France faces anger over planned wind farm next to Australian WWI memorial

Opponents of a wind farm planned next to a battlefield in France where hundreds of Australian soldiers died during World War I are urging the government to cancel the plan, calling it an affront to the memory of the dead.

France faces anger over planned wind farm next to Australian WWI memorial
The Australia - New Zealand military cemetery in Villers-Bretonneux in 2018. Photo: ​FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI / AFP.

Politicians and campaigners have spent years trying to overturn plans for turbines next to World War I killing fields in northern France, where around 10,000 Australians were among hundreds of thousands killed and wounded.

In 2017, Australian officials expressed relief after French state electricity company Engie pulled the plug on a wind farm project in Bullecourt, site of two battles that were particularly deadly for the Australians.

The firm said at the time that the negative reaction – not least from the French state – had underscored the site’s “sacredness”.

The same year, French authorities rejected plans for another wind farm next to Australia’s national war memorial in Villers-Bretonneux, close to President Emmanuel Macron’s hometown of Amiens, saying it would be a blot on the landscape.

But in March this year, an appeal court in the town of Douai overturned that decision and gave wind energy company Les Vents de Picardie the green light to proceed with the farm around five kilometres from the memorial.

The case has become a cause celebre among local politicians, who are piling pressure on Macron to take the fight to France’s top courts.

“We cannot accept that the transition to green energy, which is necessary, be given precedence over the memory of, and respect for the dead,” Christophe Coulon, vice-president of the Hauts-de-France region, told AFP in a telephone interview.

“It’s a moral issue,” said Coulon, who held a press conference with two other prominent local politicians at the memorial site on Thursday.

But the government has so far refused to contest the decision.

A Agrave at the Australian War Memorial in the northern French city of Villers-Bretonneux in 2019. Photo: PHILIPPE HUGUEN / AFP.

Ecology minister Barbara Pompili’s office told AFP last month it was not generally opposed to the idea of wind turbines being visible from memorial sites, so would not refer the case to higher courts.

Villers-Bretonneux marks the site of one of Australia’s greatest World War I victories when Australian troops encircled the village and retook it from German forces, some 1,200 dying the fight.

Every year, a small Anzac Day ceremony is held at the site, which is one of the first stop-offs in France for many Australian tourists.

‘An affront’

The memorial, which is next to a military cemetery, has a tower surrounded by walls and panels inscribed with the names of the 10,732 Australian troops who died in France with no known grave.

“We will never forget our history and the ultimate sacrifice made by the Australians,” said Stephane Haussoulier, president of the Somme area, who joined Coulon at the press conference.

He views the prospect of wind turbines looming over the site as an “affront to our Australian comrades”.

The campaign has tapped into simmering resentment in northern France over the growing numbers of wind turbines looming on the horizon.

Many northerners complain that their region is being saddled with a disproportionate number of the wind farms needed to help France slash its carbon emissions.

An arch-rival of Macron who has announced a bid to become president next year on a centre-right ticket, Xavier Bertrand, joined the fray last month.

In a letter to the government he warned that the wind farm risked “harming the character” of the Villers-Bretonneux memorial, “not to mention the feeling of being hemmed in”.

In 2017, Canberra was fulsome in its praise of France’s efforts to preserve the memory of its fallen soldiers.

Then veteran affairs minister Dan Tehan, now in charge of trade and tourism, said that the campaign against the Bullecourt wind farm showed “how the French still, 100 years on, take so importantly what Australians were prepared to do for them”.

Asked for comment about the Villers-Bretonneux project, the Australian embassy in Paris on Thursday declined to make a statement.

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Massive hornet-trapping campaign begins in south west France

Across south west France trapping campaigns have begun in an attempt to control the numbers of dangerous Asian hornets.

Massive hornet-trapping campaign begins in south west France

Trapping campaigns are organised annually at this time of year, as the weather begins to get warmer and queens begin to emerge from hibernation.

And the Charente-Maritime town of Royan Atlantique, on France’s west coast, is leading the way, as the below video shows.

Experts say that now is the time to begin using the traps, as catching queen hornets in the process of building their nests will lead to far fewer insects later in the year. 

Some 2,000 traps are installed in and around Royan this year, including 300 that were distributed to householders in the week of Valentine’s Day. 

Once installed, the traps can capture several dozen insects at a time.

In order to capture a maximum of hornet queens, traps should be installed between mid-February and mid-May. Especially since during this period, these predators end up coming out of their hibernation.

It is believed Asian hornets arrived in France around 2004. They have now spread nationwide.

Although their venom is not more powerful than that of normal bees or wasps, they are known to be more aggressive towards humans, and their stings can cause anaphylactic shock in allergic people.

The hornets also damage beehives and kill bees, damaging honey stocks and destroying the native ecosystem.