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France Didn’t Ban Pesticides Near Towns. So Mayors Are Doing It Themselves.

LANGOUËT, France — If France is going through an ecological awakening, its spiritual center may be here in Langouët, a quiet village in Brittany, where the environmentalist mayor has become a folk hero to fellow small-town officials all over the country.

Dozens of mayors are following the example of Langouët’s leader, Daniel Cueff, even though the French state has rapped him on the knuckles, dragged him into court and told him that he, the shepherd over a mere 600 souls, had no right to ban pesticides by ordinance from his village.

The other French mayors, from the Alps to the Atlantic, don’t seem to care and have passed their own restrictions in as many as 40 small towns.

Meanwhile, the citizens in Langouët have plastered public spaces on the village’s empty main street with signs addressed to the national government’s regional representative: “Madame prefect, let our mayor protect us!” A hand-scrawled sign where fields end and village begins makes the same point.

When Mr. Cueff was hauled before the tribunal in the regional capital, Rennes, this summer, 1,000 people were on hand to applaud him.

Mr. Cueff, a steely eyed 64-year-old veteran of the environmental wars who earned his chops four decades ago in fighting a nuclear reactor, is used to being considered an outlier. Not this time.

“Isn’t the mayor of a village called on to fill in for the state’s deficiencies?” he asked in an interview in his wood-paneled office — powered by solar energy, like the other municipal buildings.

“France voted for the European directive to protect the population from pesticides. It’s not doing it,” he said. “I don’t want to be accused of nonassistance to people in danger.” His desk was piled with letters of support from across France.

After a scorching summer in which the French were frightened by successive record heat waves, brutally underscoring the reality of climate change, there is a premium on politicians who are seen to act. The Greens made a strong showing in last spring’s European Parliament elections, environmentalists are on the rise and establishment politicians are genuflecting.

The lesson has not been lost on President Emmanuel Macron, who recently declared, “I’ve changed,” in matters ecological.

He has made a show of new environmental initiatives, taking on Brazil’s president over fires in the Amazon, convening a citizens’ panel for recommendations on climate change, rejecting a heavily criticized trade agreement with Latin America on environmental grounds, and insisting that members of his cabinet focus on the environment, and not just the minister for “ecological transition and solidarity.”

With important municipal elections coming up next year and the Greens benefiting from solid support in France’s cities, Mr. Macron has his eyes on the polls. France’s leading pollster, Jerôme Fourquet, writing in the newspaper Le Figaro, recently described rising environmentalism as possibly the “new matrix” underlying the nation’s cultural identity, taking the place once occupied by Catholicism.

The president has even expressed cautious support for the newly notorious mayor in Brittany, saying of Mr. Cueff: “I support his intentions, but I can’t agree when the law isn’t respected,” even though “the mayor’s motivations are good.”

Mr. Cueff scoffed. “In politics, it’s not the intention, it’s the practice,” he said.

As with elsewhere in rural France, the rolling fields of corn and wheat surrounding this village creep up right to the doorsteps of the residents’ homes — along with whatever chemicals are applied to those crops.

The farmers tending their fields are not supposed to spray pesticides unless the wind blows at less than six miles an hour. But this is Brittany, a peninsula thrust into the Atlantic, where the wind blows in strong from the ocean.

The mayor has spent much of his career trying to put into practice what he calls “the ecology of action, not incantation.” In 2003, he became the first mayor in Brittany to install solar panels on public buildings; the school toilets use recycled rainwater.

On May 18, Mr. Cueff banned the use of pesticides within 450 feet of any dwelling, putting much of the village off limits. Some of the farmers were furious, the powerful farmers’ union was fiercely opposed and its national president, Christiane Lambert, mocked Mr. Cueff on the radio, asking, “Why not cars, too?”

In late August, a judge struck down his ordinance after the central government argued against it, saying the mayor was “not competent” to make the decision.

“We had to create an electric shock,” Mr. Cueff said. “To put the farmers on notice and make them move.”

Juries in the United States have awarded a handful of enormous judgments against Monsanto, in cases brought by people who claimed that the company’s popular weedkiller RoundUp had given them cancer. Thousands of similar lawsuits are pending.

Tests on the people of Langouët showed levels of glyphosate — one of the most widely used herbicides and the active ingredient in RoundUp — in their urine up to 30 times the recommended limit. It was especially high in children.

“The parents are traumatized,” Mr. Cueff said.

“We were really shocked,” said Hélène Heuré, the local librarian, who has two children in the village’s elementary school. Her own level was nine times the limit.

“Of course, it’s scary,” she said. “And the mayor said he would try to find a solution. We’ve got to question this kind of agriculture.”

Feelings are still raw among the half-dozen farmers, mostly dairy farmers, who practice what Mr. Cueff called “conventional” agriculture.

“This is a catastrophe,” said Dominique Hamon, standing next to his milk tanker at the edge of the village.

“We’ve been here to feed people, and now they are making us out to be dangerous. We’re not even free to do our jobs anymore,” said Mr. Hamon, adding that he would quit the business at the end of the year. “At least he could have asked our opinion.”

But Mr. Cueff says he doesn’t understand why, on the one hand, the state barred town governments in 2017 from using glyphosate, but still allowed its use on farms cheek by jowl with small towns.

“This is a contradictory message,” he said. “Here in Langouët there are no contradictory positions.”

It is that implacable logic, fed by the pall of environmental fear that hangs over all of France, that is governing the decisions of Mr. Cueff’s colleagues in small towns across the country.

“There’s obviously a problem. Either it’s toxic or not. And so we decided to get out in front of it,” Bertrand Astic, the mayor of Boussières, near the Swiss border, said in a telephone interview. “I’ve assumed my responsibility to protect my citizens.”

Mr. Astic has banned glyphosate and he, too, is being fought by his local prefecture.

“We rural mayors are faced with a real decline in our environment,” he said. “The trees are dying. The insect population is in free-fall. You look around the hillsides here, there are huge brown patches. We’ve had three droughts in a row. Climate change is taking place before our eyes.”

Back in Brittany, Mr. Cueff in confident that the palpable weight of circumstances — this summer’s staggering heat — has put public opinion on his side.

“Twenty years ago we were a bit alone,” he said. “They thought we were exaggerating. Today it’s the opposite. People come to me and ask if they can’t do more.”

At the solar-heated apartments he has had built, the heating bill is about $ 180 a year. “People say, ‘Good God, if this is ecology, this isn’t so bad,’” he said.

“You see, the big ecological ideas, they create anxiety. And if you are in that logic, you get depressed,” he said. “But here we are showing that there are solutions.”

Source: NYT > World News

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