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French resort at St.-Tropez faces environmental curbs

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PARIS – Of all the places to part with fistfuls of money in St.-Tropez, few have more cachet than Le Club 55.

Perched on the white stretches of Pampelonne, one of the Cote d’Azur’s most stunning beaches, Le Club offers a private patch of sand where habitues pay around $255 a day to rent a couple of lounge chairs with an umbrella and enjoy a light lunch – not including wine.

But that traditional St.-Tropez luxury is in danger of being upended there, and at 27 other clubs and restaurants that have catered for decades to famous Cote d’Azur visitors from Brigitte Bardot to Paris Hilton.

The mayor’s office says the establishments pose a threat to the environment. Officials have proposed dismantling beach amenities and shrinking the area allotted for private beaches to protect delicate fauna and what officials say are dunes worn down by the crush of manicured feet. As a result, despite the August atmosphere of hedonism, an unusual air of rebellion is stirring in St.-Tropez, with businesses contemplating their first ever "strike."

"It’s completely stupid – everybody thinks so," said Patrice de Colmont, the owner of Le Club 55 and a leader of the local fight against the government’s plans.

"If we said buildings in Paris couldn’t be above a certain height you wouldn’t cut off the top of the Eiffel Tower," de Colmont said. "Well, this is the Eiffel Tower of the French Riviera."

The mayor is seeking a compromise but has not backed down. The town hall at Ramatuelle, where Pampelonne is situated, is planning to open its doors, starting Monday, to receive comments from the public.

"We all want to be here for the long term," said Guy Martin, the chief of staff for Mayor Roland Bruno. "That’s why we need to make sure there’s a sustainable equilibrium between the environment and the community."

Like much in France, though, the dispute is not so simple. Opponents of the move claim that it is really an effort to clear the way for big, well-connected companies to move in on the local businesses’ turf. Officials respond that the ruckus being raised by de Colmont and his colleagues is mostly in defense of their own form of crass commercialism. "They have short-term interests in mind and want to keep their margins large and comfortable," Martin said.

French law prohibits private development on public beaches. But decades ago, residents built on Pampelonne by obtaining renewable one-year permits that allowed them to offer "public services," like Jet Ski rentals and lifeguards, if the construction was dismantled when the contract expired.

If applying annually for permits was a nuisance, it at least protected small-business owners, since no large company was willing to put up with the risk of losing a substantial investment, said Carole Balligand, the chairwoman of Save Pampelonne, a group that represents the local businesses that are in danger.

From the government’s perspective, however, all the activity stemming from the permits has hastened the erosion of an important dune on Pampelonne filled with rare native plant species. In 1986, the French Parliament passed a law to restore the area. Four years ago it ordered those in the area to strike a better balance between the environment and commercial activity.

Under the government’s plan, the commercial operators would be allowed on 20 percent of the beach rather than 30 percent, meaning their plots would be reduced to 23 from 28. As for the dune, it would be cordoned off to let nature do its work.

Local people are upset at another proposal, to require commercial beach activities to end on Sept. 1 every year – still the high season – rather than sometime in October, and to allow new businesses that build behind the restored dune 10-year operating permits. That, they suspect, is less about protecting the environment than attracting mass vacation companies with deep pockets, like Club Med.

"This would mean the total destruction of everything that has been here for nearly half a century," Balligand said. She and others have calculated that the new plots could accommodate about four large hotel chains. "They will turn us into a place like Cannes, where there is no soul," she said.

What’s more, her group, after digging up photos from the Allied landing on Pampelonne beach in August 1944, contends that no large dune ever existed. She accuses the government of using environmental arguments as an excuse to bring in bigger businesses.

In summer, an estimated 20,000 people frolic on Pampelonne beach every day. While Paris and Nicky Hilton, Tina Turner, Bono and a constellation of other stars frequent its playground, so have a number of international artists, intellectuals and politicians. Many mix with the coterie of low-key, wealthy local residents whose families were here well before Bardot put Pampelonne on the map in the legendary 1956 French film "And God Created Woman."

"After the war, development arrived, and eventually Brigitte Bardot," Martin said. "And then the grand public came, because there were few people whom Brigitte Bardot did not attract."

Before Bardot, St.-Tropez was more like the Saint-Germain de Pres quarter of 1920s Paris. It was an eclectic beach town that drew few rich people. These days, "the gulf of St.-Tropez is covered with yachts, pretty much all of which are registered in tax havens," Martin said.

The prospect of losing those clients and their free-flowing cash has de Colmont alarmed. His private beach plot is small, but it has been the stuff of legend ever since Bardot and the director Roger Vadim came during filming to seek food at what was then an outdoor dining table set up by de Colmont’s father for his family.

On Thursday, de Colmont called off his planned one-day strike, he said, after the mayor’s office gathered him and other residents to discuss the matter "more reasonably." But he is not ruling out a shutdown if the government digs in.

As he presses his fight, de Colmont will have at least one heavy hitter at his side. "Joan Collins left me a message the other day to ask what she could do to support me," he said. "She has proposed to come give her point of view" to the mayor.

Such celebrities, of course, attract plenty of gawkers. De Colmont wants to be sure that the riffraff doesn’t get out of control, scaring the big spenders away. On a recent day, he said, 300 clients paid to use the amenities on Le Club 55’s plot, while only 100 people sat on the larger public beach next to his.

"I would prefer," he said, "not to have Club Med people crowding out those who are already here."


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