

Many people in the town are still wearing masks in an attempt to protect themselves from chemicals in the air, the the police union Alternative Police has reported that several officers who were at the scene have since been signed off on sick leave.


One local farmer told French media that he had to destroy 14,000 litres of milk. Photo: AFP

Older people and those with health problems had been warned to stay inside.

Officials also deployed berms along the Seine river, which runs through the city, to try to prevent inky black deposits on the water from flowing downstream toward the Channel at Le Havre, a major fishing harbour.

The cause of the blaze is not yet known.

Lubrizol said witnesses and video surveillance indicated it began outside the factory's fences.

 

 

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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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